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Observer Effect

Chapter Text

The morning of the Expo was the calm before the storm- though Tony knew that the only storm would be the inherent business and excitement of the Expo itself. The trouble that had occurred before was neutralized and nowhere was that more obvious than in the kitchen in the common room.

Upon waking up that morning, Tony skipped the empty penthouse kitchen and made immediately for the communal room that he and the others had gathered in together the night before. The elevator doors had opened to a heavenly smell and the distant sound of conversation. Tony walked in, hands wide and a grin on his face, “Ivan, have I told you how much I love you lately?”

Ivan, for his credit, looked up from his eggs with one dark eyebrow arched high and snorted. He didn’t reply, though, just shook his head and went back to scrambling the eggs in a bowl.

Beside him was Leonard, who looked far too cheerful for the morning. He had a healthy glow about him and Tony shuddered, almost certain that Leonard was the type to get up early and go for a run. Terrible. Typical doctor behavior. The man was slicing oranges in half, though Tony didn’t figure out why until he saw the contraption beside him on the counter.

“Leonard!” he exclaimed, pressing his hand to his chest in shock, “Don’t tell me you are doing what I think you’re doing!”

“Then I won’t. I’d hate to ruin your good mood,” Leonard said with a little shake of his head. “Sleep well, Tony?”

“Like a baby,” Tony said. He went around the bar to the area where they were working and investigated the coffee machine. Despite Leonard and his fresh orange juice, someone -probably Ivan- had started the coffee machine but it wasn’t ready quite yet. So he distracted himself by poking his head between the two of them, “What’s for breakfast?”

Ivan gestured idly towards Leonard, “Fresh juice and fruits.” He gestured towards the bowl beside him and the stove next to him, upon which a pan was cooking onions down to a perfect caramelized state. “Here, scrambled eggs.” He grabbed the wedge of sharp cheddar and held it out to Tony, “Slice cheese.”

“Yes sir,” Tony said. He scrounged up a knife an a cutting board and diligently went to slicing cheese while Ivan began the process of cooking the eggs.

“I didn’t know you liked to cook, Tony,” Leonard said from where he was cheerfully squeezing the very lifeblood out of a dozen oranges.

“Tony is shit in kitchen,” Ivan said, lifting his chin slightly and giving Tony a look that dared him to argue, “Destroyed a pan when boiling water.”

Tony made a face, “I got distracted and might have forgotten I set up some water to boil. It only happened once.”

“Tony is forbidden from working in the kitchen alone,” Ivan said.

“I can make coffee,” Tony complained. “You love my coffee.”

Ivan grunted, “Coffee is all machine. Machines are your playthings. Cooking is not.”

Leonard laughed.

Tony made another face at Ivan, but the big Russian didn’t bother responding, not when he was busy stirring in cut up pieces of bacon and spinach to his eggs. Tony didn’t know where Ivan learned to load up his scrambled eggs the way he did, but he’d never been disappointed by them.

“Sounds like fun in here,” Maya said as she walked into the room. She looked only a little tired and hid a yawn behind her hand as she took a seat at the bar, “What’s for breakfast?”

“Eggs and juice and coffee,” Tony said happily, “I think the coffee is about done, want some?”

“Please.” Maya nodded.

Tony set aside the pile of cheese he’d sliced and went to get mugs for coffee.

“Is there hot water?” That was Bruce, walking into the room with Betty trailing behind.

“There’s a kettle above the fridge, I think,” Leonard replied, “An electric one.”

Tony poured coffee for himself, Maya and Ivan, who took his mug and held it in one hand as he eyed the eggs cooking. Bruce set about heating up some water for tea while Betty sat down beside Maya. Tony smiled as he looked over the group, already chattering about things amongst themselves. He poured another cup for Erik, who wandered into the room, muttering “Coffee?” and looked like he could’ve used another couple of hours of sleep.

He wasn’t the only mutterer, either. Ivan eyed their growing numbers and got out more eggs, whisking them together with a shake of his head while the first batch of eggs sat covered, cheese melting in the trapped heat under the lid. Tony sipped his coffee and tried not to chuckle too loudly. Ivan was used to making enough for the two of them and Natasha, not a whole gaggle of hungry scientists.

The sound of the opening elevator doors distracted Tony from teasing Ivan for not realizing he’d need at least twice as many eggs. He turned to greet Pepper but a different redhead came walking out of the doors. And on Romanoff’s heels was Rhodes.

Tony put down his coffee cup and stood up. It was like with Pepper, where seeing her in the flesh made him realize he hadn’t seen her in far too long, except Rhodes was even longer.

Things had gotten strained between them, because of the canceled accounts between Stark Industries and the military. Rhodes had probably been spending the weeks and months in the interim answering questions and cleaning up the mess that Tony had made of their military contracts if the tired and grim way he looked at Tony said anything.

Tony barely saw Natasha, though he knew where she’d been and knew he had to speak to her before she vanished back into Shield’s ever so loving embrace. He had a difficult time taking his eyes off of Rhodes, who had arrived in the semi-professional clothing of a sports coat and slacks. Not his military dress, but not the casual clothes of a friend.

Natasha, however, didn’t falter a step. She reached Tony, stepping up to his side with her hand a fleeting touch on his shoulder. She leaned in and murmured, “You got my message?”

Tony spared her a glance and said with a smile that matched her own, half-there and secretive, “Nobody sent it.”

She nodded and stepped back, “We can talk after breakfast, hm? Vanko’s cooking smells delicious.”

“It does,” Tony’s smile became a grin, “Save some for me.”

“No promises,” Natasha replied before moving past him and to the bar. Tony didn’t worry for a moment that she’d integrate herself into the group. Depending on how Ivan felt towards her, she’d even have help.

Tony put Natasha from his mind and crossed the room to Rhodes, who had stopped near the couches, looking somber.

“Rhodey,” Tony greeted cheerfully, “Have you come for breakfast? Leonard made fresh orange juice!”

Rhodes looked past him, apparently saw Leonard and some of that grim look faded into fond exasperation, “Tones,” he said, “What the hell are you doing? Did you turn your Tower into some sort of hotel for the Expo?”

“Believe me, Rhodey,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes, “New York doesn’t need Stark Tower to become a billionaire’s personal hotel. No, no, these are some of my, eh, partners and such. One or two are contracted employees of Stark Industries, others I’m supporting with funding and tech. They’re here to see the Expo and meet each other and all that fun stuff.” Tony waved his hand to hurry the words along, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to see the Expo and meet some people and all that fun stuff,” Rhodes repeated back with a little sardonic smile, “What, can’t I come and visit my friend on the opening day of his big exposé?”

“Never said you couldn’t,” Tony said gently, “In fact, I’m pretty sure I had Jarvis send you an invite, or maybe a plane ticket? Or both?”

Rhodes sighed a little and, after a long, silent moment of thought, he put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. His grip was firm and he steered Tony away from the group, closer to the elevator, so they could speak more privately. Tony kept smiling, but his fingers made it halfway up to his chest before he could stop them from tapping out a nervous staccato on his covered reactor.

When he’d gaged the distance as far enough, Rhodes put his arm around Tony’s shoulder and leaned in, “Officially, I’m here to see if there’s been any wiggle room since your no-weapons-ever-again declaration. The military has been trying to turn to other people, like Hammer and other manufacturers, but they’re starting to notice a pattern, Tones. You keep getting to these guys first. Hammer’s lost half his research department because of your open door policy for new hires in new cities and they say you’re snapping up steel and metal manufacturing anywhere in the country you can get it done. I don’t know if you mean to keep getting in the way of the military in making weaponry, but they keep bumping into you and they don’t fucking like it, Tones.”

Tony nodded absently. He gripped his hands together tightly, fingers twisting to keep from restless tapping or something else that gave him away. It was easier to tuck his hands behind his back and hide how he felt that way. “And unofficially?”

Rhodes gave him a strange look, like he couldn’t quite figure Tony out like he used to and it bothered him, “Pepper said you were busy working on something whenever I contacted her and Jarvis said you were unavailable but in good health whenever I contacted him. You used to call me every week and talk my ear off about the shit you were up to, now I hear you’ve been tucked away in a lab somewhere off the grid and I can’t help but worry what kind of shit you’re up to without me to watch your back.”

Tony sucked in a sharp breath. The last time Rhodey had watched his back, Rhodey had ended up breaking his own.

Well, no. No, that was before. The last time this Rhodey had watched Tony’s back, he’d ended up in a cave.

Not that he could blame Rhodey for that. Not that he did or would or even though that. No, he was glad Rhodey hadn’t been with him when he was attacked. If he’d lost him then-

Tony untwisted his fingers from each other and reached up. Rhodes still had his arm around Tony’s shoulder, but that only made it easier for Tony to turn towards him, grabbing a fistful of his jacket’s lapel. He realized immediately the grip was too tight and forced his fingers to relax, smoothing them over wrinkled fabric. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I know you’ve been having to run interference with the Military for me. Jarvis has been keeping me up to date on that front as much as he can,” in truth, NOBODY was a lot more forthcoming with information, but JARVIS was the one that Rhodey knew, “And I regret that you have to be the one to answer all their questions, especially when you can’t reach me. But I promise it’s for a good reason.”

“Tony-”

“No, seriously,” Tony insisted, “I’m working on something big right now and it’s- It’s really important but kind of a secret. Not a bad secret, it’s a good one, but it’s got to stay a secret.”

“Have you told Pepper what it is?”

Tony winced.

“Tony-”

“Look, she’s busy. She took over for a while when I was getting the groundwork taken care of and she was getting the Expo set up- and yeah I was helping a little bit but this was important and I couldn’t just let it sit idle. Everything has to be ready so that when I’ve got the- Look, Rhodey, you’ve got to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

“You say that Tony, but it’s really hard to believe it,” Rhodes said quietly. He looked him in the eye, a gaze that Tony could neither avoid nor escape, “I’ve seen the reports on your activity. I’ve read what scraps of information people have managed to gather on what you’re doing. I’ve had to resort on the fucking government intelligence agencies because you won’t talk to me. And from what I’ve gathered, you’re getting ready for something, Tony. You’re building something big and no one has been able to figure out what.

“People are freaking out, Tony. I’m freaking out, okay? I want to trust you. I just also want to make sure you’re not going way the fuck overboard because of some trauma you picked up in the war zone.”

Tony looked at Rhodes and struggled to contain his sadness. It was a deep and aching sort of sorrow, closer to grief than anything Tony had felt before. He wanted to protect Rhodes from that grief, but that only meant the look that Rhodes gave him now stung him, sharp and deep like a needle sinking down to his bones. Rhodes looked back at him, his gaze pleading even if he didn’t beg with his words. Rhodes was worried. Rhodes did want to trust him. Rhodes thought he was overreacting.

And, maybe if he knew what Tony was doing, he would think so. But he wouldn’t have all the details. He couldn’t have all the details. The only people who knew were the people Tony could trust without any reservation. JARVIS, NOBODY, SPIKE and now Kletka. They were the only ones who knew anything- though he’d had to tell more to Ivan than he had to Bruce or Pepper or anyone else.

Tony’s heart ached. He wanted to tell Rhodes but he couldn’t.

He couldn’t trust him.

“I’m just taking care of some stuff,” Tony said gently, pulling his hand away from Rhodes. “Don’t worry about it. The scientists and the jobs and the steel, don’t worry about it. I’ve also been getting plastic factories and recycling plants and water purifying plants, you know. My bombs used to destroy the planet and the people on it, Rhodes, I’m just trying to make up for that and that means more than helping people who were hurt. It means helping the planet, too, protecting it. Healing it. I’ve already got Pepper breathing down my neck every time I spend more than five million dollars on something, I don’t need you to do it too.”

Tony gave Rhodes a crooked smile that he hoped covered up the way Tony felt heartbroken because of the way he had to cover his actions with half-truths and unrelated activities. “I became a billionaire on the blood of thousands. I couldn’t spend it all even if I had a lifetime to do it in, so let me spend it the way that I want.”

Rhodes gave him another one of those long, thoughtful looks. Then he squeezed Tony’s shoulder and nodded slightly, “You’re still making reparations for the bombs.”

“I’ll always be making reparations,” Tony said quietly. Rhodes frowned at him and Tony shook his head, and repeated, “I’ll always need to make reparations. It will never be enough.”

“You can’t work yourself to the bone like this- You can’t live with this kind of burden on yourself-”

“I’m not carving out pieces of myself and giving them away,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes. That was closer to what he’d done with the Avengers, cutting away pieces of himself for them until all that was left was a dead man in a broken suit and a howling winter wind. “I’m spending my literally impossible to comprehend amounts of wealth on helping people. When you go to the Expo, you’ll see what I mean.”

Rhodes sighed and hung his head. Tony gave him a pat on the shoulder and was surprised when Rhodes pulled him into a brief, tight hug.

“I’m glad you haven’t been working yourself to the bone, though,” Rhodes muttered, “You look a lot better than before.”

Tony smiled. Over Rhodes’ shoulder, he could see a couple of heads turn away quickly, curious gazes hidden. Except for Ivan. He met Tony’s gaze and arched one of his eyebrows in that way he did.

Tony huffed out a laugh. He pulled free from the hug, Rhodes letting him go freely, and this time he was the one to steer Rhodes around to the group. “Come on,” he said, “Let me introduce you to the others. Have you had breakfast yet? I tell you, Ivan makes the meanest scrambled eggs this side of the Atlantic.”

Talking and joking with Rhodes was easy for Tony, even with the anxiety that dug in his belly and the way he knew he couldn’t talk to Rhodes the same way he used to. There were too many secrets that Tony knew, too many things that he couldn’t let anyone else know.

Too much information that he had to keep close to his chest, close as the arc reactor, close as the memories, the fears, the scars, the ice, and snow. He couldn’t even show that he had these things, let alone what they were.

So he smiled and he introduced and he teased and he talked and he enjoyed this moment.

There were so few moments as happy as these.

 

 


 

 

Natasha found him catching his breath behind the scenes of the Expo’s main stage. She appeared out of the shadows with a water bottle and a faint smile.

From where he sat on some supply box, Tony looked up from his phone and smiled back. She held out the bottle and he took it, holding it’s cool edge to his forehead first. He was unusually warm, running on adrenaline and excitement and caffeine and a little sweaty from it all. Natasha leaned against the wall next to him, her eyes dropping from his face to his phone.

“I’m trying to decide,” she began suddenly, “if I should be upset with myself for being surprised that you have three AI and no one knows it, or if I should be upset that you have created an AI skilled enough to break into the surveillance system of a prison.”

“If it helps,” Tony said after he was sure she was waiting for him to respond, “About half the prisons in the states use Stark Tech to run their systems. It’s entirely possible that there are backdoors in everything I’ve made, just in case.”

Natasha blinked once and then cocked her eyebrow in nearly the same way Ivan did, wordlessly asking if Tony thought she was an idiot. “Not that prison. I checked.”

“Ah, well,” Tony shrugged, “I’m sure there’s some reason.” He cracked open the water bottle and took a drink with a satisfied sigh. It was cool and he was thirstier than he’d thought. “I wouldn’t be too hard on myself if I were you.”

Natasha shifted slightly on her feet and when she spoke, the conversation had shifted with her, “My assignment is up after the Expo.”

Tony sat up a little straighter. He’d be sad to see her leave. It was fun having her around and he’d finally stopped seeing her with the betrayal of her counterpart hovering in his mind, “All my secrets have been revealed to the public and none of them are as interesting as the director thought? I do wish I could’ve seen his face when he realized.”

She gave him a weird little smile, “My messages back kept getting censored, even when I was using a secure line. Even when I wasn’t sending anything sensitive. Clearly, I’m the wrong operative for the operation.”

“And they have another avenue of persuasion and attack they want to pursue,” Tony said with a little nod, “They’re moving forward with Stane.”

“That wasn’t a question,” Natasha said, “Even if it was, I wouldn’t know.”

“I let them unfreeze his accounts,” Tony said, looking down at the ground, “He still isn’t showing any signs of degradation, but it’s only a matter of time. The rigid daily structure of the prison helps keep him in check, but it’s only a matter of time…”

“If he gets out on bail-”

“He won’t be able to get anywhere outside of the country,” Tony promised. His fingers tightened on the plastic. “After all, most planes are just really complicated computers.”

Natasha’s foot scraped on the ground as she straightened up, “Stark-”

Tony looked up at her, meeting her gaze, “I would never bring down a plane, but I promise, he won’t be able to leave the country before the effects overwhelm him. And then he won’t be fit to make any decisions.”

He saw her take in a deep breath and wondered if she would ask him what he had put in the vials. She had to be curious. It clearly wasn’t a poison or a virus and, as far as anyone could tell, Stane was still completely sane and normal. He’d had NOBODY keep an eye on things and so far, no one had even suspected a break-in occurred in the jail. Stane would fall apart and it would seem like an entirely natural process- neither he nor Natasha would be suspected of anything.

But she didn’t ask that. Instead, she spoke so quietly her lips barely moved, “You’re a dangerous man when crossed, Tony Stark.”

Tony didn’t argue with that. He just nodded and said, “I hope you never have reason to cross me, Natasha. I like you a lot and I admire you. Your past wasn’t pretty or easy to overcome but you didn’t let it dictate your future. You have a lot of strength.”

He could tell his words unnerved her by the way she folded her arms tight across herself and how she lowered her chin slightly, unconsciously defending her neck. “The things you say show you know more than you should and the things you know make you more dangerous than many men I have ever met,” Natasha said, watching him with her eyes hard, “And the more dangerous you are, the more of a target you have upon your back.”

“My life has always been interesting,” Tony said with a shrug, “At least this way I made it interesting myself instead of inheriting it from someone else.”

“You need someone watching your back, Stark. Someone you can trust. Someone who can face down your enemies and do what you cannot,” she tilted her head a little, “Like Vanko, who compliments your science in doing what you cannot do, you need someone at your back, willing to put a bullet in places that you refuse to do yourself.”

“I don’t want people to die,” Tony said.

“People always die,” Natasha replied.

Tony didn’t argue that. He lowered his gaze again. He thought of his mother and the hands around her throat.

“After the Expo ends,” Natasha said after he’d had some silence to think, “I return to Shield. They’ll most likely send me off to some other mission after I’ve given them my full report and got some rest. Considering how much I failed on this mission, I doubt I will see you again.”

Tony looked up at her, “You didn’t fail.”

Natasha rolled her eyes, “I gathered no useful information about you. I don’t know what you’re building. I don’t know who you’re building it with. I had to spend endless weeks finding some way to entertain myself in the middle of nowhere, I barely even had access to wireless internet, in order to send messages, and what messages I did send were jumbled messes half the time. I didn’t even manage to keep you from getting stabbed, Stark. I failed my mission.”

Tony’s gaze softened. He heard what she didn’t say with those words. NOBODY would remain a secret. Kletka would remain unknown to Shield. She was protecting his AI at the expense of how she appeared to Shield. Natasha met his eyes and then looked away. She smiled bitterly to the darkness, “At least Shield’s idea of a punishment is mountains of paperwork behind a desk.”

“Well, I thought you were successful in something,” Tony said, getting to his feet and then stepping towards her.

“Oh?” Natasha asked.

“You treated Kletka like a person and you made her happy,” Tony said with a smile, “That’s at least two things, there.” He reached out and put his hand on Natasha’s shoulder, “She’ll miss  you, you know.”

Natasha hesitated for a moment and then ducked her head, “I convinced her to upload herself to my personal phone,” Natasha muttered, “So we will still be able to communicate, so long as you don’t forbid it.”

“You’re good for her,” Tony said, “I’d never keep you from her unless you were a danger.”

Natasha closed her eyes and said nothing. Tony squeezed her shoulder and then stepped back.

“I should go get back to work,” he said with a sigh, “Ugh, being on stage is hard fucking work.”

Natasha gave him a brief nod. Even in the darkness, her eyes glittered with more emotion than she’d showed him to this point. Her expression remained impassive, despite her gaze.

Tony smiled sadly. He would miss her. She’d been around in his life, day after day, in his life before and in this one now...

“Goodbye, Natasha,” he said and turned, walking away.

Just before he was out of earshot, Tony heard Natasha say after him, “Goodbye, Tony.”

Tony felt his heart ache at her voice but kept walking.

If she wanted to, she would find her way back to him, of that he had no doubt.

Nothing kept Natasha away from what she wanted, not even Shield.

 

 


 

 

The Expo was a whirlwind of activity.

There were parties and dinners and speeches and breakfasts and Tony was pretty sure that someone roped him into an impromptu general staff meeting because he ended up swarmed by his R&D ducklings who had designed, horror of horrors, a confetti blaster and wanted to test it out in celebration of a successful Expo.

Tony was pretty sure they could blot out the sun with that much confetti, but it hadn’t really been a problem until the industrial fans.

At least everyone had a good time, which they all damn well deserved after putting together the Expo that Tony had envisioned all those months ago.

The event itself was like one huge festival or state fair. There were food trucks and face painting and animal balloons and kids running around everywhere. There even were some carnival games, because Pepper had suggested it and Tony had agreed. He wanted people to be happy and some of the things that he had put in the Expo would open old wounds for visitors in ways they probably didn’t expect.

Like the building dedicated to prosthetics, simple ones and complex ones, all more intricate than the ones available to the public now. People who didn’t need them marveled and talked about cyborgs and the future. People who needed them had more hard-hitting questions like how much it would cost and when would they be available and did Tony Stark really expect to make up for the bombs by giving arms to those who lost limbs to his weapons?

The answers they got always surprised them.

Less than they thought.

By the end of the year.

Tony Stark will be making up for the bombs until the end of his life.

Kanti Sodhi, the one Tony had chosen to be in charge of the prosthetic building because of her tact, patience, and knowledge of the material, had given him a strange look but Tony knew she wouldn’t change his words on him. She might think he’d done enough to make up for what he’d done as a younger man but Tony knew better.

Tony would always be making reparations. He’d told Rhodes as much.

 

 

 

Of course, there were other booths and other buildings that displayed non-Stark inventions as well. Gaming companies displayed VR headsets and he was pretty sure there was even one about high-end cookware or something. Tony had left most of that up to Pepper to decide. His one rule had been no weapons, of any kind. It prevented Hammer and people like him from displaying anything, but that was what Tony wanted.

He wanted people to think of the future without thinking they had to bomb the present to get there. He wanted them to see the future and think about what they could all have, together, instead of tearing each other apart to manage with what little they had for themselves.

Tony wanted to change the way people thought and, out of necessity, that meant taking away the things he didn’t want them to consider.

Maybe it was manipulative. Maybe it was dishonest.

Maybe Tony didn’t care.

He just didn’t want people to die if he could help it.

 

 


 

 

It never failed to amuse Ivan how he worked and lived and traveled in America without having gone through any sort of legal documentation.

True, he had identification and he had paperwork and he could get on a plane and fly a nice commercial flight from New York to Montana without trouble, but he knew where all that paperwork had come from. Tony didn’t grease any wheels with money or favors to get it done. He’d just told his AI to get it and they had.

Not Kletka, she was too isolated still, and probably not SPIKE, whose specialty was protection and defense, not finding his way into places he should not be. No, Ivan was pretty sure that it was JARVIS who had actually gathered together all the relevant information and had it mailed, in pieces from legitimate agencies, to Ivan.

So Ivan, undocumented but with documents, prepared for his flight back. He wasn’t going alone- Tony was sending the psychologist, Leonard Samson- out with him. He wasn’t going out there permanently, but Tony wanted him to pick out which rooms he would need for his project, once Tony acquired the final piece.

Ivan didn’t mind Leonard too much. He thought it a little strange that Tony thought so highly of him while simultaneously shunning any attempt to see a therapist for himself, but Ivan understood. He and Tony were similar that way. The wounds that made them the men that they were were not the kinds of wounds that could be healed. The wounds were deep and old and even if they worked to clear them, the scars would forever be there.

Ivan thought Tony did not mind so much the man that he had become as a result of these wounds. Ivan certainly did not mind the man that Tony had become, the passionate, driven kind of man who moved restlessly towards a brighter future. Tony had his eyes on the path ahead and nothing could pull him to either side.

Ivan liked working with Tony, though he’d never imagined himself doing so before. That was why he was going to miss him. The work that Ivan had to do would be a little more lonesome without Tony there to argue about music or to supply with food and coffee or to badger for information. Ivan was sure he’d almost gotten Tony to break and tell him the truth about his eyes, but now his efforts had to be set aside.

For, as Ivan went back to Montana, with Leonard as a sort of company, Tony was returning to his own home, and his ‘bots’. They would still be able to communicate over video and call like Tony did with Bruce and Betty and Erik in New Mexico, but Ivan knew already it wouldn’t be the same.

Still, he understood Tony better than he thought others did.

Tony needed time to himself. He needed space for his thoughts, a whole room in fact.

Eyes on the future, feet on the path, Tony needed time to figure out his next plan.

Ivan understood him well enough, which is why he did not tell Tony that he would miss him. Only that when he was ready, he should come back to Montana. There would always be space in Ivan’s workshop for him.

And Tony, who sometimes seemed much more vulnerable a soul than Ivan would have thought before, gave him a look of gratitude as bright as the morning sun on a cold winter morning.

Yes, Ivan wanted to bring Tony back to Montana, where he could make sure the man rested and ate and did not lose sight of himself while he worked on his plans, but Ivan knew better. There was nothing to be done for it now. Tony had to be alone. Tony had to make his plans.

Tony had to decipher the next steps into the future that would be good for them all.

Still…

Still…

Ivan would miss him while he was gone.

Leonard was just not the same.

 

 


 

 

Tony walked into his Malibu mansion, smelling salt faintly in the air and, more strongly, the cleaning agents that had been used to prep the place for his return. JARVIS was attentive to his return, as always, and Tony knew that he’d been away for a long time, longer than he usually was without moving the bots to join him wherever he was. Despite the time he’d spent with Kletka and NOBODY, he missed Dum-E and U and Butterfingers.

“J,” Tony said, speaking into the seemingly empty house, “Sorry I’ve been gone for so long.”

“You are never far from me, Sir,” JARVIS replied gently, “Though it is good to have you home. The bots missed you.”

Tony smiled, “I missed them too.” He ran his hand through his hair and then heaved a heavy sigh. So much to do, so little time… “Go ahead and wake them up. I’m going to take a shower and then get to work.”

“At once, Sir.”

“And Jarvis?” Tony added as he walked towards his bathroom.

“Yes?”

“Tell NOBODY we’re going to be digging through the Shield servers sooner rather than later, so I need her to get everything unlocked and ready for me,” Tony grimaced slightly and added in a slightly lower voice, “I figured out what I’m going to do with their little parasite.”

“I will inform her at once, Sir,” JARVIS said.

Tony sighed. This part was never going to be very pleasant, but at least he had an idea for it. Almost anything would be better than dumping the damn servers online, though with his AIs out on the web, that kind of thing just wouldn’t happen again.

He tried to shake the gloom from his thoughts, so he could focus on less dreadful things, but even under the heat of the shower, Tony’s thoughts continued to circle around and around.

Hopefully, things with Thor wouldn’t be very delicate- Tony had only his memories of what he’d been told and had read about from his previous life to work with and there was no telling if something was going to be different. This world was different. He had made it different. He just hoped he hadn’t changed things too much, but, knowing that the Tesseract was still in Shield’s hands, he was confident in one thing.

Someone would be sent through the portal to attack the Earth, if not Loki- and he had no reason to think it wouldn’t be Loki- then someone else.

So Tony had to get ready, had to get his hands on the Tesseract, had to start dealing with Shield’s corrupt underbelly, had to turn his attention from Ivan to Jane. Ivan was all set up with Kletka and things would work out fine there. It was Jane and Erik that Tony had to work with now.

Tony closed his eyes tightly, leaning his forehead against the tile as the hot water streamed down his head, his neck and shoulders. His fingers, braced against the tile, tapped an unconscious rhythm as his brain raced along. He needed to get down to the workshop. He always worked better with something in his hands.

Shaking his head, Tony focused on the immediate problem of finishing his shower.

Everything else could be dealt with after he was showered and clean again.