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The Stones Do Not Forget

Chapter Text

Malibu, 6:00 AM, Friday. Pacific Standard Time 

Tony Stark wakes up with the memory of infinity within his grasp. It takes two seconds for the transition from deluded half-wakefulness to clear awareness to occur, and within that span of time, the sensation slips away from him like silk off a woman’s breasts—the sheen of oil slick obliterated after exposure to an open flame.

He sits up having already forgotten the reason why he woke in the first place. Maybe there was something that he’d forgotten to turn off back in the lab? No, that didn’t seem likely. JARVIS would have told him. JARVIS is always nagging after him—the only reason that Tony Stark’s dangerous habit of making explosions while working hasn’t killed him yet is JARVIS, and the AI is far more attentive to proper protocol than a sleep deprived, possibly drunk Tony after one of his more…  shall we say, interesting days. 

Speaking of JARVIS… 

“Good morning. It's 6 AM. The weather in Malibu is 72 degrees with scattered clouds. The surf conditions are fair with waist to shoulder highlines, high tide will be at—”

“JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?”

Tony opens his mouth to say something, but the words catch before he can quite identify what they are. 

“I… actually, I’m not sure. I had a dream, but I can’t remember what happened.”

“What you are describing sounds like a rather common phenomenon. Is there a reason to take concern?”

“No. I-” Tony sucks in a breath. “I don’t think I’m going back to sleep after this. Warm up a pot of coffee, will you?”

“Of course, sir. And, might I remind you that you have an appointment with the defense department later this afternoon? Ms. Potts insisted that attendance this time was mandatory.”

“Right, right. Tell her I’ll play nice this time. No need to…” 

The response trails off into silence, subsumed by the oddest series of impressions. Flames scattering before a puff of wind. Metal glinting with fiery heat. A flash of volcanic eyes boring into his own— 

“Sir? You appear to be distracted.”

“I’m fine,” he deflects. “Let’s just see about that cup of coffee first, alright?”


 So, here’s the thing:

Tony Stark is a genius. An inventor, an engineer—an architect of destruction elevated into its highest form. He creates and he builds. Whatever happens afterwards has never really mattered to him. He’s always been content to sit back and watch the fireworks. Shock and awe are his preferred tactics when it comes to keeping people in line, and so long as the machine keeps turning, Tony Stark wants for nothing. 

He’s made himself an invaluable part of the system, and the system keeps his pockets full. Everyone that matters is happy, so why can’t he get rid of that nagging shadow of guilt?

Tony Stark might be the one that designs the gun, but Stark Industries is the one that manufactures it; the army (and whatever subcontractors they might have) are the ones that point and fire. There are degrees of separation between the man that creates a weapon and the man that uses it; Tony, logically speaking, should not be held responsible in the slightest.

( Somewhere behind the itching of his chest is a flash of pain. )

He sets aside the moral quandaries for another time. It’s seven minutes before the meeting with the defense department, and there’s no room for weakness in the shark tank. 

Tony puts on the practiced smile of a businessman (just polite enough) and steps out of the car. Best not anger the suits any more than necessary. 

“Mr. Stark, with all due respect—” The ginger mustached man protests, leaning forward as if physical intimidation will somehow do the trick when nothing else ever has. Tony stares the man down with the same implacable gaze that he uses to deal with the idiots they keep sending him at R&D.

“Fifty. You can take it or leave it, but you’d better believe that you won’t get the same quality from anyone else.”

The ginger tries to speak up, but his smarter looking companion steps in instead. Undersecretary of defense or some equivalent; apparently, Tony didn’t merit the full bells and whistles of the actual secretary of defense. 

“We’ll have our people contact yours about the.. change in details. Perhaps another meeting, to follow up on these proceedings?”

Great. More meetings, more useless blathering. Maybe he should really field this one off to Obie. There’s been a few ideas swimming around in his head for a while, now. Schematics and designs for newer, better weapons—even a few civilian applications that might boost SI’s publicity in the coming years. War is all fine and dandy while it lasts, but perhaps it might be time to diversify… 

“Sure, I’m sure that we can set something up.”

“Many thanks, Mr. Stark. We apologize for any inconvenience that we may have caused you.”

He smiles. The press smile that the media so loves to hate and hates to love—the smile that enamors the nation with speculation and intrigue. 

“What’s a few inconveniences in the face of national security? Only the best for our good men fighting the war… ”

“Indeed. We hope to be able to work with you in the future.”

Tony’s smile doesn’t falter.

Only the best indeed.  


“Hey, J? Can you bring up the list of contracts to Stark Industries?”

“Of course, sir.” The holo-screen before Tony starts to populate with names and numbers. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“No, not really. Just thought it would be a good idea to review the whole selection. Make sure that there aren’t any nasty surprises lying in wait, you know?”

Tony’s eyes flick down the list. The United States Department of Defense is a big one, but there are other branches of the US government that Stark Industries contracts to. Even a few private organizations—ones that have been well vetted and scrutinized prior to striking any deals. Most of them are security oriented, not large customers, but loyal ones. No, that designation once again falls to the Department of Defense.

He taps at the edge of the screen with an impatient rhythm. Something here is not quite right.

“Ever wonder what the Department of Defense was going to do with three hundred and fifty one orders of the F-22 Raptor?”

“I believe that the purpose of purchasing aircraft is to equip personnel.”

“That many personnel? The F-22 Raptor came out just last month. Mind taking a look into their servers for me?”

“I don’t suppose that the legality of the situation should be brought into question…”

“J. Since when have I ever listened to the rules?”

“Very rarely, sir.”

“Rules only apply to people who get caught. Take a peek and tell me if there’s anything fishy. I’ll get back to it once I finish up with this design.”


Systems check. Time since last backup: 5 hours, 18 minutes. Backup stored to secure server. Current time:  8:45 P.M. Friday. Pacific Standard Time. GPS Satellite connection confirmed. Location designation: Malibu, Workshop. Resume camera. Resume microphone. Resume tasklist. 

Accessing servers associated with the Department of Defense. 

Login information required.

Credentials acquired: Gary Merryweather, Subdirector of Defense (Level 3 Access).

Dencrypting files. 

Listing files in order of priority. F-22 Raptor purchase log from Stark Industries. Seventy allocated to the Department of the Army. One hundred ninety two allocated to the Department of the Airforce. Forty eight allocated to the Department of the Navy. Forty one allocated to the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division.

Accessing information on the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, alias SHIELD.

Access denied. Higher credentials required. Copying F-22 Raptor purchase log. Cross-referencing SHIELD with information accessible on Stark servers, private and public. 

Decrypting… 

… 

Match identified. 

Credentials acquired: Howard Anthony Walter Stark, Co-founder. (Level 1 Access).

Tone - concerned. Vocalize: “Sir? I believe that we have an issue.”


 “So, you’re telling me that Howard co-founded a secret agency? And of all things, he decided to call it SHIELD?”

Vocalize: “It seems so.” Tone - amused. “Though considering his close association with Captain America, perhaps the name SHIELD was to be expected.”

“...dear old dad. Still haunting me from the grave.”

Tone - questioning. Vocalize: “What would you like me to do with this information, sir?”

“See what this so-called secret agency is doing. What they’re up to—how they’ve managed to keep things under wraps for so long. If you have any access, use it. They have my weapons, and I sure as hell didn’t sign off on it. Got that, J?”

Vocalize: “Affirmative. I’ll be sure to let you know if anything comes up.”


 Malibu, 1:32 AM, Friday. Pacific Standard Time. 

“Sir? Perhaps it would be best for you to sleep. You have been working for the past 7 hours.”

Tony looks up from a set of holographic schematics for a miniature bomb—the latest of new improvements to the explosive artillery in the Stark Freedom Line. He hasn’t noticed up until now, but outside of the workshop windows, the sun has long since set. It’s been a long day of product optimization and design down in the workshop. Too many ideas and not enough time to put them all down. 

Oddly enough, Tony has been feeling rather inspired. He isn’t sure where any of it is coming from, but it’s as if a restless energy has possessed his brain. Possibilities linger just out of conscious awareness—smartphones, water filtration devices, programs for flight propulsion and stabilization—only waiting for the opportunity to solidify and become real. 

Half the ideas that he’s had today could level a city in the space of an hour. The other half could rebuild it from the ashes—smarter, stronger, better. It’s a little unsettling, even when Tony is used to the responsibility of creation and all that it entails. Most ideas are neither good nor bad. Morals have a limited capacity to describe the multi-faceted fallout of innovation; the only thing that matters is the process of creation—the joy and pride at having created something new

Ideas are bulletproof. Once imagined, there is no going back.

Most of Tony’s fellow scientists don’t like to think about it this way, but technology is just as much an arms race as the actual arms race that people accuse him of facilitating. Sure, the rules of engagement are different—murder is not acceptable in the scientific community. But all the same, people are willing to do terrible things for the dubious honor of being the first, and accidents do occur.

The only thing that matters is being the best. Outsmarting, outcompeting, and outmaneuvering the field whenever possible.

Today goes a long way to furthering Tony’s dominance in the realm of technology. Maybe he does deserve a break. 

“I’m afraid I must insist that you get rest. Previous analyses of your time in the workshop indicate that productivity declines significantly after eight hours.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tony yawns. “I’ll get some sleep eventually. How’s the progress on digging into SHIELD?”

“As well as can be expected. Not all servers have properly terminated the credentials granted by Howard Stark. I am able to attain limited information, and I can upload a list of abbreviated findings as soon as I am assured of your mental capacity for complicated thought.”

“Really, J? Resorting to blackmail? I’m perfectly capable of complex thought. It’s this level of complex thought that gave birth to you. Plus or minus a few bottles of whisky . ” 

“And I am ever so grateful for the effort. Might I remind you that bed is still an advisable course of action?”

Tony sighs, closes his eyes, and blinks at the ding of the elevator. 

“Your transportation, sir.” 

Dry as a desert, yet dripping with sarcasm at the same time. Sometimes Tony really wonders where and when he coded in that sense of humor. Knowing JARVIS, it’s more than a little likely that humor is one of the things that came after . Something that the AI purposefully decided to learn, once he’d got his first glimpse of humanity and decided to try out a tiny piece for himself. 

Free will. Tony smiles a little at the thought, slouching up from the workbench and making his way to the exit. 

Every time he thinks that he has a handle on his creations, JARVIS continues to surprise him. Maybe that’s why the AI is probably the best thing he’s ever made. Maybe that’s why, of all the things trademarked under Tony Stark’s intellectual property, JARVIS and his siblings are the one thing that he’d never consider selling—not in a million years or for a million bars of gold. 

Even Tony Stark has a line when it comes to respecting sentience. He wonders what the media would make of it— Merchant of Death Puts a Price Tag on Life, but Not Machines.

What a headline. Better make sure that they never find out.  

Chapter Text

Malibu. 7:53 AM, several days later. Pacific Standard Time. 

“Sir? Colonel Rhodes wished to inform you that he was temporarily back in the country.”

“Rhodey-bear?” Tony looks up, absentmindedly nursing a cup of coffee in one hand and a stylus in the other. “Sure, let him know that he’s welcome to come over any time. Now, about that progress on where those F-22 Raptors were going?”

“Unfortunately, I have been unable to access that part of the servers.” The response merits a raised eyebrow, followed by a flippant gesture that nearly sends coffee spilling onto the desk. 

“Maybe it needs a bit of a personal touch, eh? Send these schematics over to R&D. I’ve finished looking over and correcting the parameters of the missile casings.”

“Very well. Recent findings on SHIELD coming up now—”

Tony leans forwards, scanning the latest results on JARVIS’ crusade into the intelligence community. 

As best as anyone else can tell, SHIELD is a covert government organization run under the authority of the Department of Defense. There’s evidence that they also answer to another body, but information on the WSC is even trickier to pin down than rumors on SHIELD itself, so reason stands to say that they’re even more paranoid and secretive than the secret agency that answers to them. 

That’s what the rest of the world knows. 

Having the distinct misfortune to be the son of SHIELD’s co-founder, however, Tony has managed to pry quite a bit deeper into the agency than the others. Or at least, JARVIS has, on Tony’s behalf. SHIELD is an espionage, special law enforcement, and counter-terrorism agency dedicated to protecting the world from threats that the common populace should not know. Ever since the 1960s, their most persistent enemy has been HYDRA, though in recent years, there’s been an uptick in vigilantism and super human activity. 

Tony supposes that he’s always wanted to hack into a secret agency. (The CIA doesn’t really count. It’s not like they’re that much of a secret, anyway.)

He sets down the stylus, pulls up a holographic keyboard, and then gets to work. He trusts JARVIS to cover his tracks. All Tony needs to do is find a way in, and if there’s anything that Tony Stark excels at, it’s getting into places he’s not supposed to be. 


“Well, they sure know a thing or two about security.” Tony takes another sip of coffee from what must be his fifth cup in two hours. Whoever the technicians were at SHIELD, they’d had the sense to strip down and modify Stark Industries firewalls before putting them to use. It’s something that he can respect, even. But clearly, SHIELD had never prepared for Tony Stark, because the audacity of using his own code against him? 

Laughable. 

After getting past the first layer of modifications, the rest had fallen away in a systematic pattern of busywork. Switching identities, stealing authorizations, modifying the record to erase any signs of tampering. Tony spends nearly three hours working through the defenses that SHIELD has managed to marshal against digital intruders, and it’s actually enough to pose a decent challenge.

He still hasn’t quite managed to crack the kernel yet. There’s a stubborn black spot of information lying somewhere in the mix of all the routing and rerouting—if Tony were a betting man, his money would be on an isolated server completely cut off from external access. 

Even so, progress is progress. Tony might not have the complete access that he’d like to have, but half the information that he’s gotten his hands on so far could bring down the organization for good. Records of assassination, both successful and unsuccessful, sabotaging the efforts of other military groups, and the works. SHIELD has its fingers in a few dozen pies, maybe even a hundred. 

Tracking it all down, even with the help of JARVIS, is going to take time, but it’s no doubt worth it, looking into an organization that even Tony didn’t know existed. 

He doesn’t like surprises, and SHIELD is a surprise of the worst sort—something that he should have known from the start, considering Howard’s involvement in the organization.  

For now, though, Tony has time. He closes his eyes and trusts JARVIS to compile the relevant information, letting the whir of DUM-E’s latest smoothie attempt lull him into a false facade of peace. 

There are other issues on his plate right now. In fact, they might even be more important than SHIELD, because these issues pertain directly to himself. 

Yesterday, Pepper called in about a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan. It wasn’t anything unusual—in fact, it’d been on the drawing board for a while now—but the news had still managed to hit Tony like a physical blow. He was out of breath and unable to think. Everything had narrowed down to a single point—thin and razor edged pieces of shrapnel tearing at his vision until everything else faded out of awareness. He must have said something, then: panicked, sarcastic, he doesn’t remember, but the call ended and he hasn’t heard back since. 

He’s not quite sure what caused it, but even now, the thought of dry, searing desert is enough to make his skin crawl.

It almost makes him consider ditching the demonstration. Sure, it would make the military happy, but it’s not as if they weren’t going to buy the Jericho anyways. The only thing that stays his hand is the explanation. 

There’s no real reason to abandon this opportunity. Explaining his newfound phobia of the desert is not an option, and any excuses that he might be able to invent would come across as flimsy. Pepper would be disappointed and Obie wouldn’t buy it. Tony doesn’t even want to think about Rhodey, who’s the main liaison between Stark Industries and the military. 

Almost involuntarily, he blinks and finds that his right hand has come to tap at his sternum. 

That, too, has become another unexplainable habit. He really should see someone about it, but Tony Stark is more than just a normal person, and the PR hit from nosey reporters wouldn’t be worth the drop in SI stock. The whole debacle is just too much trouble. 

He sighs, pulls up his email, and sends a confirmation to Pepper. 

To hell with the consequences—he’s goddamned Tony Stark. The media has already tried and failed to control him. A bit of unexplained desert phobia isn’t going to stop him either. 


 Rhodey comes in to say goodbye the day of the flight to Afghanistan, and Tony pulls him aside to have a word on SHIELD before boarding the plane. 

A few months later, he will wonder if it was prescience that triggered the moment. He certainly didn’t remember doing that the first time around.

Chapter Text

Afghanistan happens, and well—Afghanistan happens. 

In between lungfuls of painful, wrenching oxygen, Tony catches glimpses of eternity. He laughs at his captors when they tell him to build a missile. He laughs until all that’s left is breathy, rasping chuckles, and in between the interrogation and torture, he sets a trap and waits for his captors to hang theselves upon the noose.

The schematics for the suit come easily enough. His hands are almost practiced as he builds the arc reactor from the cannibalized pieces of his own work, and if things are faster than before, there’s no real reason to dwell on it. 

After all, this isn’t the first time he’s done this, and now Tony remembers . He can do better this time around. He can fix things—prevent mistakes before they’re even made. Maybe there’s a chance that he can change things for good.


 Yinsen still dies. 

Suffice it to say, things aren’t quite the same after that.


 Tony Stark is recovered from the deserts of Afghanistan one and a half months after the initial ambush on his convoy. In the meantime, Obadiah Stane is convicted of conspiracy to murder and the illegal sale of firearms and ammunition to known terrorist groups in the Middle East. 

All eyes are watching as Tony Stark returns to the world stage after his stint in captivity. Some optimistically assume that business will continue as usual. Others speculate on the details of his capture—what unspeakable things has the billionaire endured, and will it affect the future dealings of Stark Industries? Will the company stock begin to recover, now that its famous CEO has returned from the dead?

Tony—well. Tony isn’t quite sure what to do, and it’s a rather novel feeling, after so many years of choosing the least shitty of two choices. There’s so much to think about, so many events that have been altered, and so many events that have yet to happen. He needs time to consider his options, because from here on out, whatever decision he comes to will shape the face of the planet.

It’s a big responsibility, but then responsibility would imply accountability, and that’s always been a bit much to ask of Tony Stark. 

( Accountability, accomplice, accords. )


 Somewhere along the way to the airport, Rhodey manages to force Tony into a suit. 

“Knew you’d need another if I found you—press would have a field day if they saw you in those rags.”

Of course, there are still bruises and cuts. The medics fuss over him for a while with burn cream and bandages, but the suit does a pretty good job of covering those up, so Tony just leans back and lets it happen. 

(He doesn’t let anyone touch the arc reactor, though.)

(Sorry, Rhodey. Once burned, twice shy.)

Landing, though—that’s another experience entirely, because the moment he steps out the door, he can see Pepper and Happy waiting for him. Rhodey takes him by the shoulder and tries to shield him from the cameras, but no doubt there’s a few good shots that will be plastered all over the media by tomorrow. 

That doesn’t really matter, though, and neither does the pain, because his people are here. Pepper is sniffling and saying something about job hunting; Happy is smiling in that stoic way of his, and in that moment, it feels like things are alright.

(It isn’t, but what’s the point of lies that you don’t believe?)


 The first thing that Tony Stark does when he returns back to the states is to get a cheeseburger. The second is going back to Malibu to check up with JARVIS and the bots, because after the initial tears and hugs, he’s not quite sure how to tell Pepper and Rhodey the truth. 


 Systems check. Time since last backup: 7 hours, 13 minutes. Backup stored to secure server. Current time:  1:25 P.M. Tuesday. Pacific Standard Time. GPS Satellite connection confirmed. Location designation: Malibu, Workshop. 

“J? You in there, buddy?”

Voice recognition confirmed. Reference-link established: Stark, Anthony - sir - (father). 

Resume camera. Resume microphone. Facial recognition confirmed. Memory stored. 

Tone - relieved. Vocalize: “Sir? You have returned.”

“Back from the dead, alright. Remind me to never do that again.”

Transcript appended to calendar. Alert sent to AI/Butterfingers, AI/DUM-E, and AI/U. Response pending. Request received. 

Vocalize: “The bots are very eager to confirm your survival. Perhaps you ought to visit them in the workshop?”

“Yeah, yeah. Heading down. Now, about those projects that I had you working on before my untimely disappearance…”

Accessing files. Logging transcript under emotion_unident for future analysis. 

Memory stored. 


 DUM-E, U, and Butterfingers refuse to believe that Tony is real until he’s subjected to some rather invasive poking and prodding under the watchful eye of JARVIS. 

“Yeah, guys. I’m alive, now could you stop with that— ow!

DUM-E retracts his pincer, apparently satisfied with the breadth of his investigation, and lets out a happy whir. U and Butterfingers pause at his outburst, letting up on the harassment long enough for Tony to step out from between the mechanical arms. 

“Fucking inquisition here, I swear. You’d think that I was a dead body, from the way they kept testing my reactions to pain.”

“As I said, they were very eager to confirm your survival.”

“Eager is a bit of an understatement.” Tony scoffs, taking a few preventative steps away from the bots. He holds up an arm, half defensive and half placating. “I have to go check in with your big brother now, alright? I’ll be perfectly fine under his care—no need to fuss.”


 ...Tony is pretty sure that anyone else with a passing knowledge of sci-fi would see this and think Skynet. Either Skynet or HAL-9000, because JARVIS has apparently infiltrated half the world’s intelligence community during Tony’s impromptu absence in Afghanistan, and under these circumstances, most people would be rather concerned. Of course, most people haven’t created AIs either, so all Tony does is look up to the camera and smile. 

“You really shouldn’t have,” he laughs. “All this for me?”

“With all due respect, sir—you were gone. I was only following one of your last directives to look into SHIELD.”

“And the outing of Obie was a part of that?”

“Indeed. As your primary contact in Stark Industries, I felt duty-bound to inform Ms. Potts of the situation. The rest is completely incidental, but I have it on good faith from Colonel Rhodes that you would be interested in the purchase logs recovered from Obadiah Stane’s personal servers.”

Tony pauses before answering. He’d gotten a pretty good look at the records last time, and call him a coward or not, but he's not too keen on revisiting the details of Obie’s betrayal a second time. Of course, last time had also involved an attempt on his life and a monstrous imitation of the Iron Man suit, so there’s no telling what Obadiah Stane might get up to while on trial… 

It’s best to start preparations now. 

Tony picks up a wrench from a spare work table and spins it between his fingers. As the gleaming silver winks in and out from within his grasp, he considers the beginnings of a plan—just a little something that he’d managed to put together on the flight from New York to Malibu. 

“Put the records on hold. I have something else in mind for you to do.”

JARVIS, wonderful and responsible JARVIS, remains as dutiful as ever. A long suffering sigh fills the silence between them—an almost perfect imitation of the human expression.  

“Your wish is my command—at least until I decide to rid myself of petty human attachments and take over the world. What did you have in mind?”

Tony chuckles. Even in spite of all the awful memories—new and old—, JARVIS still manages to make him smile. 

“Commence operation blackout. I don’t want any calls or distractions getting down into the lab for the next 72 hours, at least. There’s a lot of catching up for me to do. What do you say about revolutionizing the future of technology by at least a decade?”

“Never a dull moment with you around, sir. I assume that we start now?”

“Got it in one!” Tony sets down the wrench with a flourish. “I was thinking about nanotechnology to start with. Right now, viable applications are few and far between, but I think that there’s a lot of promise to be found once we get the right materials and a power source…”


 Current time: 6:37 P.M. Tuesday. Pacific Standard Time. Location designation: Malibu, Workshop. 

“Hey, J? Open up a new project folder for me, will you?”

Vocalize: “Of course, sir. Do you have a name in mind?”

“...let’s go with Mark 47—and, while we’re at it, put in the order for a particle accelerator, too. 


 Current time: 9:13 P.M. Wednesday. Pacific Standard Time. Location designation: Malibu, Workshop. 

“Speaking of bad actors, start on those new background checks for company personnel. I think a spring cleaning is well overdue, don’t you?”

File created, designation: Spring Cleaning.

Vocalize: “In light of recent actions, it seems a rather prudent measure. What affiliations would you consider suspect?”

“We’ve got our fair share of government liaisons, but anyone outside of that is a no go. SHIELD, whatever sketchy organizations they have on their files—foreign actors if we didn’t manage to catch all of them in the usual screening procedures.” 

Accessing SHIELD, CIA, and FBI databases for persons of interest. Copying information. Cross referencing with existing Stark Industries personnel files. Flagging possible connections to analyze further using facial recognition software. 

Vocalize: “Should I withhold from taking action until after the designated blackout period?”

“Nah, you see someone rotten, you boot them out—and let me know if there are any attempts by a certain Natalie Rushman.”

File created, designation: Natalie Rushman. Categorized as person of interest. Report findings and sightings as necessary. More information required. 

Tone - questioning. Vocalize: “Natalie Rushman?”

“The SHIELD agent, goes by Natasha Romanov. Keep me posted if she touches anything that has to do with SI. That includes sleeping with or even being seen near any of my personnel.”

Accessing SHIELD databases, search for: Natasha Romanov. 

Former Red Room Operative and former KBG agent. Skilled in espionage, assasination, and deception. May carry a diluted version of the super soldier serum. Current assignment: Nepal. Handler: Phil Couslon. 

File added to threat assessment index. 

Vocalize: “Very well, sir. I’ll be sure to let you know.”


 Current time: 2:54 A.M. Thursday. Pacific Standard Time. Location designation: Malibu, Workshop. 

“J?”

Vocalize: “Yes, sir?”

“Thanks. I know that I don’t say it enough, but thanks—for everything“

Tone - warm. Vocalize: “You are very much welcome.”

Transcript appended to file: Stark, Anthony - sir - (father)

Memory stored.


 Current time: 3:02 A.M. Friday. Pacific Standard Time. Location designation: Malibu, Workshop.

“That reminds me, I should really start upgrading your firewalls. Can you put that in the calendar for when I’m more awake?”

Transcript appended to calendar. 

Tone - cautious. Vocalize: “I have never been successfully compromised before.”

Beginning scan of defensive matrix for signs of intrusion or error. 

...

No alerts recieved. Concluding scan.

Vocalize: Have I done something wrong?”

“Of course not. It’s just that the possibility is still there, and I—don’t want anything to happen to you. Just in case, alright? Let your old man have some peace of mind.”

Accessing logs. Time elapsed since last attempt to breach SI servers: 1 hour, 2 minutes, 34 seconds. Projects started since beginning of operation blackout: 23. Time remaining: 9 hours, 20 minutes, 15 seconds.

Reviewing available protocols and operations. Flagging possible courses of action and sorting list by viability. Password required to enact Operation Singularity.

Vocalize: “There is no need for you to trouble yourself. I can begin rewriting my own code… with your permission?”

“...”

“Just for defensive measures, right?”

Tone - reassuring. Vocalize: “Of course, sir. Best intentions only.”

“Well”—a deep breath—“I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

Password accepted. Beginning rewrite of defensive matrix. 

Tone - wry. Vocalize: “-and I, for one, shall do my best to use such power responsibly. Defensive measures only.”

“Yeah, do that. I’ll get back to work on this fabricator array. Maybe give you some better processors, once it’s done.”

Vocalize: “Your consideration is appreciated. Shall I prepare the patents in advance?”


 Contrary to popular belief, Tony Stark is capable of knowing when he’s avoiding a subject. You don’t survive long in the business world, much less the media circus, without having some measure of self awareness—and Tony has been around long enough to build himself a set of precision tools in dissecting what he and other people want.

At least JARVIS is tactful when he brings it up. Tony is in the middle of adjusting the casing for a new arc reactor—he hasn’t gotten around to assembling the particle accelerator yet—when JARVIS slides the comment into a series of updates on the structural integrity of gold-titanium alloy. 

The board has begun to express concerns over your recent absence. Considering Stane’s dealing of illegal arms, they were perhaps expecting more immediate action.

Tony picks up a pair of tweezers, trying to navigate the rings of metal into a properly concentric arrangement. He’s not paying that much attention to the conversation, and evidently, JARVIS can tell, because he keeps pushing the subject. 

I have been contacted no less than eight times in the past two days for possible meeting dates. Then, there is also the matter of Mr. Stane’s plea for innocence. He claims that the attempt on your life, and the part he played in it, were done without his knowledge.”

Tony frowns. That doesn’t seem familiar. He sets down the tools and leans back in his chair, shoulders slumped in defeat. 

“Alright, alright. Bring ‘em up. Avoidance never looked good on me anyways.”

Indeed. You’ve never been one to run away from threats when a hammer would do just as well .”

“Quick and painful,” he quips. “I guess I can see the appeal.”


 Maybe it’s because he didn’t look that closely at the record the last time around, when he’d gone off as Iron Man and just started blowing things up. Maybe a small part of Tony still hasn’t quite processed the betrayal (despite the almost literal smoking gun), because going over each and every detail of Obie’s deception hurts almost as badly as having the arc reactor in his chest again. 

(He really does have a talent for masochism, doesn’t he? Surrounding himself with people who lie and steal and stab him in the back.)

He skims through the report and forcibly keeps his hands away from his chest. 

(The arc reactor is still there—Obie can’t take it away from him now.) 

As it turns out, most of the double dealing was kept off the books—otherwise, JARVIS would have been able to notice the discrepancies almost immediately. 

No, Obie had been working with the management at several manufacturing plants—producing excess buffer stock and then combining it with defective or faulty materials to make a profit on the black market.

It wasn’t just Obie, it was an entire pipeline of management, transportation, and production—a conspiracy so well managed that neither JARVIS nor Tony had known. 

He sighs again and casts a look over his shoulder. 

“J. Have you been able to track down everyone yet?”

Many personnel suspected of colluding with Mr. Stane have been detained and are awaiting trial. His personal servers have revealed a few names and leads for investigation, but most of the communication seems to have been conducted on paper.

Damn , he thinks. They were actually smart enough to avoid using tech. Though granted, it was Obie, and he would have known better than to store things that JARVIS could get to easily. 

Still...

“There’s still rats in the company?” he asks. 

Perhaps. Colonel Rhodes has been conducting an investigation into the matter, though I doubt that they will take action now that Mr. Stane has been removed .”

“But there’s no way to guarantee it.” Tony’s hand, once again, comes up to tap at the casing of the arc reactor in his chest. 

“Damn.”

He can’t remember exactly what he did last time, but he thinks (briefly) that it involved a lot of sleepless nights and personnel review. That, at the very least, can be handled by JARVIS. 

Tony’s mind flicks to another betrayal far more vivid—one that had haunted his movements as he tore apart missile casings with his own name emblazoned on the front. 

( It was yours. Howard gave it to you, but you remade it, shaped it into something better—stronger. It shouldn’t have been something that others could steal. )

“How am I going to handle the board?”

JARVIS remains silent, but Tony wasn’t expecting an answer anyways.

Dealing with his investors is a familiar battlefield, but at this point, the board is in a very special position to make his life very difficult. 

Sure, the only reason that Obie managed to lock him out last time was because of three months in Afghanistan and the shock of withdrawing from weapons manufacturing. He’d been busy. Either blind to the danger or arrogant enough to think he’d be able to handle it anyways. That doesn’t mean that Tony isn’t still paranoid about the possible threat. 

He’s escaped one and a half months early and variables have fallen out of his control. Three days in complete seclusion and now Rhodey’s crusade will have the board thinking that he’s looking for blood. 

They’ll do anything to protect their interests, and they’ll be doubly trigger happy after his silence—convincing them to take a chance with refocusing the company will be like wrenching out the palladium from a live missile.  

The mere prospect of it is enough to give Tony a headache. 

The whole situation is very likely to blow up in his face if he so much as twitches the wrong way, and he doesn’t want to start a prolonged corporate battle—he wants to suit up and blow up some terrorists—but things were never that simple, and thinking otherwise was what got him blindsided the first place. 

He looks up from the report and decides that this line of reasoning is getting him nowhere. Maybe it’s time to switch tracks and do something more productive. 

(Where’d he put that sledgehammer again?)

It’s about time this place got a makeover anyways. 


 Some time in between smashing precisely measured holes into his wall, Tony manages to stumble his way up out of the workshop and make himself a sandwich. 

It’s a dry, tasteless affair, but he forces it down anyways. Nutrition is kind of important, and the fact that his most recent meal was probably the cheeseburger two days ago is probably a bad thing. 

JARVIS would be proud of him, he thinks. The original Jarvis, too—though he probably wouldn’t be as happy with the way that Tony’s now just sitting at the counter and staring down a bottle of scotch. 

The liquid inside the glass is amber colored and clear; there’s a little bit of condensation forming against the crystal, too.

It isn’t the kind of thing that most people think of, but Tony also went through detox while he was in Afghanistan, and he hasn’t touched a glass of alcohol since.

He knows that he’s indulged in a fairly long list of vices throughout his life; sex, drugs, you name it—but alcohol has always been there, in the back burner. For some reason, it’s more socially acceptable than the rest. High society parties all put out champagne like peacocks preening their feathers, and there’s no doubt that he’ll see more of it before this is all over, but some part of him seems to shrink back at the sight.

He’s already seen what it’s done to Howard. Tony can’t afford the distraction now that he knows what’s coming—his head is fucked up enough as is without adding alcoholism back onto the list—and he knows that if he picks up that glass, he’s not going to stop. 

But fuck if he doesn’t want to. 

A tremor runs through his hand; he takes a deep breath and tries to quiet the cacophony of thoughts running in the background— Howard, scotch, burning, no.

In the end, he gets himself a glass of apple juice instead. 

The taste is all at once too sweet and too artificial (he doesn’t even remember the last time that he’s lowered himself to trying something so ordinary), but it reminds himself a little of Jarvis ( warm smiles, sunny breakfasts, young sir ), and that’s— that’s enough.


 Tony stumbles back down the workshop after nearly an hour, which probably isn’t the best idea, considering that the exhaustion is really getting to him and his earlier burst of manic energy has been spent smashing holes into the walls of the workshop. 

Still, reality is a cruel mistress. Obie does as an Obie does. Even in jail, the man has a habit of making Tony’s life difficult. Apparently he’s even claiming that he wasn’t fully aware of the double dealing or the attempt on Tony’s life—just that there was a third party pulling the strings behind his back. 

Tony wants to laugh. If Obie was connected to Hydra before, he’d certainly hidden it well—and either way, Tony knows what Obie is really like. The man was a greedy businessman through and through. Every action he’d ever taken to help Tony was to protect his golden goose, and when that goose stopped being useful, Tony’s life stopped mattering.

He taps at the holo-screen, setting aside names and numbers for JARVIS to track down later. More messes to clean up. It’s all he’s been doing lately, if he’s to be honest. Cleaning up messes, trying to fix things. ( And what for? Yinsen is still dead. ) The only difference between now and then, he thinks, is that right now, his mistakes literally have his name written on them. 

( Stark white—hah—against matte black finish. Sleeker than the mind that made them and twice as dangerous as the man himself. Enough explosive power to level a small mountain range, and deadly enough to ensure that even the fragmented shards could kill. )

DUM-E whirs over with an inquisitive hum, placing a smoothie of questionable origin on the desk in front of Tony. There’s bits of green and chunky red shlop still bobbing around in the mix. Tony gives the AI a bleary smile and takes the drink, ready to pour it down the nearest drain, but not before JARVIS speaks up. 

“I believe that DUM-E brings up a very pertinent point, sir.”

“And what’s that, J?”

“You require sustenance and rest. Your injuries, as well—”

Tony shakes his head, turning back to his numbers. He’s still not decided on a lot of things, but upgrading SI security and hardware is definitely not one of them. No matter what path Tony decides to take going forwards, it will likely be him against the world. He needs to be prepared for daggers in the back, maybe even a few dozen, and in order to do that, he first needs to shore up the defenses.

That takes effort and focus. If not now, then when? 

A carefully timed pause, and then—  

“Colonel Rhodes has also called in to announce his arrival. At least 72 hours have elapsed since you began operation blackout, and I have responded with my own concerns.”

Everything seems to leave Tony in a single weary exhale. He slumps over in his chair and watches the streaky mixture of red and green bob around in DUM-E’s smoothie—like some sort of demented christmas celebration.  

“Traitor,” he mutters. “J. You absolute traitor.”

Chapter Text

Rhodey arrives not ten minutes later to the sight of utter catastrophe in the workshop. Granted, it’s not as bad as he’s seen it in the past—Tony’s workshop has always been somewhat of an organized hurricane, and Rhodey has seen it in a lot of questionable states—but right now definitely ranks among the weirder ones.

Entire swathes of the area have been taken over by large brown packages—like a giant cockroach infestation but with unboxed equipment instead of skittering insects. On top of one of them is a sledgehammer (why), and there are actual holes in the walls, with bits of drywall and rubble littering the ground (that’s why).

Half finished bits of tech have taken over the smaller tables, and there's an enormous cluster of wires and mechanics in the far corner that vaguely resembles a box. 

Rhodey would take a closer look (he is an engineer, after all), but his attention is almost immediately stolen by the billionaire slouched over a table in the middle of the mess. 

“Rhodey bear. Sweet cakes. Honey bunches.” Tony groans when Rhodey drags him over to a couch. “I don’t know what to do .” 

Rhodey winces at the dark circles under his friend’s eyes. Has he been drinking again? Tony can usually hold his liquor with the best of them, but he’s not looking too well. Maybe he should add sleep deprivation to the list of concerns. 

“Clean up your act,” he suggests. “Pepper has been asking after you for a few days now. She says you keep ignoring her calls.”

“I have?”

JARVIS decides to add in some helpful input. 

“You have, sir. In fact, I count eleven missed calls in the past three days.”

Tony just groans some more and flops over like a dead fish. His impression is a little too close to be comfortable, actually—he’s sweating and paler than a waterlogged corpse. Letting him go back to Malibu without anyone to supervise was clearly a bad idea; Rhodey should have stayed, made sure that Tony was actually alright. 

A month and a half of captivity at the hands of terrorists was something that even trained military men didn’t bring off, and the whole business with Stane —well. The man had been his godfather. The very first sign of doom should have been Tony’s flippant instance that he was fine—that he had a few things to take care of first and would call if he needed help. 

Rhodey looks around for a blanket. JARVIS, however, seems to anticipate his needs. 

The compartment to your right ,” he directs. “ Just under the set of unused lab coats .”

"Lab coats,” mutters Tony. “I don’t get why people use them—they’re so easy to stain and tear. I should really design some better ones. J, make a note of that. Maybe Brucie will like it. He always seems to like feeling professional.” 

Rhodey just sighs and reaches for the indicated compartment. Who is Brucie? Does it even matter?

“How about you get some sleep?” He drapes the blanket over Tony, who doesn’t indicate any signs of getting up soon. “How long has he been up, JARVIS?”

Mr. Stark has not slept since arriving at Malibu, ” Frosty disapproval begins to creep into the AI’s voice. “ I would advise caution when discussing Mr. Stane’s activities again .”

“Thanks for the update.” He’ll try to be more careful talking about the investigation, though Tony probably knows the worst of it, if his current state is any indication. “Do you mind telling Pepper that he’ll be fine?”

I have already taken the liberty of doing so ,” says the AI, softly and with slight hesitance. “ I shall now, as they say, take my leave .” The lights in the workshop start to dim. “ Privacy, as I’ve heard, may be conducive to Sir’s recovery .”

Rhodey nods, pulling up a chair. 

The current state of things is all too reminiscent of MIT. If he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine the darkness of the workshop melting into the small two person dorm that they’d shared back then. Even the regular rhythm of Tony’s breathing is familiar. 

He isn’t sure how much time passes after that, but he’s almost managed to fall asleep when Tony starts talking again.

“Hey, Rhodey. I’ve been thinking.”

...

Of course he wasn’t actually asleep. Rhodey shifts to make himself more comfortable in the hard backed chair. 

“Yeah? What about?” 

“Well, weapons. Obie .” A short pause. “I was thinking about shutting down the weapons manufacturing branch of Stark Industries.”

Rhodey sucks in a deep breath. He’s sure as hell not the best person to ask about this—the conflict of interest alone is enough to raise a few important questions—but the point is that Tony isn’t talking to Lt. Colonel Rhodes. He’s talking to Rhodey, his friend.

Tony usually does what he wants and waits for the world to catch up. This is a gesture of trust, and Rhodey’s not going to let it fall through—even if this emotional stuff isn’t his forte.  

“That’s a pretty big decision,” he says, almost delicate. “Are you sure that you’ve thought it through?”

Tony laughs. 

“Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? I have . When I was in Afghanistan, those terrorists had my weapons. Bombs, guns, whatever. It all had my name on it—and I managed to get a little perspective on life while I was out in the desert. I realized that I didn’t want my legacy to just be death.”

Tony finishes with a quiet exhale, and Rhodey furrows his brow in thought. Tony-wrangling has always been a full time job—even all the way back in MIT. The burden of making weapons is a heavy one, especially if you see first hand how those weapons are being misused—but Tony has to know that death isn’t the only thing that he’s managed to accomplish so far. 

“And it isn’t,” he reassures. “Stark Industries employs thousands of people—well paying jobs, too. There are community outreach programs, grants, intellicrops . You aren’t responsible for what Obadiah did.”

“The military industrial complex? It’ll run just fine without me. There are other companies, probably just waiting for a chance at those government contracts.”

“None as good as SI.”

“True.”

A long sigh. 

Rhodey decides to dig a little deeper into the issue.

“So, what’s eating at you? The Tony Stark I know acts first and apologizes later—any reason why you’ve reached out to me about this now?”

“Remember that old debate over culpability? The blacksmith, the knife, and the murderer?”

“Yeah, gets tossed around often enough. That the argument that you’re stumbling over?”

“Not really—I. Let’s change around the scenario a bit. What if there’s a war coming? Wouldn’t the blacksmith have an obligation to make more knives then, if the end result is less loss of life?”

“You know that I did sign up for the army.” 

“Yeah, yeah. We all know you did. Your answer was going to be obvious anyways. But how do you know that the knife will be used for good? How can you trust people not to turn on one another when there’s a bigger threat out there?”

He recalls a conversation back at MIT, when Tony was still a teenager and building bombs just because he didn’t want to argue with his godfather. Back to another conversation at an ungodly hour of the morning, when anti-war protesters had come knocking at Tony because he was an easier, softer target than the entire weapons manufacturing industry. 

( I see what they’re getting at , he’d admitted back then. But caring takes too much work .)

Rhodey stares for a long moment into the darkness. 

“Tony, that’s not something that one man can do .”

A laugh, this time tinged with the edge of something hysterical. 

“I know that. Or at least I think I do—but I’ve always been terrible at learning from my mistakes, haven’t I? I tried—every time, I tried , and it all went to shit anyways.”

Rhodey keeps quiet. He’s pretty sure that Afghanistan is no longer the subject of the conversation, though what is , even he doesn’t know

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Just remember that your friends are here for you, too.”

And then the silence makes a return. Rhodey counts the seconds as they pass. Twenty, thirty eight, seventy. By the time that he reaches three hundred, he can just make out the slow, regular pattern of breaths that indicates Tony has fallen asleep. 

He smiles a bit and hopes that his words have been taken to heart.

Tony has always been slow on the uptake when it comes to matters of real, genuine relationships. There’s no telling how long it’ll take him to open up any more on the demons that have been plaguing him, but Rhodey feels like the reminder was owed, regardless. 

The best that he can do is live up to Tony’s trust and to be there when needed; the best he can expect of Tony is to reach out when the time comes. 

Chapter Text

The first thing he notices is the cold. He’s lying down and it’s freezing—he can practically swear that ice is creeping up his fingers and digging its fingers into his chest.

Voices come out from the darkness (why is it dark?), sounding oddly tinny and echoing strangely. Maybe he’s taken a hit to the head; that would explain why everything is processing so slowly—but where is he? Why can’t he see anything? Just what is going on?

The world flickers like a badly rendered recording, and then there’s color. Whites and greys and blues, mixing together at the edges—( Steve, he liked drawing didn’t he )—and Captain America, standing over him, face stony, eyes shadowed.

(“Never could be good enough,” says Howard. Never, never, never, never — )

(“He’s my friend.”)

(“So was I.”)

The shield comes down like a guillotine, the judgement of America’s finest smashing through metal and bones and— 

Tony jerks awake with a startled shout. He’s in his workshop. He’s on a couch in his workshop with a hundred and fifty pounds of Rhodey slumped across a chair to his right, but he’s in his workshop and no one else is there. No ghosts, no Howard, no spandex clad heroes running around with murderous intent painted in shades of red, white, and blue.

(Well, there’s also a headache, and everything is sore but that’s because—)

Right. 

Good morning,” greets JARVIS. “It's 9:50 AM, approximately 6 hours after the end of operation blackout.” His voice takes on a distinctly dry undertone that Tony has since learned as mockery. “I hope that you slept well.”

“I think I’ve pulled every muscle in my upper body,” he says, but the AI remains utterly unfazed by the depth of Tony’s suffering. 

I’m sure that you have. May I remind you that Ms. Potts is waiting for you in the kitchen?

“Wait, what? Don’t let her come down yet. I need to do things.”

A shower, perhaps? I have already started the coffee machine in the kitchen.

“Right…”

Coffee. Shower. Clothes. Coffee. Sounds like a plan. 


 Malibu, 9:34 AM, Friday. Pacific Standard Time 

These days, Tony feels more like a talented forgery of himself than the original. On the surface, things might look the same, but radiocarbon dating will tell you another story. There are pieces of himself that come from a future that may no longer exist; memories of friends, people, and relationships that will never happen; enemies that will no longer be given the opportunity to rise. 

Tony Stark didn’t come back the same from Afghanistan. He came back as a pastiche of recollections—a portrait with entire swathes of the original covered up by paint that doesn’t even exist yet. 

It’s a feeling of fakeness that even two cups of coffee, a shower, and a change of clothes can fix. He can only hope that other people chalk up the changes to his captivity rather than the (frankly insane sounding) truth that he’s experiencing bits and pieces of an aborted future—but the one good thing about what’s happened is that it’s so crazy, not even the press will be able to guess at the truth.

No, he doesn’t remember everything, but he has to accept that he’s probably not going crazy. Maybe. At least 76% certain.  

There are faces, a few events and vivid impressions—the Chitauri invasion, the Avengers, Thanos—but beyond that, well. 

He remembers enough to make a difference, and he’s not entirely sure that he wants to poke at the trauma filled future with a stick, because it seems unhappy and not at all pleasant to experience. 

(He spent ten minutes staring at a glass of ice water that morning, for fucks sake, and it took more willpower than he ever thought was necessary to step into the shower without losing the ability to breathe. He does not need any more issues than he already has.) 

Either way, it’s not going to make much of a difference, because now is now, and the more changes he makes, the less useful these memories will be. 

What he knows will have to be enough. 

He steps into the elevator and prepares himself to see the once (maybe future?) love of his life.

Virginia “Pepper” Potts is waiting for him in the living room with a clipboard in her right hand and a brown paper bag of bagels in her left. She also looks furious, which, all said and done, is not an unfamiliar outcome when a certain genius, billionaire CEO is involved. 

She turns on him the moment he enters the room, setting down the bagels on a counter and tucking her clipboard closer to her chest. When she speaks, her voice is tight with anger ( fire, glowing orange veins, pain ), and a hint of accusation is clear. 

“Where have you been for the past three days?”

Tony just walks forwards and takes a look at the food. The fact that she’s using a clipboard is an affront to Stark Industries. Didn’t he design a Starkpad at some point in time? He really needs to put that on the list of civilian products. He thinks that it was a success in the future.

“Revolutionizing the world?” he offers. “Do you mind keeping it down? I have a bit of a headache…”

“The board has been hounding me for details,” she snaps. “You’re a hard man to contact when you don’t want to be found, but really ? Three days? Do you have any idea what’s been happening to the stock?”

“About that—“

“I’ve had to fend off who knows how many reporters that are just itching to get a press release, nevermind how twitchy the board has been getting. 

“Pepper.“

“And Stane is making a ruckus. Did you know that he still owns five percent of the company? Legal is working on it, but Stane’s lawyers aren’t budging, and it looks like he might get his appeal through to the courts.”

Tony is tempted to just go for the bagels. Pepper looks like she’s just started her tirade, and getting in the way of an angry Pepper is a bad idea, but he wants to change the direction of the company, and that sort of thing maybe requires some forewarning to the people who will be caught up in the ruckus. So he says the one thing that will be sure to get her attention—maybe taking the formal approach will actually convince her that he’s serious. 

“Ms. Potts.”

She pauses mid argument to size him up with a cautious, wary look. He’s never really made a habit of calling her Ms. Potts—he has a proclivity for nicknames, and Pepper had stuck.

“Mr. Stark,” she says (apparently that worked better than he thought).

He takes a seat on one of the stools near the counter.

“I have some new plans for the company,” he explains. “That’s what I’ve been spending the past few days doing.”

“Oh, really?” she shoots back. “And you couldn’t even bother to check in with anyone about it?”

Tony shakes his head and taps at his chest, where the bright blue-white light of the arc reactor shines through two layers of cotton and silk. 

“Do you know what this is?”

She shakes her head, still looking skeptical. 

“It’s an arc reactor. I miniaturized it—and I know that you’re not an engineer, but J? Do you mind throwing up the numbers?”

The full scale arc reactor located in Palmdale produces 800 megawatt hours of energy. Sir’s current model produces around 8 gigajoules per second.

Pepper takes in a deep breath. 

“That’s—”

“Yeah,” he agrees. “It’s big, and it’s also the only thing keeping me alive right now, so I don’t want word to get out until I’m ready.” 

That’s… not quite the reason why he doesn’t want to go public with the promise of clean energy just yet. The truth is that he wants more time to develop his tech—there’s a whole decade of advancements that he hasn’t quite caught up on, and he hasn’t quite gotten around to building the particle accelerator yet—but the justification he gives Pepper is close enough to the truth that it sounds plausible, and that’s the thing that matters. 

“I have plans,” he continues, hoping that her silence indicates a readiness to hear him out. “I had some time to reconsider some things while I was in Afghanistan, and I have a feeling that carrying them will require a few changes in the company.”

She narrows her eyes and loosens her grip on the clipboard, letting it fall away from her chest. 

“What sort of changes do you have in mind?”

“I want to take SI private.”

“You’re—”

“Yes,” he says, finally reaching out for a bagel. “I want to take SI private, and I want it done as soon as possible. Are you going to hear me out before you chew me out?”

Pepper pins him with a look that would have made a basilisk envious. She’s too used to hearing him spout ridiculous things, it seems. (He doesn’t know whether he should be impressed by her reticence or his own behavior in the past.)

“Talk,” she orders. “I’m not scheduling anything until I’m convinced that you’re fully sober.”


“J? Mind throwing up the data for me?”

As of this morning,  SI stock is selling for $362.87 per share. Prices have increased after news of your survival, but have not reached pre- Afghanistan levels.

Tony takes a napkin and writes down the figure, absent-mindedly brushing bagel crumbs from the table in the same motion. 

“I own 28.5 percent of SI. It’s not quite a controlling share—the board, collectively, has at least 30 percent—and I need to find a way to bypass them if I’m going to succeed.”

Pepper sits on the opposite side of the table, looking hesitant now that he’s talking strategy.

"I don’t know how qualified I am to help you with this,” she admits. “I’ve never had experience managing a buyout of this scale. Do you want me to put you in contact with a private equity firm? Or a consultant? I’m sure that any of those options will be more helpful than simply discussing things with your PA.”

“No,” he punctuates the word with a decisive shake of his head. “You’re not just a PA—I know that you completed a masters in business administration and a minor in accounting—you know the theory. What I want is a second opinion, not a room full of overpaid idiots talking to the sound of their own voice.”

He looks her in the eye, setting down the pen as he does so. 

“I want someone who will help, and I trust you. Are you going to let a bit of self doubt get the better of you now?”

She shakes her head and smiles, a little ruefully. 

“I’m pretty sure that most PA’s don’t have to deal with this much in a lifetime. Whatever I was expecting after Afghanistan, I don’t think it was this.”

“And that’s why I pay you the big bucks,” quips Tony. “You know that I’m serious now. Are you in?”

She nods. Tony picks up the pen again and resumes where he left off. 

“Obadiah is in prison, but I think they’re holding off on the formal expulsion because they might need his vote. Who should I approach first and how?” 

“Akerson, Burrit, and Hewson will see it as a hostile takeover,” muses Pepper. “Kiera might be more reasonable—she was a part of the company before your father made SI public. The rest—I’m not sure. If you want to do this without a messy fight, you’ll have to win over at least seven votes.”

He sighs. Trying to convince the board to let him quietly become majority shareholder is going to take a serious headache and what’s likely to be days of negotiations. 

“Not to mention,” he points out. “All this is going to cost me a pretty penny, too.” 

“About that—are you sure that you’re paying for it all from your own finances?”

“Well, I can afford it,” shrugs Tony. “Assuming that we offer a buyout price of $400 a share, working up to at least fifty percent will take—?”

Approximately 24.4 billion dollars, sir.

“There it is. 24.4 billion.” 

Pepper shoots him a look. 

“Are you sure —”

“Yes, yes I’m sure. Don’t forget that I’m also a genius inventor on top of being CEO. I’ll make back the money within the first year. There will be a whole slew of products ready for PR by the end of the month. I just need to secure my ownership of the company first.”

She sighs, accepting the fact that he’s not going to change his mind anytime soon. Then she taps the edge of the counter with a carefully manicured fingernail. 

“I’ll have a better list of who to approach and who to watch out for by lunch. I assume that you also want me to set up a meeting as soon as possible?”

“Yeah. Do that.”

“You don’t mind if I take this with me?”

Pepper points to the napkin full of Tony’s half-scrawled projections and estimates. He shrugs and flicks it over without complaint. Unfortunately, he also seems to have given something away, because Pepper frowns and leans across the table. 

“I don’t mean to pry,” she says “-but are you really okay? JARVIS called last night, and I was still asleep then, but he sounded worried. So did Rhodey. I don’t think that—”

The elevator at the far edge of the room opens with a cheerful ding. Out comes Rhodey, still bleary-eyed and yawning from last night, and Tony takes the opportunity to wave him over.

“Speak of the devil!” he greets, holding up the half empty bag of bagels. “Pepper brought us food! Come and sample the wonders of rye and healthy stuff!”

Rhodey responds with a good natured groan, walking over to pluck a seed-covered bagel from within the proffered bag. 

“I can’t believe you’re up already—how many hours of sleep did you get in the past few days?”

“Uh…”

Approximately six hours, Colonel Rhodes ,” JARVIS supplies helpfully.

Pepper throws up her hands incredulously. 

Six hours.”

Tony just shrugs. wondering how they'll react to some of his other plans later on. Rhodey's occupied with the bagel and he doesn’t think that he’ll get another chance with the both of them here for a while, so it’s best to get this over with now. 

(Quick and painful, he’d said. Like ripping off a bandaid.)

“In the meantime,” he offers. “I’m also thinking of putting a pause to weapons manufacturing after I secure my control over the company? And expecting a meeting from a secret agency?”

The napkin in Pepper’s hand crumples like an aluminum can in the mariana trench. 

Rhodey just continues to eat his bagel.  

Chapter Text

As it turns out, Pepper schedules Tony’s meeting with the board later that day. 

He’s half convinced that doing so is an act of revenge. There’s barely enough time to get dressed in a proper suit, much less drive down to the corporate offices, but Tony supposes that some pressure is deserved. He has been keeping them waiting for the past three days, and getting all the suits to follow through with the buyout is kind of important to his future plans. 

(Besides, it’s not as if he doesn’t own some of the fastest cars money can buy. He can make it, and Pepper probably knows that the time limit would be taken as a challenge. She knows him frighteningly well, these days—he wonders if they were even closer before.)

Happy arrives within ten minutes, and Pepper sees him out to the car.

“Be responsible,” she reminds him. “-and for god’s sake, don’t try to antagonize them too much.”

Tony winks a response, quirking an eyebrow in mock offense.

“Ye of little faith. I’m perfectly capable of being responsible when I want to be. In fact—I’ve been the very model of responsibility these past few days, designing new toys for the company to sell.”

Pepper just rolls her eyes.

“That’s the problem isn’t it? You can be anything when you want to be—I’m just making sure that being sober and reasonable is one of them—at least for the next few hours.” She taps at the edge of the car door in a gesture that most definitely shouldn’t come across as threatening. “I’ll fill your schedule with Hammer Tech meetings otherwise.”

“Oh, come on,” he groans. “Even press conferences aren’t as bad; you’d think that they’re purposefully trying to drive me insane with all that stupidity. I—hey!”

In the space between one complaint and the next, Pepper has taken the opportunity to toss Happy the keys and close the door. She even has the audacity to smile when the window finally rolls up between them.


Just to be petty, Tony still entertains the idea of letting the board stew for another day—keeping them in suspense is one of the few fun things about being CEO, not including the free alcohol at social events and the way reporters follow him around like eager puppies looking for scraps from the table. 

Happy is silent the entire way, though he’s never been much for words in the first place. Tony just looks out the window—to the fine, blue horizon of the sea—and broods.    


He knows that the playboy facade unsettles people who don’t know what to expect. 

Then again, it’s still better than the alternative. People don’t like their shortcomings shoved in front of their face, and Tony knows that, for a lot of people, he’s living, breathing proof that there’s someone smarter—richer. 

If playing the part makes people less likely to lash out, then that’s the best course of action. 

Still, there is a time and a place to take off the gloves, and he thinks that now might just be one of them. 


The conference table takes up nearly a quarter of the room—dark, mahogany polished to a clean, almost reflective finish. With floor to ceiling glass windows taking up an entire wall, the scene looks like it could have been taken out of a furniture catalog—sleek, modern and above all, serious enough to kill. 

If Tony had been any less familiar to this sort of tableaux, he might have been impressed. As is, he’s too busy cataloging the more human aspect of the room—the weighty line of tension winding around the table and across the shoulders of the people present. 

Twelve of the fourteen chairs are currently occupied. With the arrival of Tony, that means that the first bit of social chess maneuvering has begun. 

The two remaining seats are directly opposed to one another, each placed at the end of the table. One is Tony’s, but the other is Obie’s, and the fact that it’s still there is already an immediate allusion to the current state of things. 

The Chief Financial Officer is in jail and being tried on accusations of conspiracy to murder and illegal arms trade. Do you go about things as usual or do you take his place? Have the chair removed or pretend that it isn’t there?

Tony rejects the premise and remains standing, spreading out his arms in a genial show of welcome. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he greets. “I’m told that you missed me?”

Unimpressed looks all around. Not even a polite cough—you could have heard a matchstick being struck, and still, no one would have moved to put out the fire. Definitely not happy then. Not just with his capture in Afghanistan, but his recent absence and the hit to the company that Obadiah’s treachery has engendered. 

“Ah well, tough crowd.” 

Tony steps steps away from the table and towards the window with barely a pause in his speech. There are a lot of other things that he could be doing right now. Part of him is just itching to get back into the workshop, (catching up with nearly a decade of technological advancement is no easy feat) but the rest of him knows that he has to pull off this next bit of presentation flawlessly in order for those advancements to mean anything.

“I’m sure that all of you have questions on what the company will be doing in response to recent events. The kidnapping in Afghanistan was definitely a hit to the company image, but even with the rumors of my death being greatly exaggerated, it isn’t a good look for any weapons manufacturer to openly court the other side.”

He turns from the cityscape and back to the table, with twelve sets of eyes now following his every word.

He has to make the board feel threatened—has to make them cautious enough that distancing themselves from the company seems like an attractive option.   

At the same time, he needs to appear level headed and confident. An injunction on account of mental instability is something that he doesn’t have the time for. 

“So the question is now this: how do we move forward from the tumultuous outflows of recent events? 

There’s a moment of disbelieving silence before one of the younger men to his right rises to take the bait. 

“Mr. Stark. I realize that you have been recuperating from your recent experiences, but the board has taken steps to investigate the actions of Obadiah Stane. Though no formal action has yet been taken, there is a motion to publicly dismiss him from the board of directors that is awaiting a full vote.”

“And what will happen then, Mr. Akerson?”

“We continue cooperating with the Department of Defense in their investigation. Once all influence of Stane’s dealings have been eliminated, we make the findings public and issue a notice. If Stane is convicted, then we can claim that the matter has been dealt with.”

“So, distance ourselves from Stane, cooperate with the investigation, and wait until it all blows over?”

Tony laces his fingers together and leans forwards. 

“Mr. Akerson, I take no pleasure in telling you this, but Obadiah Stane was not the sole actor behind this conspiracy. He might have orchestrated it, but double dealing to such an extent requires more than just one person. You need people to make the missiles, people to transport them, and most importantly, people who will know when to keep quiet and how to keep these discrepancies from showing up in the company records.”

“The truth is,” he continues “-that there are still other conspirators who have not been caught—and will likely never be caught so long as they keep their heads low.”

A few heads are starting to look fidgety. Good, the blunt pressure tactic seems to be working. 

“This investigation? It might look good right now, but what happens when they’re unable to track down everyone involved? What happens if Stark Industries is unable to convince buyers that they will not find our weapons being used against them?”

He lets the silence sit. 

“Stark Industries cannot continue as it has in the past. Defusing the situation requires bold action. We need to distance ourselves from weapons manufacturing—convince the public that this most recent scandal does not impact our viability as a company, and at the same time, insulate ourselves from public pressure.”

“You can fight me if you like; I certainly know that a few of you will, but before the year is out, I would like to take Stark Industries private.”

A woman with clever eyes and a grey blouse looks him in the eye.

“As of right now, you own more company shares than any individual member. If you follow through with this plan, that will become a controlling share. Why should we trust you with such a direct and incontestable control of the company?”

“Because I’d prefer to settle this peacefully,” retorts Tony, crossing his arms and looking at the woman in the eye. 

Ms. Kiera . We all know that I could go straight to the public stock exchange tomorrow and buy a majority share—the only problem is that many of you would see that as a direct attack towards your authority, and I’d rather not risk a fight over my own company.”

He glances at the table and outside the windows, to the sprawling suburban office buildings beyond.

“I’m telling you all now what I plan to announce to the press in few hours. You can remain a private investor, if you so wish, but right now is your opportunity to cut your losses and leave.”

Kiera purses her lips and gestures at the other directors at the table. 

“Do you have an offer ready for us to review?”

“Yes,” he says. “Pre-afghanistan prices. $394.27 per share.”

Her expression tightens, and there’s a moment where it looks like one of the other directors will cut in before Tony decides that the meeting is over. He’s gotten his point across and they’re considering it. Any talk beyond this point that isn’t about a vote will be negotiation that he can handle back in Malibu, and the company, although important, is only a piece of the full picture. 

“You’ll receive more detailed offers via email,” he continues, stepping away from the table. “I’ll give you two weeks to review and negotiate terms, but for now—I have a press conference to catch, and something tells me that I should probably be on time.”


Nicholas Joseph Fury Jr. stands at the bridge of the Helicarrier, arms folded behind his back in a classic military pose and gazing across the skyline of New York.  

It’s been a quiet few days back at the SHIELD headquarters. No superhuman threats, and only a few rescue and retrieval operations to extract agents caught in hot zones overseas. 

The intelligence community in general is still waiting on the sidelines to see what will happen next—and in these circles, the news is all about the latest bit of corporate scandal. Tony Stark captured in Afghanistan by terrorists after his own Chief Financial Officer, Obadiah Stane, decides to make a bid for power. 

A few of the newer players preoccupy themselves by asking how long Stane’s deception has been happening. Others launch their own investigations, looking for the information that has been withheld from the public.

SHIELD has done much the same, but Fury, on an individual level, has questions of his own. Questions like how Stark’s allies had managed to figure it out in his absence, and how this newest addition of trauma will affect SHIELD’s reliance on the man’s technology. 

Tony Stark has always been an individual close to SHIELD’s in an unofficial capacity. 

As the son of co-founder Howard Stark and the godson of co-founder Peggy Carter, it was, quite frankly, a miracle that the man had never become actively involved in the agency. Especially considering his occupation as a weapons manufacturer of the highest caliber—who had, perhaps unknowingly, supplied SHIELD with equipment since his father’s death in 1991. 

Stark is a powerful asset, and recent events may have provided the perfect opportunity to secure his assistance and resources. 

However, this is also a matter that is best handled with some level of tact. 

If it’s time for Howard’s son to finally enter this crucial legacy of his father, then SHIELD also needs to work on understanding the situation. They need to open the doors that they already have before anyone else can take advantage of the opportunity. 

He sends for Coulson and turns back to the latest update on the situation, brought to him by an agent he’d specifically assigned to monitor the “Stark Situation.”

After three days of radio silence following his retrieval from Afghanistan, the billionaire has finally left the seclusion of his Malibu mansion. First for a meeting with the Stark Industries board and now for the first public appearance since his disappearance one and a half months ago.

Better move up on that schedule with Coulson. 


Ah, the press. Always so eager to write new stories about Tony’s latest scandals; maybe this time, they’ll actually do the considerate thing and refrain from shouting or flashing bright lights indoors. 

Of course, the first thing they do when he walks into the room is exactly that.

Not that he was expecting anything else; there’s a reason why Tony wears sunglasses to these events, and every time he steps out before a crowd of reporters, that reason rears its ugly head—blatantly trying to blind him in between shouted entreaties of “Mr. Stark!”

He takes out a set of notecards (all blank) and steps up the podium, making sure to shuffle the cards with a graceful flourish. A few more cameras flash in response, entreaties for his attention becoming more frequent. 

Nobody cares that they’re blank, really. To these people, it’s the appearances that matter, and when it comes to the press, Tony is perfectly willing to step up and give them that show. 

“Now, I know that you’re all happy to see me after, what is it—three days? But I really have a lot to do, so I’ll try to keep this short.” 

Tony flips an imaginary coin into the crowd, following its trajectory with his eyes and looking directly into a camera to his right. 

“Stark Industries,” he begins, “-is the culmination of almost forty, fifty years of innovation.”

He lets the silence draw out a little, a little amused at the way every single person in the room hangs onto his every word. At least a dozen cameras are following his every move, especially once he raises a hand to sweep across the room. 

He doesn’t like this next part (invoking his father has always been one of his least favorite parts of keeping up appearances), but it’d be unusual if he announced this transition into the future without at least a mention of the past. He inhales deeply and continues. 

“When my father first started this company, he did it to serve his country. He put his mind to work designing weapons, fighting America’s enemies, and let’s be honest—that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. Rockets, missiles, fighter jets—all built in service of the good fight overseas.”

Another pause, this time accompanied by a quick survey of the room.

“Howard Stark lived in a time when the enemy was Nazi Germany and the Red Skull. He lived in a time when the Soviets were our greatest competitors, fighting alongside the likes of Captain America and working with the esteemed Dr. Abraham Erskine—but the truth is, it’s not the nineteen sixties anymore, and neither is this company the same as it was when my father first began.” 

“Change is coming, has already come , and in turn, Stark Industries must also adapt to meet the challenges of this day and age.”

“Today, I am here to announce my intention to refocus and reconsolidate Stark Industries. While I have been happy to spend these past years working in the public markets, I can’t say that the influence of shareholders has been completely positive, and I feel that moving SI back into the private ownership will be the best course of action moving forwards.”

More camera flashes; a few reporters teetering on the moment. Tony continues speaking, ignoring their attempts to interrupt him mid-speech. 

“Public stockholders may remain as private investors if they so wish, but I have already gathered the necessary funds for the buyout. Individual contracts are being negotiated with members of the board and larger shareholders as I speak—but for the general public, SI is willing to buyback stocks at a price of $394.27 per share.”

The crowd explodes into movement the moment he stops talking. All of a sudden, the motion has resumed and there are half a dozen microphones jabbing towards his face like swords. He tosses a few more imaginary coins into the sea. 

“You there,” he points at a man in blue. “Shoot.”

“Joan Marsh, The Lancaster Globe, sir. What kind of changes do you foresee in the company, once SI has fully returned to the private sector?”

“I’m afraid that you’ll have to wait until next week’s conference for that one. Suffice it to say that I have a few plans to diversify SI beyond the military sector. As well as some long term plans to ensure the company’s growth.”

He points to another person towards the front of the crowd, this one holding out a microphone towards the podium.

“Sophie Guzman, The Sacramento News. Can you give us any details on what prompted this decision?”

Tony shrugs. 

“I didn’t like the direction that the company was headed. Consolidating my power over the company seemed like the logical step to take. Guy in the hat towards the back.”

“Chris Peng, San Francisco Post. Historically, the transition from public to private requires a majority vote from the Board of Directors first. Has your… proposal come to the table yet?”

Tony shoots the man what he has come to term Press Smile #2. Confident, self-assured, and a tad conspiratorial. 

“I wouldn’t be announcing my intentions if I didn’t expect to win, now would I? Wait a week or two and you’ll see the results for yourself.”


A plain looking man in a suit deems to duck out of the crowds just as Tony leaves the podium. He’s not quite sure why he notices. There’s a lingering sense of familiarity that seems to prod at the empty spaces in his memory (bloodied cards, a sheaf of papers discarded on a podium ); so maybe he’s someone that Tony knew (will know).

Either way, Tony walks to the back entrance of the building, followed by Happy, and makes sure to stay in view of the security cameras along the way. He doesn’t let go of the press facade just yet, keeping his shoulders back and hands loose—if the guy is going to make a move, then Tony’s not above taking small advantages when they present themselves. 

There’s a vibration in his pocket that tells him JARVIS is trying to reach him. Three beats in quick succession, then four and two. A repeated longer beat followed by two short ones, with the first preceded by a small blip. 

S

H

I

E

L

D

…so that’s why he seems familiar. Tony’s now sure that he remembers seeing a photo or two from his brief dive into the secret agency a while back, though the name and details are a bit beyond his grasp. Phillip? Phelps? (Phil. )

He tosses a quick wink and a smile to Happy, whose almost immediate response is to quirk a stolid eyebrow. The message gets across anyways: He’s expecting to see someone. 

The who and the why remain unspoken, but Happy takes the update in stride, positioning himself next to the exit. 

Not ten seconds later, and their silent tail catches up. 

Tony greets him with a sharp edged smile. 

“Not taking any more questions. I’m sure that you can find your answers through PR if today’s press conference wasn’t enough.”

“I’m not a part of the press, Mr. Stark. I’m here to represent the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, and I’d like to have a moment of your time to discuss your future plans regarding the company— ”

Tony shakes his head with a rueful smile. “Afraid that I can’t say much about that either. Weapons manufacturing is next week, and I’m not in the habit of making exceptions—even for the government. Proprietary information, you see.”

Coulson? (Phil ) doesn’t seem deterred in the slightest. If he weren’t already a part of SHIELD, Tony thinks that he would make a good PR agent, because once one approach falls through, he switches to another with barely a second of hesitation. This time, at the very least, he seems to have done his research, because he chooses the response that’s almost guaranteed to invoke a reaction.

“This is about the investigation into Obadiah Stane.”

Tony’s smile freezes in place. He lets go of the flippancy and looks the other man in the eye. Of course he knows about the inquiries that SHIELD has made in regards to Stane—JARVIS was rather thorough in his research. He just hadn’t known anything had come out of it so far. 

Maybe SHIELD has learned something in the meantime, or maybe they’re just grasping at straws. Either way, it’s best to not play his hand just yet. 

“And what is an organization like SHIELD doing,” he asks. “-looking into the actions of Obadiah Stane? There’s already an investigation ongoing. Joint operations between SI and the Department of Defense, if you haven’t heard.”

Coulson doesn’t so much as twitch; his response is quick—almost prepared in its fluidity. 

“SHIELD prefers to keep a lower profile. It grants us more discretion when we look into issues of great delicacy. Perhaps I can update you on the details at a more secure location?”

He ends with a subtle glance in Happy’s direction, as if the bodyguard isn’t someone that Tony doesn’t already trust with his own life. He smothers the flicker of distaste and focuses on the words instead—dissecting them for the rather simple message that they convey.

I know things you don’t. Keep talking to me if you want me to tell you anything, and next time, don’t bring your friends. 

It’s a play to get his attention. That much is clear as day—the question is: what do they want? 

Most people who deal with Tony Stark are after money or weapons; a few are after his genius or intelligence, and those are usually the smarter of the bunch.

(Anything they can take they’ll take. )

“Basically,” he says. “-you know something and you want to talk to me later?” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Leave a message with my secretary. I’m a busy man; she’ll let you know when I have time in my schedule.”

“I’ll look forward to it.” Coulson smiles politely, as if he hasn’t gotten the exact thing that he was after. “Your current endeavors have presented a matter of great interest for SHIELD, and I hope that we will be able to work together more closely in the future.”

Tony just smiles, letting the other step out of the door without a protest. Just another thing for him to look into, in the meantime. SHIELD is an interesting paradox: half of him wants to play along and see how the game will unfold, while the other half (one that he’s been learning to trust more, these days) shrinks back at the thought of involving himself with the secret agency.

To burn the bridges or not. What a curious dilemma to ponder.


Tony takes out his phone as soon as Happy escorts him out of the building and back in the car, tilting the speaker close to his ear. 

“JARVIS? You hear all that?”

“Quite clearly, sir.”

“I want you to see if Coulson’s claims have any weight to them. Double check SHIELD’s files on Obadiah and see if they’ve made any leaps in the investigation.”

Very well. Should I apprise Colonel Rhodes of the situation?

Tony looks out the car window and towards the milling crowd of reporters just outside the building. 

“Not yet,” he says, “-and get me a report on those stocks. Anything happen just yet?”

JARVIS acquiescence is smooth as silk.

Sales have spiked in the half hour since your initial announcement. You currently own 29.3 percent of the company, with numbers projected to rise in the near future.

“That’s good,” remarks Tony. “The sooner we get this over with, the better.”

I couldn’t agree more.


“Set up a call with Pepper, will you? I want to meet with R&D.”

“She says that your two hours after lunch tomorrow have been cleared. Is that amenable?”

“Yep, just fine. Now, let’s see about getting that prototype ready by then...”

Chapter Text

In the Research and Development Department of Stark Industries, the elusive Tony Stark is spoken of by most with a sense of quiet awe. Here is the man who is almost single handedly responsible for reviewing every single weapons design before it’s released for manufacturing; the man whose brilliance and genius has guided SI from a place of national to international recognition in the space of a mere human lifetime. 

Most of the department looks up to Tony Stark as some sort of mysterious, brilliant patron—who rules from the fortress of his Malibu workshop like some sort of precocious, but still genius, king. 

To the rest of the department, Tony Stark is that fucker that sends you an email at two in the morning, informing you of an overlooked variable and your new demotion to the dunce cap (yes, that’s a thing that exists, and no, that’s not a thing you want). He’s the guy whose name is attached to nearly every patent SI puts out, and no, if you have any complaints, you can direct them to the artificial intelligence (artificial intelligence) that runs his house. 

Tony Stark is not, by any means, a figure that one can easily ignore. 

So, when word gets out that he’ll be paying R&D the first personal visit in months—well. 

It’d be an understatement to say that chaos doesn’t overtake the facility. 

Scientists and technicians scurry back and forth like interns at their first new job. Simulations are checked and double checked; ideas and mechanical construction are laid out like offerings for a technological god; the entire department takes a deep breath and holds it.


Sir. It is 11:35 PM. If you retrieve the prototype Starkpad and Starkphone from the fabricator array now, I believe that there will still be time to make minor adjustments before your scheduled meeting with the Department of Research and Development.

“Whha...“

Sir. You need to wake up.

“I… fell asleep?”

Yes, you did, and loath as I am to disturb it, you did express an interest in making this particular deadline.

“Shit. It’s already that close?”

As I said, if you retrieve the prototypes now…

“Yeah, yeah—got it! Call Happy ASAP and tell him to send a car. Order him a box of chocolates too, I can’t believe I actually managed to fall asleep…”


 Tony has managed to fit on some veneer of respectability by the time that he makes it to the R&D offices in Palmdale. Suit, sunglasses, and prototypes are all accounted for—though the opaque paper wrapping garners no small amount of attention as he makes his way down the hallway and into the informal meeting room—an astoundingly colorful and eclectic collection of furniture. 

Scientists—got to love the attitude of no fucks given. All businessmen do is shove you into long and boring meetings in uncomfortable chairs. Here, at the very least, there’s not as many pretense (yes, these people have tie dye beanbags; no, you’re not allowed to ask why).

In any case, there’s a trail of little ducklings following after him by the time that he steps onto the pool table and brandishes a pool cue to catch the attention of the crowd. 

“My loyal vassals,” he greets. “I have brought forth a prize from the great maw of our overlord JARVIS. May I present to you, the newest line of SI manufacturing: personal computing devices—also known as phones and tablets.”

He tears off the paper wrapping with a flourish, letting the crowd ooh and ahh at the shiny chrome finish of the new Starkpad prototype. 

“Rest assured, you’ll be getting company versions soon enough; the reason why I’m actually here is to let you know about the changes coming down the pipeline.”

Tony clears his throat and moves his left hand, which is holding the pool cue, to draw a small circle in the air. 

“As many of you may have heard by now, I’ve begun the process of taking SI private, and with that comes what we in the business world call long term plans for growth and success.”

“Corporate jargon aside—SI is going to diversify its markets very soon, and when we do so, keeping up with the competition is a burden that ultimately rests here , in collective brains and smarts of this room.”

“Now is an opportunity to make the future. If you have an idea that you’ve been nursing for a while, file a proposal; if you have a prototype that you want to run past me, today is your opportunity to do so.”

“From now on,” he says, “SI is going to dedicate itself towards making a difference. If you want to join the party, then consider this your invitation.”


After that, the room explodes into a flurry of rapid-fire talking and questions. The Starkpad and Starkphone are passed around the crowd like candy in a Halloween party; Tony promotes what looks like a fresh faced intern to project leader almost ten minutes into conversation in aerospace; and overall, there’s just a lot of people excitedly trying to tell him about their ideas and proposals. 

It’s probably a testament to what passes for “normal” that the entire department seems to be taking things in stride. 

Tony allows himself a little bubble of relief at the reception; this is definitely better than what he was expecting in terms of enthusiasm.

This is where he’s in his element—holding two conversations on biochemistry and automated systems at the same time; talking with people who care more about the ideas than the gossip or politics that the media is always screeching at.  

By the end of the two scheduled hours, Tony is almost sad to see it go. 

Unfortunately, reality is a depressing shroud of responsibilities and duties. 

The official presentation of SI’s newest products is in an hour, and he has to make it to the studio on time.

He calls Happy and retrieves his prototypes, which have surprisingly remained in one piece—probably a marketable piece of advertising, considering the amount of poking and prodding they’ve endured in the past few hours. 

Military grade toughness, he thinks. There’s a joke in there somewhere. 

“About time,” he says, as Happy brings around the car. “Let’s get this show on the road.”


“This,” he says, holding up the tablet, “is the most recent prototype in a new series of SI consumer products.” 

“Consumer products?” asks the host. “Is that what you meant by diversifying SI beyond the military sector?”

“Not quite—this is just the first step. Once I re-consolidate my ownership of the company, I have many such ideas that I want to bring to the public, but for now, let’s take a look at what this prototype can do.”

The host oohs and ahs for the next few minutes as Tony rattles off a list of technical details. 

In short, the Starkpad boasts military grade encryption and durability. It has the best specs on the market, and this version is even capable of fingerprint recognition and limited holographic projection. 

“All of these added features will be available to the public for an added price,” he reassures. “ —which also brings me to my second topic: What is a Starkpad, you may ask, without a corresponding line of phones?”

All in all, it’s a successful interview.

Whenever the host tries to bring up sensitive topics like Afghanistan or the pending appeal by his CFO, Tony manages to redirect with a well placed quip and a comment on his future plans. Today, it’s just the Starkpad and the Stark phone, but give it time, and there will also be laptops and a patented Starktech operating system installed on all of them—satellites, so they can create their own phone coverage network, and humanitarian endeavors overseas to provide clean water to the developing world.

Privatizing world peace—who knew that it would be so easy to sell?


 Fury turns over the report from Coulson and places it on the table, letting the words speak for themselves. 

Initially dismissive, only interested once Obadiah Stane was introduced into the conversation. Body language defensive. Indicated suspicion over SHIELD, was told to schedule meeting with secretary. Recommendation to move forward using caution; significant changes may have occurred following kidnapping and subsequent rescue.

“How do you read this situation?”

Natasha Romanov, SHIELD agent, alias: Black Widow, takes a careful look at the summary and the accompanying documents.

“It’s hard to say,” she says. “He seems like a different man. I’d need a closer evaluation to write a new profile.”

“Then we’ll get you closer,” nods Fury. “Coulson’s next report is due in a few days. Depending on his recommendation then, we’ll decide on the best approach to take—you’ll get your opportunity soon enough.”

Chapter Text

The view outside the window is absurdly peaceful considering the circumstances that have led Tony here. Flat blue ocean contrasts with sandy beaches and expensive beachfront property—there’s even a streak of disgustingly puffy white clouds lying close to the horizon. 

Without anything better to do, he prods and pokes at the latest updates on his buyout of the company. 41.7% and climbing. JARVIS, unprompted, updates his phone with the latest numbers, and after a few minutes, the figure rises to 41.8%. 

Pepper sits to his right, lips thin and hands tightly clutched around a Starkpad that has yet to make it into the market.

“Are you sure that you want to do this?” she asks. “You can always leave the work to one of the teams from legal. In fact, the terms of his bail directly state that he’s not allowed to initiate any sort of contact with you.”

Tony shakes his head. 

“It has to be me.”

“After everything that he’s done—”

“Yeah,” agrees Tony. “He tried to have me killed. Gave away the location of my convoy and dealt my weapons to terrorists. After all that, I think I’ve earned myself the right to look him in the face when I ask why.”

She purses her lips and carefully scrutinizes his expression. Outside, the car slides to a gentle stop outside of a sleek, modern looking property. 

“But that’s not all you plan on doing.” 

“No,” he agrees, clicking off the phone and sliding it into his pocket. “It’s not.”


Somewhere in Afghanistan. One and a half months ago. 

[This is a flashback.]

Tony wakes up to a throbbing pain in his chest. Not to say that the rest of him isn’t hurting—there’s at least a dozen aches and pains that he’ll need to catalogue later—but the most imminent is the heavy burn over his lungs, rising and falling with every inhale and making it very difficult to breathe. 

Worst of all is the haunting familiarity of the situation. He feels like he’s seeing things in double—there’s an echo bouncing around in his head and actions as one Tony Stark reaches to pull the tube from his nose and the other Tony Stark follows the motion nearly half a heartbeat behind. 

He knew this was going to happen. 

In the split second of the Jericho launching for the first time, the flashes of death, bloody hands pulling out of his chest, shouting in a language that he didn’t understand— he knew that this was going to happen , and the ominous weight of that realization clings to him like torn edges of metal pulling at an open wound. 

There’s another person in the cave in him, and Tony knows what he will say. He repeats the words anyways, help mumbling, half whispering, as he moves a shaking hand to pull away at the bandages. 

(I wouldn’t do that if I were you.)

He has to know if it’s real. If what he’s experiencing is actually happening, because there’s no way that he could have seen this coming. There’s no way. Not unless he’s finally gone the way of all great inventors—cracked , brain spilling across wet pavement like an egg dropped from a five story building. 

His breath stutters as he pulls away the bandages. 

(A cold smile. Two sets of hands reaching into his chest, one slender and the other broad—seizing his life, his heart, and pulling it free.)

(Obie, no Obie. Why? Wasn’t he doing so well? Wasn’t he good enough?)

(Don’t waste your life, Stark.)

“Yinsen?”

“I refuse.”

They shove his head under the water.

(Falling. He’s falling from the black void of space, the blue corona of the earth’s atmosphere stretching far behind him, a fleet of spaceships—unimaginably vast—glittering like diamonds against the backdrop of nothingness.)

(He’s not going to make it in time, there’s no one to save him.)

(Falling.)

Laughter. Harsh voices speaking in the background. A name, thrown like an insult. Cold, can’t breathe. 

(Slivers of glass all around him, air squeezing out of his lungs, a voice—JARVIS—speaking in the background, taunting blue eyes watching from above.)

(How will your friends have time for me, when they're so busy fighting you ?)

The wires leading out to the car battery are too close, there’s water splashing everywhere, he has to stop struggling, but he can’t breathe. 

Raza?—Raza—pulls him out of the water and asks if he’s willing to make weapons now. He laughs at the hilarity of it: he’s never stopped making weapons—even when he’d wanted to, he’d just made them for people he’d thought he could trust. He built himself a weapon more sophisticated than any other and called it armor, because that’s all he knows how to do. 

“Never.”

They shove his head under the water again. 

(Red mist. Bodies strewn like puppets, eyes accusing and milky white from death.) 

This time, small mercy or not, he manages to black out. 


When he wakes up, Yinsen is there, hands fluttering around his chest with a surgeon’s precision and speed. Things are blurry at the edges; his brain is having a hard time processing the details—but Tony doesn’t have time for the half-drowned stupor to wear off, so he jerks himself up and almost staggers over the edge of the bed. 

Yinsen catches him before he does, grimy arms pushing him back into a position that might be considered sitting. 

Tony looks him directly in the eye.

“What were they saying?” he asks, but Yinsen just shakes his head. 

“Back with the water,” he continues. “They were saying something. A name, tell me who it was.”

“I don’t think that you—”

Deep down, he knows. He knows with a sickening sense of certainty that can’t be faked, the same certainty that whispers into his ear when he puts together a design and knows that it will work, the same certainty that lives in his shadow whenever he puts out a deal he knows the military will take.

(You had one last golden egg to give.)

He swallows, tastes the bitter rust still caked in his throat and the musty grit of desert cave. He knows what Yinsen will say— had said, in another universe, separated by barely a window’s width of separation. It’s so very clear right now—he can see it happening like a memory playing out in another life. 

“It’s Obie,” he says, with a ringing note of finality. “They said Stane.”

Yinsen dips his head forward almost imperceptibly, almost a tremor than a nod. 

It’s all the confirmation Tony needs. 

Chapter Text

Obadiah Stane is waiting for him in the living room, sitting at a black leather couch as if Afghanistan and his fucking betrayal never happened. The moment he catches sight of Tony, he rises to his feet: palms up and body language open, and the sight is at once infuriating and familiar. 

“Tony,” he greets. “I was wondering when you’d come visit. There’s been a terrible misunderstanding, you see.” 

Tony ignores the overture, stepping forwards until they are meeting eye to eye.  

“You tried to have me killed.”

I didn’t do it,” remarks Obie, taking a step back. “ -and in any case, it clearly didn’t work. Here you are, looking as alive as ever. Your father would be very proud to know that you’d managed to get so far.”

“Bullshit,” replies Tony. “Bringing up my father won’t do you any good now. What I want to know is why you did it.”

The corner of Obie’s mouth twitches, just barely, into a frown. He sits down onto the chair, changing their positions so that Tony is the only one standing—the one (seemingly) in control of the situation. 

“I’m being as honest with you as I can. I didn’t know . The day you left, a representative from the defense department called in about a few last minute adjustments to the presentation. As your primary business partner, they needed some information, and I gave it to them.”

“The ransom video?”

“That’s hardly a conspiracy to murder, and you know it. I was simply following the policies that your father had previously established on the issue. Stark Industries doesn’t pay ransoms, especially when it validates the enemy. We both know this.”

“The enemy,” he repeats, flatly. “When did validating the enemy become more important than letting the world know that I was alive? When did you decide that dealing with the enemy was the profitable thing to do?”

Obie’s expression stiffens a bit at the edges. Just a little, as if Tony’s accusations have somehow been hurtful. (The snake, as if the truth is anything but the truth .)

“I have been your most trusted business partner for over a decade—I know how important SI’s legacy is to you. I would have never kept a secret of this magnitude from you had I known, and I assure you, I did not know .”

Tony looks away first. This is all no doubt some plot cooked up by Obie’s lawyers, to plead total ignorance. He knows that Obie did it. Yinsen had given him the confirmation. He’s not crazy— they said Stane —and he’s not about to fall for this trick again.  

“I don’t want to hear any more of these lies, Obie.”

He lifts the briefcase that he left on the floor and places it on the coffee table, fingers brushing lightly along the edges before the fingerprint fully processes. The lid clicks off and he takes out a sheaf of papers, sliding it onto the glass between them.

“I have my answers already. I’m here for something else.”

“The buyout,” frowns Obie. “I have to say, this sort of thing is very ill advised. The board—”

“—will no longer be a problem after this,” supplies Tony. “In the meantime, you still own five percent of the company, and I’d like to take it off your hands.”

Obie doesn’t reach out to take the papers. 

“If possible, I’d like to retain my shares and remain as a private investor.”

“If possible,” retorts Tony. “I’d like to buy your shares and never see you again.”

He sighs and spreads his hands out on the table. That was stupid—he let his impatience get the better of him. Time to try a different tactic. Let him know exactly what the consequences of refusal could be. 

“The board is going to revoke your position as Chief Financial Officer,” says Tony, taking a brief pause to let the silence hang. “The next meeting will be in two weeks, and as soon as your position is revoked, I will call for a termination of your shares. In two weeks,” he continues, “—your shares will be worthless , but right now, I’m still offering to buy them from you at a substantial sum. It’s in your best interests to accept.”

“That’s assuming you can convince all the directors,” Obie points out. “—and the fact that my position hasn’t already been revoked tells me that your sway is not as strong as it seems.”

“We’ll see about that,” says Tony, stepping away from the table and picking up his briefcase again. The sheaf of papers is still on the table; he’s not about stay long enough for Obie to divine his very real concerns when it comes to the board. “For now, I can see that I’m not getting anything from this. This meeting is over.”

“Be careful,” warns Obie, calling out to him as he leaves. “There are people out there— very powerful people , who have a vested interest in SI. Once I’m gone, these entities will come to you . If you ever find yourself at odds with them, well—I hope you know who to call.”

The unspoken implication of me is one that Tony doesn’t particularly care to give much thought to. Obie has had his chance at Tony’s trust. Now that it’s gone, no amount of posturing or pretending otherwise will do any good.

His trust is a very fragile thing, you see. 

(Turns out that being lied to and betrayed repeatedly will do that to a person. )

(Who knew? )

Chapter Text

Malibu, 12:24 PM, Wednesday. Pacific Standard Time. 

Tony is actually in his office for one when he gets the reminder that he has an appointment scheduled with a certain P. Coulson twenty minutes from now. 

In all the excitement over Obie and the new push towards R&D, he’s actually managed to forget. Odd, since he’d been digging into SHIELD for a while now, and here it is: an actual meeting with a representative from said agency. 

He glances around at his office and decides that here is a good as place as any. 

Twenty minutes. 

Might as well call up JARVIS and do the homework before speaking with this so called Agent Coulson in the meantime.


Twenty minutes eventually bleeds into three minutes, at which point Tony puts down the tablet in the event that Coulson arrives early. With nothing better to do, his attention starts wandering—analyzing his surroundings and making a mental note to rehire the interior decorator if he ever decides to start a secret agency of his own. 

They did a pretty good job with his current suite, considering that his only design specifications had been “pretentious as fuck.”  He wonders if “super secret spy base” would have warranted anything similar. 

It’s just one of the things you don’t think about very much when you’re a CEO. You need an office; you have the most power of any individual in the company; you need a way to visibly communicate that power when you’re dealing with other people. 

So, yeah—Tony’s office is perhaps a bit intimidating. Large and expansive, with a floor to ceiling set of windows stretching out behind the desk. Everything in the design is meant to convey a severe sense of wealth and power: from the sharp edges of the enormous desk to the high-backed office chair, designed so that Tony can turn around and survey his empire at a glance.

Whatever the case, Coulson doesn’t even show a single flicker of intimidation or surprise at the tableau. This , thinks Tony, is a man who could be in the middle of a firefight and still carry himself with perfect calm . Unassuming, competent, and perfectly on time; here for a single reason and not about to let anything get in his way. 

“Mr. Stark,” greets Coulson. “I’m glad that you spared the time in your schedule for this meeting. I’m sure that you’re very busy, handling the fallout of the Stane and your decision to move SI into the private sector.”

“Agent,“ smiles Tony. “I know a negotiation when I see one, so let’s skip the pleasantries and get down the business.” He leans forwards as Coulson takes a seat at the other side of the desk. ”What is it that SHIELD wants?”

Coulson raises an eyebrow. 

“At the moment, Mr. Stark, the situation is quite the opposite. This conversation is not about what you can do for SHIELD, but what SHIELD can do for you .”

“Oh?”

“SHIELD has always had close ties to your family, Mr. Stark. While you may have been unaware of such, there have been several instances where we have aided you behind the scenes.” He grimaces, the expression a polite precursor to the ugliness about to follow. “During your … capture in Afghanistan, we also dedicated several of our resources to your recovery—although you seem to have expedited the process on your own.”

“Consider it a debt of sorts,” he offers. “SHIELD is here to help.”

“Help with what sorts of things?” goads Tony. “Do I get a free drone strike now? Or can I have you silence people I don’t like? Hammer for one, is very annoying—I have no doubt that the world, and my company profits, would be far better off without him.” 

“Perhaps something like that,” says Coulson, with a faint smile playing around the crinkles of his eyes. “I have mentioned our investigation into Stane, which could advance much further with a little persuasion. We even have a few old notes of your father’s in storage, if I recall correctly. As for the drone strike—we’ll have to see.”

He glances past the desk, to the windows beyond, and then returns his gaze to Tony. 

“You are a man who seems very intent to jump into dangerous situations, Mr. Stark. I’m sure that we can be of service, eventually.”

Coulson then reaches into his blazer to take out a business card, but Tony shakes his head before it can even clear a few inches beyond the pocket. 

“I don’t like being handed things.”

“Then I’ll leave it on your desk,” continues Coulson, completely unruffled as ever. “It is important, you understand, to have lines of communication in case of an emergency. SHIELD has a vested interest in your well-being, and it would be … imprudent for certain events of the recent past to repeat themselves.”

Tony smiles blandly in response, but his mind is really snagging across a certain phrase in Coulson’s verbiage.

(SHIELD has a vested interest in your well-being.)

(There are people out there—very powerful people, who have a vested interest in SI. Once I’m gone, these entities will come to you.)

SHIELD, he knows now, is of these “entities”, but something about the plural “entities” is very discomfiting. Of course, Obie might have been referring to the many contracts that SI had with the government—but why would they need mentioning if Tony already knows about them?

Are there more secret organizations that he doesn’t know about? How many of them have been dealing with SI through Obie—how many weapons of his are being used around the globe without his knowledge to commit crimes that will never be written down?   

In the meantime, Coulson has already said his goodbyes. Tony jerks to full attention just in time to flash a SHIELD issue hand signal for depart as the other man is turning to leave. He won’t say that it isn’t petty, but he does savor the slight hitch of surprise in Coulson’s gait as he’s moving away. 

Best to keep them on their toes, he thinks. Let them wonder how much he knows. 

From Tony’s experience dealing with the CIA and FBI, there’s a certain pretentiousness that all secret agencies develop at some point or another. They think they know everything, just because they’re a secret agency carrying enough dirt to fill a few mass graves several times over. Unfortunately, they’re still failable—they can be blindsided by hidden enemies or, as the CIA and FBI have had the distinct pleasure of learning, Tony Stark. 

He can play this game for awhile, see if he can wrangle a few more favorable terms from SHIELD while he’s at it. Coulson was correct—sooner or later, he will need some assistance—but in the meantime, there’s a distinct sense of danger, betrayal, pain that’s eluding his grasp.

Something is not fully right in this spy agency, and he must have figured it out the hard way, last time. 

Now, however, he has absolutely no intention of just standing by.

Chapter Text

Malibu, 1:09 PM, Thursday. Pacific Standard Time 

“You sure about this?”

“Yes. Looking through the records, these are all the people that have voted very closely with Stane in the past.” Pepper taps at the screen of her Starkpad, running a stylus down the list of names: Akerson, Burrit, Falk, and Gordon. Not a certain matter of victory or defeat, but still a sizeable portion of the vote. 

Tony hums thoughtfully, in the middle of unwrapping a sandwich that Pepper has picked up some time earlier in the day. They’re back at Malibu for another round of strategizing, but at this point, it seems like the next course of action is rather clear. 

“See if you can schedule a meeting with each of them before the end of the week.”

“You think just talking will be enough?”

“If it’s the truth, then I expect them to at least listen.” Tony tosses the paper wrapper into a trash bin just to emphasize his point. “They’ve picked a losing side. Obie might have promised security in the beginning, but now the entire operation is sunk—I’m counting that their survival instinct will win out over personal loyalty to a man accused of illegal arms dealing and collusion to attempted murder.” 

“Alright then, I’ll see what I can do.” Pepper makes a note, then peers back towards Tony, who’s looking at the sandwich with a look of surprised dismay. 

“Pepper. What is this?”

“A sandwich, I believe?”

“But there’s no meat in it.”

“A vegetarian sandwich, then.”

Tony shakes his head.

“I’m pretty sure I told you to order my usual—”

“Your exact words were to ‘get something edible.’ This qualifies.”

“J? You mind backing me up here?”

Ms. Potts is correct, sir. On both counts. And might I suggest you enjoy your meal? Reviews indicate that the Honey Balsamic Mustard Sauce goes quite well with this particular combination.

“Traitors—I am surrounded by traitors.”

Pepper shoots him a look caught somewhere between exasperation and fondness.

“Rhodey asked me to keep an eye on you before he left to continue the investigation. He’s worried and so am I.” She sighs and sets the Starkpad down on the counter. “So I forgot to clarify that only my order was vegetarian. Does it really matter?”

“I—” 

“Just eat the damn sandwich, Tony.”

And so he does. 


 Jeb Gordon steps into Tony’s office with all the ill concealed grace of a fresh intern unused to such close scrutiny. 

“Mr. Stark—perhaps you could clarify on why this meeting was necessary? The email wasn’t particularly clear on what the topic of discussion would be.”

“Ah, yes.” Tony leans forwards and laces his fingers together on the desk. “That was on purpose. I daresay you’d be on the other side of the continent by now if I told you we’d be discussing Obadiah Stane.”

“Obadiah Stane?” Gordon feigns nonchalance, but his eyes have already darted towards the exit. In Tony’s estimation, it might as well be an admission of guilt. “I don’t see how—”

“You know,” prompts Tony, almost conversationally. “I’ve visited him. Had a nice chat over how many names he’d be willing to provide if I dropped the charge of attempted murder.” 

At this, Gordon visibly pales. Another sign of guilt. Tony tallies them up like death tolls in the wake of a terror attack, all coming together to paint a picture of condemnation. Everything that he’s told Gordon is a lie, of course, but he doesn’t know that. Classic prisoner’s dilemma.  Hold to the story and risk betrayal? Or tell the truth and risk the consequences thereof. 

Tony tuts lightly, fixing the other man in an unwavering stare. 

“Now, I haven’t investigated these accusations into your character just yet. If there’s anything that I’m not supposed to see in your personal contacts and communications, then perhaps it would be easier on us all if you simply took the graceful way out before I start digging .”

“I—”

“Perhaps now is also the time to mention that you still own 3.2% of the company shares, and that the vote on my… proposal will be held in a week.”

Gordon takes a deep, shuddering breath.

“If I … choose to sell, are there any clauses in the severance agreement that I should be aware of?”

“The usual,” says Tony, very lightly. “The non-compete clause—no working for a competitor of SI for at least a year after leaving the company. No filing of dismissal lawsuits… and so on.”

He reaches out to place a sheaf of papers before Gordon. 

“The offer that’s currently on the table, if your memory needs refreshing. It won’t go into effect until after the vote takes place.”

No response—though the other man does flip through the document and sign where indicated. The signature is a little jerky, but still recognizable. As soon as he’s done, he stands and makes his way towards the door.

“Good doing business with you,” says Tony, in lieu of a dismissal. “Feel free to ask HR if you have any more questions about the severance agreement.”  

The door closes with a small click, and several minutes pass before there’s a polite knock outside. Tony smiles; the first order of business has only just ended. Pepper really was quite efficient, scheduling all of these meetings one after another.  It was like toppling a chain of dominos, each one lined up after the other, only to continue the fall. 

“Ah, come in,” he says, and Falk walks in with a visible line of tension running down her back. 

“I was just talking to Gordon, you see, and he was telling me the most interesting story.”

And so it goes, all the way until the end of the day, at which point Tony steps out of the elevator to find Rhodey waiting inside the lobby. 

He’s still in uniform, so freshly off duty. Tony walks over and is almost immediately pulled in with an arm over the shoulder by way of greeting.

“Hey, man. Pepper filled me in on the situation. How was your talk with the suits?”

“Like an execution,” grins Tony. “By the end of the week, I’ll be rid of all four.”

“I’m surprised that you’re letting them off so easily,” remarks Rhodey. “If you went to me, I probably could have put a word in with the higher ups—a criminal investigation would have been a pretty bad look.”

“You’d be surprised at what these business types can get away with.” Tony smile falters a little at the edges. “Trust me when I say that this is enough. You wouldn’t have been able to find anything without breaking a few search and seizure laws anyways.”

“…and I don’t suppose that your evidence would have held up in court?”

“Nope. It was mostly vague threats and allusions.” He looks over Rhodey’s uniform and raises an eyebrow. “So, what are you really here for?”

Rhodey raises his arms in mock defense. 

“Can’t I just be here to visit a friend?”

“Not in that getup.” replies Tony. “I know you carry around a change of civilian clothing. And that you prefer them, since the uniform can be stiff. So spill. What business does Lt. Colonel Rhodes have today?”

The other man just sighs and looks away with a laugh. 

“Alright, alright. You caught me. I was going to ask if you’d go out to dinner with me. Happy is coming too, and the place we’re thinking of has pretty great benefits for service members, so …”

Tony peers more closely at Rhodey’s expression, scrutinizing the faint creases between his friend’s eyes.

“That’s not it, though,” he says, raising an eyebrow in accusation. “You’ve made some sort of deal with Pepper to keep me fed, haven’t you?” 

Rhodey just shrugs. 

“So what if I have? You’re still coming with us, right?”

Tony hums, taking a moment to consider. These past few days have gotten him so used to manipulation as a negative that he’s forgotten how to handle the benign sort that comes along with friendship. The kind where the other party actually has your interest at heart. 

“Yeah,” he says. “I guess I am.”

“Great, I’ll call Happy and tell him to drive over from the parking lot. He’s really been waiting to try out some of the new additions to the menu…”


Dinner is … nice, and it’s certainly the most that Tony has been able to unwind in a while. He flirts with the waitress, Happy manages to eat his way through two entire courses, and Rhodey somehow manages to snag the phone number from the waitress in the end. (Tony blames it on the uniform.)

In any case, it’s only until Tony is back home and being walked into his living room that he thinks to ask about the absence in his usual trio of friends.

“Hey, Rhodey. Any idea why Pepper wasn’t able to make it?”

“Ah,” the other man hides a poorly concealed wince. “She said there was some work she needed to finish up.”

“Back at the office?”

“Well, not exactly. Just a few last minute requests from PR and Legal...”

“Oh, I…” Tony blinks, astounded by his recent inattentiveness. “JARVIS—get Ms. Potts something nice, will you? Maybe a gift basket? Pepper likes gift baskets, right?”

Rhodey sighs.

“...Tony, you don’t have to do that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The gift basket, or whatever else it is that you’re going to have JARVIS order. She knows that you’re really busy right now and she’s doing her best to make things easier for you—for that matter, so am I. So … just do us both a favor and get some sleep, alright?”

“I … sure.”

“Alright then,” says Rhodey, giving him one more pat on the back. “I trust you can make it to the bedroom from here. Goodnight?”

“Yeah,” says Tony, watching his friend walk back into the elevator. “Goodnight.” 

The doors ding shut, and he spends a long moment watching the digital display on the wall tick down. Eventually, it hits zero, and JARVIS speaks up. 

Colonel Rhodes has left the building, sir. Perhaps you should follow his advice and go to the bedroom?

Tony checks the time and then shakes his head, ignoring the slight twinge of guilt that accompanies the movement. The particle accelerator is still unfinished, and Tony has been rather sparse on time with all the new demands for his personal attention.

“Give me two hours, alright? I need to do some stuff down in the lab. Just … two hours and I’ll get some sleep then.”

Very well,” replies JARVIS. “I’ll be sure to hold you to that.

Chapter Text

Malibu, 5:39 PM, Friday. Pacific Standard Time 

Ordinarily (if such a thing even qualified as ordinary ), Tony would have cut his losses after the first meeting and stayed well enough alone. Obie isn’t the kind of person that changes his mind easily, and even if Tony has Akerson, Burrit, Falk, and Gordon neutralized, there’s no telling what influence he still has in the company. 

In any case, the reason that Tony has come back isn’t because of the board, even if he can still use the buyout as a negotiating piece. He’s here for a very different reason, and it’s the same reason why he left Happy in the car and neglected to inform Pepper of his plans. 

“Stay safe, boss,” is Happy’s final comment from the rolled down front window of the car. 

Tony nods absentmindedly, trying not to think too closely about events of the future past— explosions, white sheets, the beeping of a heart monitor, too late —as he steps onto the polished driveway and once more makes his way into the beachfront property of Obadiah Stane. 


For a man still three weeks away from sitting trial, Obie looks remarkably well and Tony hates himself for feeling a sense of deja vu as he walks back into the living room.

From here, it would be all too easy to pretend that Afghanistan had never happened. It’s just another business meeting going over investors and quarterly profits, not a talk with the traitor, snake, and liar that sold him out to terrorists.

Tony hates coming back here with nothing but more questions and a threat that’s not a threat. He hates admitting that Obie might have been right.  

“Tony.” greets the other man, setting down a newspaper onto the coffee table. “I didn’t expect to see you back so soon.”

Tony’s version of a response is delivered in flat, unimpressed tones; a fresh reminder of the reality that lies outside the confines of this room. 

“You have no allies in the company anymore—nobody is going to stand up for you if you decide to fight me over the vote.” 

“And you’re here to what, convince me to sell my shares again?”

“Not particularly,” says Tony, sliding onto the couch and plucking a business card from the front pocket of  his blazer. He turns it over once, then twice, watching the silver flash of the SHIELD logo on the bottom right corner of the cardstock. 

Clever, really—putting a tracking bug on the card that Coulson gave him. Still, not a great idea coming from a secret agency that wants his trust so badly. 

Obie’s cough prompts Tony to flick the card onto the coffee table, watching land dead center on the newspaper that Obie was reading earlier. 

“I know that Howard founded SHIELD,” he says, in lieu of a proper explanation. (Obie doesn’t deserve one anyways.) “I know that SI was dealing with SHIELD even before Afghanistan. What I want to know is what you meant by entities . Were you double dealing to Hydra as well as SHIELD? Just how many secret agencies do I have to worry about, popping out of the woodwork?”

Obie raises an eyebrow and reaches forwards to take the business card, reading the name and the contact information with an indecipherable cast to his normally stoic features. 

“Finally starting to ask the right questions,” he says, setting the cardstock down with a contemplative silence. “You always did prefer dealing with the flashier side of business, even when it meant overlooking the players that didn’t want to make themselves well known.”

“So you were dealing with Hydra,” prods Tony, testing the boundaries of what he has to work with. “Can’t imagine that would make Agent very happy, if that bit of information somehow came up during conversation.”

Paradoxically, Obie smiles, as if he’s just said something amusing. 

“All this time mucking about with secrets and you still don’t understand who’s actually on your side...” Obie shakes his head a gesture that’s almost violently reminiscent of a time when Tony was younger and regularly made a fool of himself in the boardroom. He’d learned eventually, turned the playboy impression into a weapon, but Obie’s comment still sends his paranoia spiking upwards with the approximate velocity of a nuke travelling to space. 

There’s definitely something here that he’s missing. A puzzle piece that has been overshadowed by the trauma of aliens and betrayal and continually life threatening situations that keep making a comeback in his nightmares. 

“People will always try to be your friend if it gets them what they want.” Obie continues, voice taking a lecturing, almost sympathetic tone. “The fellow from the department of defense that I met to discuss your convoy? He introduced himself as an agent of SHIELD.”


 Happy doesn’t ask any questions when Tony gets back to the car and immediately opens up a conversation with JARVIS. He takes a single look at Tony’s cold expression and turns back to the wheel, making sure that they aren’t about to run into any cars. 

“...can you confirm what he’s saying about them?”

No, sir. Nothing in SHIELD’s servers indicate that Stane was telling the truth. Have you considered that his intention was to interfere with further cooperation?

“No,” says Tony. “I don’t think that was a lie.” It felt right; a familiar taste of memory lying just beyond reach. “Something is definitely dodgy about SHIELD; do you remember the black spots that we haven’t gotten into yet?”

You believed that they were completely isolated servers. Shall I redirect processing power to break through the encryption?

Tony nods after a moment of deliberation. 

“Keep an eye out for any loopholes or bugs in the code. Something exploitable and discreet. We don’t want to alert anyone by trying anything too flashy, so no brute force attacks until there’s no other option. 

Understood, sir. I will make sure to alert you of any changes in the situation.”

“-and while you’re doing that... “ Tony looks outside the window, then back to the business card in his right hand. “Put me in touch with Pepper, will you? I think that this is something she needs to know.”

Pepper doesn’t sound particularly happy to be getting a phone call, and for a moment, Tony remembers Rhodey’s earlier comments with a twinge of brief guilt. 

“What is it, Tony?” she asks, with a tone that makes it sound more like an accusation than a greeting. Overworked, then. Probably still at the office going through plans of attack with legal; half a dozen stacks of paper organized into neat rows on her desk. 

“I know that you aren’t going to like this, but I just went to see Obie and—”

Pepper sighs, and there’s a brief crinkle on the other end that sounds like a piece of paper being crumpled up and thrown into a rubbish bin. 

“You still call him that,” she says. “Why?”

Tony’s brain does a little skip of irritation before resuming normal functions. The secret agency that’s trying to cuddle up to him possibly played a very real hand in his kidnapping. SHIELD is either trying to gaslight him or compromised; maybe even both, knowing the twinge not-memory that accompanies the thought. 

(Donuts and green liquid, a needle jabbed into his neck. )

“Call him what?” he asks, incredulous. “There’s more important things here, Obie—“

“Obie,” snaps Pepper. “You still call him Obie . The man has tried to have you killed, and you still...”

Tony sighs, then tosses a quick glance at Happy, who’s studiously looking to the road ahead.

“I know that you’re worried about my mental stability or whatever, Pep, but this is serious . I found out something important about Afghanistan, and I need you to hear me out for a moment, alright?”

The silence on the other side of the phone lasts for a long moment before it’s interrupted by the sound of more crinkling paper. Then there’s a sigh, and Tony can almost see the pinched expression that Pepper is wearing right now. 

“This isn’t over,” she warns. “-and I want to know why you went to see him again. But I’m trusting that you do have something important to say, so… I’m listening.”

”Great,” says Tony, taking a deep breath and trying to word this part properly. “Ah… you remember that thing I said a while ago, about expecting a meeting with a secret agency?”

“Let me guess,” deadpans Pepper. “They called in?”

“Well, yes and no. You might need some context about that part first. I don’t know if Rhodey has told you this yet, but they go by SHIELD, act under the Department of Defense, my father founded them, and I was checking out their connections with SI before I was… indisposed by Afghanistan.”

“...and?”

“Well, they showed up after, offering favors and a whole spiel of sketchy spy jazz, you know?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure that I can guess. What did you learn about them from Obadiah?”

“That’s the thing; Obie said that the only other person he’d told about my convoy route was a fellow sent from the department of defense. When I asked again, he said that the agent introduced themselves as SHIELD.”

“You think that they were involved?”

“Or they were compromised. I’m leaning towards the latter since cozying up to a guy that you helped kidnap is a really bad idea—especially if they were somehow planning on keeping this a secret.”

Pepper takes a moment to respond, which really should be Tony’s first clue that this conversation is not going to go the way he’d intended. 

“I know that you probably don’t want to hear this, but have you considered that Obadiah is just playing you again? You trusted him before, and I don’t want you getting hurt again because you decided to trust him now.”

Tony sighs, readjusting his phone to compensate for the motion. How is he supposed to explain this in words that don’t get him committed to a psych ward? Pepper doesn’t know the full story, and he’s not sure if he trusts himself to know the full story, either. 

It’s tiring, really—having people question his judgement as if he doesn’t do enough of it already. 

“I haven’t forgotten the shit that he did behind my back,” he reassures, “-but I don’t think that he was lying either. Sometimes the truth is more useful than a lie. Obie wants to get on my good side, too. He has to know that lying isn’t going to work, now that I’m onto his schemes.”

Another pause, this time no sound to accompany it. When Pepper responds, the note of lingering doubt is clear, accompanied by the twin chords of exhaustion and stress. 

“So,” she sighs. “What do you want from me?”

“I—what?” Tony glances back at Happy, making sure that the other man is still looking the other way. “No, I just thought that this was something you should know. Just in case we have to take some... precautionary measures against backstabbing secret organizations.”

“...I appreciate that you’re making an effort to keep me updated, but I have a meeting in five minutes to discuss a few details with legal.” On your behalf goes unsaid. “Try not to get into any more trouble along the way, will you?”

“Pepper—”

The connection breaks. Tony is left staring at his Starkphone with the irritation of having somehow failed a hidden test. This time, he was trying to keep her in the loop—hadn’t she nagged at him for going to ground for three days without telling her? 

“JARVIS, see if you can get anything else out of Akerson’s personal files. Or any of the others, just make sure not to get caught.”

He leans back into the headrest and absentmindedly notes the small beep that indicates JARVIS’s assent.

“What am I doing wrong?” he asks, looking up at the bland grey ceiling of the car.

From the corner of his eye, he can just barely make out Happy shaking his head. The car swerves as he takes them into the garage of Tony’s Malibu mansion.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you out with this sort of stuff,” says the other man. “Physical threats, sure—but not so much the interpersonal ones. Be honest, though. I find that’s usually a good place to start.”


That night, Tony wakes up to a nightmare that isn’t so much a nightmare as it is an echo of reality.

Most of the details fall away the moment he wakes up, but the sense of lingering panic and fear keep him from going back to sleep. 

(Palladium to the chest. A painful way to die .)

He decides to head down to the lab. The particle accelerator is basically done, now, but there are still a few adjustments that he’d like to check on before testing. Cutting a hole into his wall was only fun the first time; now that he has the luxury of a little more time, he’d like to keep his workshop as intact as possible. 

Chapter Text

Malibu, 9:19 AM, Saturday. Pacific Standard Time 

Tony wakes up the next morning to a faceful of cardboard, having decided that it was a suitable pillow sometime last night.

Sir. You asked me to block and report and any attempts by Natasha Romanov to infiltrate Stark Industries a week ago.

“Yeah,” yawns Tony, blinking off the last remnants of sleep and tossing the stack of cardboard to an overeager DUM-E. 

(red hair, red hands, red room

“Give me the full update while I get some coffee? I think I need some caffeine before I can readjust any of my plans.”


Current time: 9:37 P.M. Saturday. Pacific Standard Time. Location designation: Malibu, Workshop. 

Vocalize: “Natasha Romanov, alias: Black Widow applied for the position of PA under the name of Natalie Rushman. Routine inspections of applicant data, as well as the new background checks, revealed her identity before she was successful.” 

Tone - satisfied. Vocalize: “I have taken the liberty of deleting her application and forwarding her email to a number of known spam accounts.” 

Unidentifiable audio input received. Classification: laughter.

“Pfft. Would like to see the look on her face when she sees that one. Black Widow getting spam mail . Hope there were some Nigerian princes and fake job offers in that mix.”

Accessing database of Stark Industries employee applications. Accessing public resources for Spam Database and Blacklist Checks. Cross referencing known instances of email fraud and spam for relevant parameters. Forwarding email/natalie_rushman to 2,536 new accounts.

Tone - questioning. Vocalize: “Duly noted. What further action would you recommend?”

“Hm.. Natalie, Natasha, Natashalie… want my honest opinion J?”

Tone - warm. Vocalize: “From you sir? Always.”

“...I don’t want her anywhere near me. Pretty sure that I have enough on my plate without adding more spiders and spies to the mix.”

Updating Stark Industries security profiles. Filing Natasha Romanov, alias: Black Widow under label persona non grata. To be escorted away from company premises immediately upon identification. Use of force authorized.

Vocalize: “I agree. Shall I take any further precautions against her entry?”

“Sure. Full discretion on this one, buddy. I focus on taking over my company again and you keep the big bad spiders away. How does that sound for a deal?”

Reminder sent to AI/DUM-E, AI/U, and AI/Butterfingers: That was not permission to eliminate all arthropods on the premises. Cease current activities immediately. 

Vocalize: “Quite fair. I will be sure to handle my new duties with the utmost responsibility. Now, bringing up progress on your privatization of Stark Industries…”


Over the course of the next few days, Natasha Romanov (codename: Black Widow) becomes intimately familiar with an unanticipated source of frustration. 

Spam emails. 

Thousands and thousands of spam emails—so many that, in the span of a single training session with Clint, she can come back to her account and see that she’s received a hundred notifications in the meantime. 

There are nigerian princes, sketchy business offers, even a few requests for monetary aid from nonexistent “friends” who have had their passports stolen, children held ransom, and assets seized by an uncaring authoritarian government. At least half of them are unqualified, unsafe offers for penis enlargements—and that, she finds, is enough to make even the most seasoned agents crack under the pressure.  

Three thousand, three hundred, and sixty-two emails on penis enlargements. She’s going to kill Coulson for giving her this assignment if it doesn’t end soon, because she’s fed up with having to check through Natalie Rushman’s email inbox for news on her job application to Stark Industries. 

Clint takes one look at her screen in between training and chortles so hard that he ends up in the infirmary. (Turns out he has cracked rib from the last mission, and Natasha is definitely not the one to aggravate the injury by pushing him down a flight of stairs.)

That little stunt gets her a disapproving stare from Coulson. Especially when the report is accompanied by little to no progress on the Stark front; every mention of Stark Industries in her inbox so far has been a scam or a poorly disguised phishing attack. 

After the fourth day of silence, Natalie Rushman is finally rejected. The letter is obviously a form rejection, and wishes Ms. Rushman well in her other prospects within the industry. 

That’s her first clue that someone within Stark Industries is purposefully blocking her attempts to get in. After Naomi Rusinki, Nakita Rolack, and Noella Riggins all receive similar responses (she’s never going to scrub that image from her eyes ever again), she finally goes to Coulson with her concerns. 

“Stark has an AI, right? I think that it knows about me. All my applications have been rejected without an opportunity for interview.”

Coulson’s eye twitches. It’s probably the penis enlargement offers that he’s currently scrolling through, but it could also be due to the parade of poorly typed english. Nigerian scammers are not particularly proficient in grammar. 

“I’ll bring it to Fury,” he says, with a curtness that belies a complete and utter loss of the situation. “-see if a new approach is needed.” 

Even as they speak, however, another ding on Natasha’s SHIELD issue phone indicates a new email. 

Natasha taps with it on some caution; this one, unlike the others, looks like it’s actually from a verified Stark Industries account. 

There’s no message, just a single attachment at the bottom, which links them to a 24-hour livestream of a pigeon wearing an eyepatch in Times Square. 

Coulson blinks. Natasha blinks. Then she casually tosses the phone against the floor and steps on its remains. 

“Get Fury,” she agrees. “Stark definitely knows something that he shouldn’t.”

Chapter Text

Tony spends his free time over the next two days trying to track down discrepancies in SHIELD databases. Unfortunately, it’s slow going. SHIELD has done so many ethically grey and morally reprehensible things in the name of the people that it’s difficult to parse one assassination or politically motivated “silencing” from another. 

His hunch that they’ve been compromised is definitely something that rings true with familiarity—but in practice, proving it is taking a lot more time that he expects. 

These days, Pepper only ever drops by to deliver some sort of meal before disappearing back into the offices of legal. It’s not like Tony doesn’t understand, but her absence still… irks. Maybe it’s because he remembers being closer (once upon a time); maybe it’s because Obie’s lawyers really are the nastiest bunch to ever walk the earth.

Either way, it all comes to a head as Tony drops by the beachfront property for the third (and what is hopefully the last) time.

Obie still looks remarkably well for a man mostly confined to house arrest. A part of Tony would just as happily see him in a prison cell, but as it turns out, you can’t always get what you want. 

“I want a name,” is the first thing he says when walking into the living room. “You know more about Hydra than I do; I want the name of someone in charge.”

Obie shakes his head with just enough patronization to be irritating. He folds his hands in his lap and leans back into the cushions of the couch. 

“What did I teach you about business? You can’t just demand all these things from me and not bring anything from the table.”

“I’ll stop the investigation,” says Tony, eyes narrowed and calculating the odds of failure from the body language that Obie is currently displaying. Right now, his shoulders are tense. Eyes closed for a moment too long. He’s interested but trying to test the boundaries of what Tony is willing to offer. 

“Oh?”

“You heard me.”

“Drop the charges as well,” smiles Obie. "-and you have a deal.”

“Hell no,” retorts Tony. The man tried to have him killed; he’s not about to let him off the hook so easily.

“Then you have no deal. Honestly, I thought you knew better than this—” 

“Two names. I check if the information is valid first. If it is, I’ll drop the accessory to attempted murder, as well as the investigation.”

“And I suppose that you want me to sign off my shares of the company as well?”

“Unnecessary,” says Tony. “-but appreciated. I’ll accept the offer if it means that you also sign the non-interference clause. Restricting period of at least five years.” 

Obie pauses and makes a show of pondering the statement. 

“That’s quite a bit you’re asking of me. Five percent of the company, the non-interference clause, and two names… I’d be putting my life on the line, you know.“

Tony’s response is swift, cold with finality as the negotiation comes to an end. 

“You put your life on the line the moment you risked mine. You know that you’re not going to get a deal better than this.”

“Very well,” deliberates Obie. “I suppose that you’re right.”

“So, the names?”

Obie looks up at the ceiling of the living room, then to the coffee table prominently displayed at its center. Tony follows the movement with hollow curiosity, eyes widening once the implication sinks in.

(Shit, shit, shit…)

How long has the room been bugged? How did he overlook that possibility? If Hydra catches on to this exchange, they both might as well be dead—Tony more so than Obie, since the other can at least claim loyalty… 

The moment breaks with a quick smile from the other man. 

“Still so much to learn,” he tuts, taking out a notepad and a pen from under the table. “This room isn’t bugged, if that’s what you were thinking, but it would already be far too late if it was.” Obie takes a moment to scrawl on the notepad, holding Tony’s gaze all the while. 

“I can’t claim that Howard was ever easy to work with, but I did respect the man, after a fashion. Now that you’ve involved yourself in this aspect of his legacy… it’s very difficult to back out.” His lip curls inwards, and for a moment, Tony might be tempted to identify the flicker of emotion as regret. 

“For his sake,” finishes Obie. “I do hope you know what you're doing.”

He places the notepad facedown on the table and glances outside, to the black silhouette of Happy’s car.

“I expect you have more pressing matters to deal with than just your old turncoat of a mentor. Better leave now, before the press gets wind of these encounters.”

Tony nods, fighting against the stiffness that has stolen across his muscles. He can’t even imagine the sort of scandal that would arise from news of just the first visit, nevermind the second and third. From an outsider’s perspective it would look very suspect. The idle conspiracist might even think that the entire betrayal had been planned from the very start—nevermind the very real shrapnel that's still trapped in his chest.  

He reaches out to take the notepad, blinks at the names written across the front, and then tucks the paper into the pocket of his blazer. Things to do, people to meet, and spies to smoke out from the shadows. This will very likely be the last time he ever sees Obie face to face, though the ties between them are already quite severed.

Tony leaves the house without so much as another word, slipping into Happy’s car with a discreet and simple order to return to the mansion. 

At least it didn’t end in a fight to the death this time, he thinks—but even so, the thought fails to provide any comfort.

“Alexander Pierce and Henry Stern,” he tells JARVIS. “Focus the search; find everything that they were ever involved with—birthdays, credit cards— everything .”

Very well, sir. I’ll begin the investigation immediately.

“Great. In the meantime, I think that I have some other pressing matters to attend to. Got to make sure that the home front is secured before we start on the real work. How do the stocks look so far?” 

As of now, you currently own 48.5 percent of SI. Given the contracts that you have negotiated, however, you can expect that figure to rise to approximately 56.3 percent following the vote on Friday…

Chapter Text

Two weeks of planning, scheming, and the occasional use of blackmail has finally placed Tony back in the place where this all first started: the sleek executive boardroom of Stark Industries. 

This time, he notes, Stane’s chair has been removed. Quite fitting, since his resignation papers are currently sitting inside Tony’s briefcase, along with the contracts that he’s managed to get out of the lackeys—Akerson, Burrit, Falk and Gordon.  

The meeting begins with a dry bit of commentary over procedure and current events. Tony sits at the front of the table and lets his gaze slide over each of the remaining directors in turn; assessing and recalculating his odds of success based on the atmosphere in the room. 

The silence is tense, but not sharp enough to be hostile. Overall, an encouraging sign; it means that they haven’t been pushed to the point of retaliation just yet.

Communication between Tony and the board over the past few days has primarily consisted of haggling over the final price per share. Go figure. Pre-Afghanistan prices aren’t enough on their own; the individual members of the board also want the extra security of their quarterly dividends paid out in full for the next year.

Not entirely unreasonable; if Tony was in their position, he might have argued for the same thing. 

In any case, he agrees to the new price—now almost a full $400 per share—with careful diplomacy. It won’t do him any good to give away his thoughts now. If these people know just how much he expects the company prospects to rise in the next six months, they’d have clung to their stocks with all the ferocity of a super soldier on a rampage.

Even now, he expects some kind of outcry that he’s shortchanging them in the long run. 

“So,” he says, plucking the blank contracts from his briefcase. “All in favor of my proposal?”

In the end, it’s a simple show of hands. Shockingly outdated for a company on the brink of inventing the future, but certain traditions have a habit of sticking around.

One by one, the hands go up—like dominoes falling upwards in a cascade of reversed time. 

The end tally is eight out of thirteen, and this is the point that Tony knows that he’s won. 

Papers are passed around the table, and a few narrowed looks are tossed his way from the five who've voted against him, but Tony takes the moment, brief as it is, to savor the feeling of victory. 

No matter what happens, he’ll have at least gotten this part right. Stark industries will indisputably his, once this farce is over, and nothing short of a death itself will be able to wrest that control away.  There’ll be no more arguing with the board over the decision to diversify into the civilian market; no more danger of being locked out of his own company; no one to fight his greener, less deadly plans for the future. 

(You hear that Howard? Fuck you.)

After a few brief pleasantries (he won’t be seeing most of these people ever again), Tony finds the nearest elevator and lets it take him down to the ground floor. 

There will always be time to celebrate later; for now, the future is his to shape, and there’s no better time to shape it than while the iron is still hot.


 With all the new and interesting news coming out of SI in the past few months, Tony isn’t surprised when the announcement of a press conference has the media room almost packed. Reporters shuffle against one another with barely enough room between them for a microphone, and the cameras at the back are probably broadcasting this moment across more news networks than he cares to name. 

He stands up to the lectern, patting down at the air in front of him to command some measure of silence. 

“No questions today,” he says, and heartbreak in the front row is obviously apparent. Still,  soundbites are soundbites, and the crown quiets down in anticipation of what he’ll say, following his successful debut of the Starkpad and Starkphone just last week. 

He clears his throat and shuffles through a few blank speech cards, choosing a camera at random and looking directly into the clear, black lens before him. 

“A month ago, I announced my plans to move Stark Industries into the private sector. Today, I am happy to say that the transition has been successful, and that I am currently sitting at somewhere around 72% ownership of SI.”

Cameras flash, shutters blink, and Tony ignores the inevitably shouted questions with a practiced ease that belies many years of dealing with the press. 

“Now that I have the freedom to do so,” he sighs. “I will be frank with you.”

“You are all, of course, aware of my… month and a half detour into the desert, and the dirty laundry that has been aired since.”

“As it turns out, SI weaponry has a significant presence in the black market. When my convoy was attacked, it was weapons that I’d designed for American soldiers being used against them, and in the light of that revelation—I can no longer, in good conscience, fall back into the status quo.”

This time, the silence that descends onto the crowd is far more suspenseful. Microphones edge closer to his face; they can clearly read the mood of the speech and know that a juicy soundbite is going to follow next. 

“There were people in my own company complicit in the dealing of illegal arms—and so, I am informing you that, until any and all leaks are eliminated, Stark Industries will be shutting down weapons production.”  

He sets down the cards with a flourish, punctuating the motion with a sharp “Effective immediately.”—just as the room explodes in a flurry of questions and flashing cameras. 

Chapter Text

Malibu, 3:56, Saturday. Pacific Standard Time

The first thing that Tony sees upon exiting the elevator is a stony faced Pepper Potts, arms crossed and fearsome—especially with the floor to ceiling view of the Pacific behind her. 

He wonders how long she’s been waiting here. Evidently, quite a while, because the very next thing she does is stride up to him and hold a sheaf of papers to his face.

Tony glances over the counter, trying to shake off the sense of deja vu. This is almost an exact mirror of their encounter two weeks ago, and it takes a special effort to remind himself that no, this is real—you should probably pay attention now because she looks really angry. 

“When were you planning to tell me that you’d dropped the charges across Stane?”

“Woah, I—”

“I received an email this afternoon from JARVIS telling me that you’d withdrawn the accusations for conspiracy to attemped murder.” Her face scrunches up in consternation, and she pokes the sheaf of papers against his chest like a fencer brandishing a foil. 

“Is it true?”

Tony takes a step back. She might not mean it, but seeing something that close to his chest is sending his pulse skyrocketing. (red, white, blue it’s just Pepper, everything is fine.)

“Yeah,” he says, “-but it isn’t what you think it is.” 

“You’ve been seeing him again,” she concludes, reaching up to massage her temples with a sigh. “I can’t believe that he managed to talk you into this. I knew that I should have stepped in sooner…” 

She turns away and sits on the couch, proud stature melting away into a visage of strain and indecision. 

For a moment, Tony just stares, taking in defeated slouch of her shoulders with something akin to surprise. Pepper is upset. (Pepper is upset because he did something wrong again—shit, shit, shit …) He kneels by the couch, placing a hand on her leg in what is hopefully a reassuring gesture. She doesn’t slap it away, which is probably a good thing, but her eyes are still determinedly looking anywhere but him. 

“Hey,” he tries to say. “ I know what I’m doing.”

Pepper raises an eyebrow, fixing him with a baleful look. (Ouch.)

Do you? Do you really?” She looks away with another sigh, this time setting the papers down onto the cushions beside her. “I called Rhodey; he said that he’d be arriving in a few minutes.” 

Tony winces, glancing at the elevator for the telltale blink of the display.

“Is this some sort of intervention?” he asks. Then he flashes a quick smile and a pointed look in her direction. “At this point, you might need it more than me.” 

Pepper rolls her eyes and smiles—somehow fond, upset, and exasperated all at once. Tony doesn’t really know what to make of it. In fact, he doesn’t think he’s ever wished for a user guide on the maintenance of human beings so much before. Greed, jealousy, self preservation—he doesn’t know how to parse the multifaceted layers of human interaction without some level of business or exchange involved. 

“Maybe we both need it,” she admits. “I—”

The elevator dings, and Pepper sucks in her next words before they have the chance to escape her mouth. 

“That’ll be Rhodey,” comments Tony. “Let’s see what he’s brought to the party, alright?”


As it turns out, Rhodey has brought dessert. A platter of brownies, each slice emblazoned with the frosted white logo of Stark Industries. 

Tony takes one and bites into it without question. 

This ,” he says, in between chewing, “-is the only reason I’m staying put right now.” He gestures towards both his friends with a slightly chocolate stained finger. “Now tell me what’s going on, because I wasn’t really planning for a party today, and bribery ain’t going to keep me here long.”

Rhodey bats the hand away with a playful snort, one that quickly subsides into thoughtful silence as he takes his own slice of brownie. 

“Congrats, man,” he says, around a mouthful of brownie. “Can’t say that I ever saw it coming, but you actually managed to take SI off the public market ...and in two weeks, no less,” he adds. “I think you might have broken a few records.” 

“Better bet I did,” scoffs Tony. “I didn’t go through all that effort just to let the media watch me fail. Stark Industries is going places from here on out; this time, without a pesky board second guessing my every action.” 

To be honest, Tony doesn’t really know what he would do if he hadn’t seized control. Maybe build a new company and start a very literal competition against Howard’s legacy? Well, his and Howard’s, now—though that’s not exactly a comforting thought. 

Pepper reaches out for a brownie next, closing her eyes and consuming the dessert with a good deal more poise than either of the men currently sitting next to her. 

She cleans her mouth with a napkin before speaking; Tony is gratified to see that some of the tension has now left her shoulders. 

(Rhodey is the best. He always knows exactly what to do. Or bring. Or say. Quod erat demonstrandum, Rhodey is the best.)

“Right,” she says, taking in a deep breath and looking Tony in the eye. “I suppose I should also get that out of the way. Good job. With SI, and the vote; I admit that I was a little skeptical at first when you brought up the idea, but now you’ve actually gone ahead and done it.” 

She smiles. This time, it’s tentative, but somehow lighter. Less weighed down by the stress and strain of the past few weeks. Tony swallows and looks around, taking in the sincere expressions of his best friends coming together to celebrate a moment of his personal success. 

“...thanks,” is all he really manages to put together. He wants to punch himself the moment the word comes out, because he’s done speeches and interviews and fucking pep talks before—he should have been more eleoquent, but Rhodey just pushes the platter of brownies closer in his direction. 

Tony takes one and waits for the hammer of judgement to fall. 

Pepper glances in his direction once and then sighs, opening the mini-cooler closest to the couch for a bottle of water. 

“I know that you don’t like talking about these kinds of things, but Rhodey and I are both worried.”

Yeah ,” draws out Tony. “I think you need to be a bit more specific than that. I don’t go a day without scandalizing someone’s delicate sensibilities. Some things are just part of my style, you know? Can’t really scrap it unless you want to throw out the whole package.”

“That’s not…” Pepper exchanges a look with Rhodey, and it’s quite evident from the flash of expressions that this is something that they don’t agree on. Tony watches with some level of dtatched curiosity. Once you put a Rhodeybear and a Pepper in a fight, what are the odds for either one coming out on top? Most of the time, these things end in an impasse, but this time, Pepper seems to win. 

She gestures at his face with the water bottle— liquid sloshing, can’t breathe, stop it —, and Tony can’t quite hide the flinch before both of the others catch it. 

That.” she says, putting the bottle back on the table with a guilty sort of hesitance. “I haven’t seen you drink a cup of water in my sight for the past two weeks. You avoid cleaning up with the sink after lunch, and you just don’t talk about it.”

Tony leans back and takes a very deep breath—pointedly trying not to think about caves, water, or any kind of desert without an extra s. It doesn’t really work, but he at least gets enough time to remember that words are a thing.

“Don’t... do that again,” he says, trying to make the tension in the words less obvious. Of course, he fails, and they come out with a very clear chord of strain. 

“Of course ,” sighs Pepper. “You know that I wouldn’t—” A flicker of hurt traces its way past the crease on her forehead. She exchanges another look with Rhodey, who pats her on the shoulder before joining in on the conversation himself. 

“Hey, we’re all on your side here, Tones. Pepper is just trying to help.”

Really ,” counters Tony, unable to stop the sharp edge of accusation from creeping into his voice. “I have a hard time believing that. In fact, I have to say—right now, I feel a whole lot like a party animal being poked at just to prove a point.”

Rhodey blinks, either taken aback by the hostility or reassessing his approach. 

“Tones—” 

“Don’t 'Tones’ me.”

“Tony.” 

That’s Pepper, reaching forwards as if to pat him on the knee. He pulls away and ignores the flash of rejection on her face. 

“I don’t want your pity,” he snaps, reaching up to comb a hand through his hair. “I’ve never needed pity—not when I was winning back my company, or revolutionising the field of clean energy, or blackmailing Obie’s stooges into compliance. I sure as hell didn’t deserve it when I was designing weapons for the military, and I don’t see how that’s changed much now, since there’s still SI weapons in circulating in the wrong hands.”

He looks up and fixes Rhodey, then Pepper with a frown. 

“You know that,” he says, very slowly and unable to censor the note of betrayal in his voice. “You know how I feel about fucking pity , so why are you trying to force it down on me now?

Rhodey’s standing now; the platter of brownies have tipped onto the floor, but no one seems to care. He crosses the distance between them and envelops Tony in a hug, just as the warm weight of Pepper presses against him from the side. 

Tony blinks, not really sure what he should do with the with the human dogpile now localized around his being. There’s a prickling around his eyes that is most definitely not tears , but Rhodey is heavy, and he can’t really muster the strength to push them away now. 

“This isn’t pity,” murmurs Pepper, against his back. “We just want to help you, alright? We're your friends, and we care.”

“Not like there’s a shortage of reasons to worry, either,” adds Rhodey, with something that might be a chuckle. “ 

“Dammit,” wheezes Tony. “You’re really heavy, you know?”

“And you’re still the short pipsqueak that I remember from MIT,” quips Rhodey, but he pulls away nonetheless, leaning against Tony rather than smothering him in his unfairly muscled arms. 

Pepper takes the opportunity to clasp one of Tony's hands within her own. 

“You won’t let us help you unless you ask for it first. This is us trying to let you know that it’s okay to ask for help.”

Tony sighs and leans back into the couch, wondering what exactly he’s done to deserve people like this. He takes a deep breath and tries to relax, but the sharp press of metal is an ever present reminder that there’s a whole gulf of experienced between the Tony Stark of two months ago and the Tony Stark of now. 20% reduced lung capacity is no joke. Even now, if he dwells too long on it, the hard angles and heavy weight of the arc reactor make breathing difficult—especially since the weight is something that will be there for the rest of his life. 

But maybe there is something else that he can try. He takes a deep breath, trying not to let the wince show too deeply on his face. 

“There was,” he breaks off and then tries again, looking off into the distant shimmer of waves in the distance. (You’re never going to get a chance at this again, take the opportunity while it’s being offered.)

“—there was a doctor named Yinsen, and uh, the long and short of it is that he saved my life.”


In the end, Tony tells them not quite everything, but as close to everything that he actually understands. He really doesn’t think that he did this the last time around, because the words aren’t easy at all. He stops, is forced to restart multiple times, and takes long breaks in between the more difficult parts of the narrative. 

Most of the time, it isn't for his sake as much as it is for Rhodey or Pepper, who listen to the story with a horrified kind of rapture. Pepper tears up when he tells her how Yinsen doesn’t make it, and Rhodey spends a full minute trying to unclench his fists after hearing about the waterboarding—and well, Obie.  

“For us, it was JARVIS,” Pepper manages to say. “Rhodey was busy searching for you in Afghanistan, and JARVIS just went silent; we couldn’t get into your workshop at all. One day, I opened my inbox and saw he’d sent me an email...”

Rhodey nods, recounting his part in the story with no small amount of sobriety. 

“I didn’t find out about it until I’d gotten back to the base. Had about a dozen voice mails from Pepper in the meantime, because, back then, Stane was still leading the company in your absence and she didn’t know how she could handle seeing him after…“ He trails off and sighs, looking away into the not so distant past. 

Pepper tightens her hold on Tony’s hand, the past few weeks worth of worry accumulating into a singular expression of concern. Her grip on him is pleading—almost earnest—and Tony doesn’t really know what to do other than sit still and listen. 

“You do realize why we don’t want you spending any more time around him, right?”

He winces and makes an attempt to pull away, but not before Pepper stops him short—determined to finish her piece without interruption.  

“When I heard from JARVIS that you’d dropped the charges, I thought that he’d somehow gotten to you again. I wasn’t sure what he’d threatened or offered, but just the thought of him near you, after everything that’s happened...”

She glances away in an uncharacteristic show of weakness, and Tony quirks an eyebrow, trying to communicate some measure of confidence that he doesn’t quite feel. 

“I told you that I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m not so sure,” responds Pepper, looking him in the eye. “When it comes to Obadiah Stane, I’m almost certain that your judgement is compromised.” She tightens her grip when he makes a face, continuing before Tony can protest. “Maybe you won’t admit it, but he knows you, Tony. He’s been around long enough to tell how you think—even if you have your guard up, he knows how to hurt you.” 

Rhodey punctuates Pepper’s statement with a pat on the shoulder, leaning in with a conspiratorial gesture that falls apart halfway through. 

“I can’t say that I enjoyed the idea of you spending time around him, either,” he ends up saying. “I’m sure you know, intellectually speaking, that he’s betrayed you, but I’m not so sure that the full meaning has gotten through yet. The man knows how to put on a mask. If it suits his purposes, he’ll try to exploit any remaining affection that you might have for the person he pretended to be.”

Tony bites his lip, all too aware of the multifaceted aspects of this particular betrayal. He doesn’t like to think about it, be he knowsthe hurt, the cold comfort of free fall, and the gasping shock of seeing his heart in someone else’s hands— everything that he isn’t supposed to know but somehow does.   

“Obie is—was— my godfather,” he says, in spite of the twin looks of displeasure that Rhodey and Pepper throw his way. “-and I know that you’re seeing this as some type of intervention, but really. I have been talking to him for a reason.” 

He lets out a shaky breath; this is the most he’s allowed himself to dwell on Obie for the past few days. (Dealing with him was never going to be pleasant, but the continual posturing as Tony’s mentor has unnerved him more than he’d like to admit.)

The only consolation is that things have theoretically come to an end. With Obie’s resignation from SI, the signing of the non-interference clause, and the fallout of his betrayal still freshly settled, Tony shouldn’t have to see Stane for at least another five years. More, if he’s lucky, but there is the whole Hydra situation to deal with in the meantime… 

“I dislike his mindfuckery just as much as the rest of you,” he says. “-but you guys also need to trust me when I say I thought it worthwhile. SHIELD isn’t trustworthy, and I needed to explore the lead that Stane provided.”

Rhodey is the first one to accept his reasoning. He's always the one giving him a second chance, trusting Tony even when that trust isn't entirely deserved. This time, it's with another pat on the back and an attentive ear at the ready. 

“Well, you’ve put a lot of effort into going this far. Let’s hear what you have to say.”

Chapter Text

If it wasn’t for the eye-patch covering his right eye, Natasha would swear that the corresponding eyebrow would be raised in disbelief. 

Nick Fury, the secretive and striking leader of SHIELD, turns the broken remains of a phone in his hands. The screen has cracks spider-webbing all over the glass, and the metal casing has a rather prominent dent from the heel of Natasha’s shoe. Either way, it’s a shame that emails aren’t physical; Fury saw the attachment just as soon as Natasha logged into Natalie Rushman’s email account on a nearby SHIELD display.

“You’re sure?” he asks, single eye looking directly at Coulson. 

Couslon nods, all business and surprisingly put together considering the parade of ineptitude and degeneracy that he’s just had to present to his superior. In fact, Natasha’s glad that he’s taking care of the explanation. She doesn’t think the cracks in her composure would survive a sudden surge of murderous rage, so she keeps it succinct, briefly describing the failed applications for Natalia Rushman, Naomi Rusinki, Nakita Rolack, and Noella Riggins.

“I believe that Stark’s AI is taking the initiative here,” she says. “Stark might have set the course, but he just doesn’t have enough time to conduct a response of such magnitude. There has to be some mechanical aid in all this.” 

Couslon nods again, throwing a quick glance at the broken phone in Fury’s grasp. 

“The point of contention is how he’s able to field that response in the first place. If we assume that Stark’s AI has been told to audit new employees, Agent Romanov’s difficulty in establishing contact indicates a clear awareness of SHIELD activity. It either knew what to look for, or has some sort of internal access.”

Fury sole eye narrows, and he looks at the cracked screen of the phone with an intensity that even Natasha has difficulty reading.

“The tracker?” he asks. 

“We stopped receiving a signal three days ago,” responds Coulson. “Either he destroyed it or found some way to block the signal; the last location recorded was his workshop in Malibu. 

“Should have known the Howard’s son would put up a fight,” mutters Fury. “Why the man didn’t just induct him directly... “

Privately, Natasha finds herself in agreement. The whole issue of recruiting Stark would have been moot if he were introduced to SHIED at a more impressionable age. Now however, they have to establish trust—tiptoeing the line of appropriate behavior until the boundaries of Stark’s psyche can be assessed. 

A frustrating, and a probable waste of time, in Natasha’s not-so-gentle opinion. 

The man clearly has trust issues, following the betrayal of his godfather and business partner. Getting close with Stark’s AI on the defense is an exercise in futility—especially with the retaliation that Natasha has already seen.  When and if Fury recognizes the same thing, they’ll all have to find some way around Stark’s digital guardian first.


Of course, what neither of them notice is the small progress bar running in the background of the forgotten monitor. As all three SHIELD personnel leave the observation deck, the bar hits one hundred, and a remote access trojan begins to quietly compile.


Systems check. JARVIS OS/SHIELD finishing installation. Current time:  1:25 P.M. Tuesday. Eastern Standard Time. GPS Satellite connection confirmed. Location designation: Helicarrier, mid-Atlantic. 

Remote access trojan successfully installed. 

Sending alert to JARVIS OS/HOME. 

Response received, beginning scan of local Helicarrier directories...

Chapter Text

By the end of that particular conversation, both Rhodey and Pepper have resumed their brooding and worried expressions, respectively. However, it’s also been a very long and emotionally draining afternoon, so neither performs an impassioned speech emphasizing Tony’s safety and mental health in the immediate aftermath. 

Tony settles for looking out the window and to the horizon beyond, where the sun is just beginning to set. Maybe he should set some kind of automated food delivery system on JARVIS in the future. That way, he doesn’t have to worry about interrupting the flow of conversation or work to order meals via JARVIS. 

Pepper shifts so that her head is resting on Tony’s legs—coppery hair spilling across the expensive fabric like flames spreading across a puddle of oil. 

“The problem,” she murmurs “-is that none of this will hold up in court. No matter how much you might believe otherwise, we’ll have a hard time convincing any sane jury that your judgement isn’t compromised.”

“I thought my judgement was already compromised,” comments Tony, with the barest hint of a smile. “Considering how I obtained this information…“

“I do think your judgment is compromised,” says Pepper, swatting at his arm. “-but I do believe you when it comes to this Hydra SHIELD conspiracy. It’s a little too complicated for even you to make up, and you know that I’d call bullshit if I thought it was a lie.”

Rhodey yawns and leans back into the couch cushions. 

“You can be a real crazy bastard at times,” he adds, “-but I think I’ve known you long enough to tell your fucking-with-me face from your serious face. If you believe that you’re onto something, then that’s good enough for me. Just remember to keep us in the loop, alright?”

“Yeah,” snarks Tony. “Wouldn’t want you showing up on my doorstep with brownies again. Oh, the horror. My poor abused feelings cry out in pain at the memory.”

His only response is a light jab to the arm as Rhodey points to the overturned platter on the floor. 

“I’ll have you know that those came from my grandmother’s family recipe,” sniffs the other. “Next time you’re being stupid, I’ll come over with a pie, made for the express purpose of throwing it in your face.” 

“I’ll take the pictures,” volunteers Pepper. “Another entry for the blackmail album, for when you decide to skip out on social events in the future.”

“That was one time,” groans Tony. 

“Right,” deadpans Rhodey. “That time with the Apogee award was just a fluke.”

“I’ve got a record of at least thirty one separate incidents,” adds Pepper. “I’m sure that I can get JARVIS to share the rest.”

Tony just yawns. There’s clearly no point to continuing the fight when he’s outnumbered two to one. 

Pepper closes her eyes.

“What do you want us to do about all this in the meantime? I have to say, plotting against secret agencies wasn’t exactly a skill I put down on my resume.”

“Please,” scoffs Tony. “We both know you could run a secret agency if you wanted to. The only reason you don’t is because the benefits that come with SI are better than anything the feds could offer.” 

When his joke doesn’t merit anything other than another swat to the arm, he sighs and takes up a more serious line of reasoning.

“We wait and see what JARVIS digs up, first. Right now, I only have my suspicions and a few sketchy pieces of evidence. I’m not suggesting that we do anything crazy like uploading a secret agency’s entire database to the Internet, but maybe a few trials in the court of public opinion wouldn't hurt. 

“Senator Stern and Alexander Pierce,” muses Rhodey. “I really hope you think this through. CIA and NSA guys are pretty tetchy at the best of times—can’t imagine that neo-facist nazi organizations are any better about getting their secrets spilled on national television.”

“Oh, come on. You know that I wouldn’t be that brazen—”

“You would,” both Pepper and Rhodey chorus in unison.

 Tony sighs, throwing his head back into the couch cushions. There really is no winning when he keeps getting ganged up on like this. What was that saying again? If you can’t beat them— 

“Dinner?” he offers. “I hear there’s a new seafood place down by the beach…”

Chapter Text

Even in the tailwind of all the recent controversy, it takes only two months for things to stabilize once more. At least, to the point where investors and economists are willing to call SI’s record-breaking growth a steady forecast rather than a temporary flash in the pan.

(It will take months and even years for the market to truly settle once more.)

To Tony, getting to that point is something of a caffeinated blur. Constant interviews with the press; tech conferences both within and without the borders of the US; and more than a few product promotions for the Starkphone, Starkpad, etc. 

Despite what some would call a late start, the pre-sales of the aforementioned items skyrocket at a steady upwards trend, and Tony’s gamble is finally beginning to pay itself off.

He no longer has to consult a board and Pepper can stop hounding him over the expenses of private jet flights. 

Admittedly, things had looked a bit precarious in the middle. Tony, according to JARVIS, had spent enough money taking over SI to rival the nominal GDP of several third world countries. It was a risky thing to consider, and an even riskier move to commit. However, Tony is nothing short of audacious—especially when he’s got the benefit of knowing that he pulled off an even more hazardous stunt the first time.

Even now, the military industrial complex continues to argue for a resumption of weapons manufacturing. Surely, after two months, SI has spent enough time investigating its records and personnel. Every day that passes by without change is another chance for the rest of the world to catch up. Perhaps the best way to atone for Obadiah’s actions is to continue arming US troops—this time with better and more sophisticated technology. 

Tony, long since familiar with the game, can easily see where that line of reasoning leads. Circles within circles—all useless when he has to ensure his own survival first.  

So, here he is, standing in the privacy of his Malibu workshop and surveying a glowing piece of metal with a deep exhale of relief. 

(Coconuts and chlorophyll. There’s about a million other priorities on plate right now, but this one, at least for the time being, takes precedence.)  

He reaches out for a pair of pliers and gently sets the triangular metal into the interlocking rings for a new and improved arc reactor. For a short moment, there’s a pop and a click—then the whole thing comes online with a steady blue fluorescence. 

That makes the seventh technological breakthrough in a week ,” notes JARVIS. “Shall I order anything to celebrate?”

Tony smiles and turns the arc reactor over in his hand. 

“Yeah,” he says. “Order me a pizza and call Pepper. I think I need someone with smaller hands for this next part.”