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building a process that works, then making it work better, then making it work better, then making it work better...
-John Reynolds


Caves are fucking cold. That's the first thing Tony figures out, after he wakes up. Wakes up for the second or third time, or so Yinsen tells him, but the first couple of awakenings didn't stick. He doesn't remember them, anyway. For the first few hours, he doesn't remember much. He doesn't remember the attack on the convoy until later, not in full, Technicolor detail. He knows it happened, in the sort of abstract way he knows pi to a hundred digits, but there's no detail to it, like it's a news story he read about someone else. The details come back in flashes, incoherent and jumbled and the first time it happens he doesn't know what he's seeing, except that it's loud and it feels like his heart is trying to break the land-speed record all on its own and he comes out of it struggling against Yinsen, who is holding him down, pinning his shoulders to the cot and he's so weak he can't break the other man's grip.

He doesn't remember waking up during the surgery at first, either, and Yinsen makes no mention of it, but that comes back too, in nightmares about a month into his captivity, and when he asks Yinsen if it happened, Yinsen answers gravely that it had, that he's sorry. The man had operated on him in the most savage of conditions Tony can imagine, saved his life with the kind of ingenuity Tony's not used to from anyone but himself, and he's sorry that he misjudged the anesthetic. He's apologizing. Tony doesn't know what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything at all.


Of course, he doesn't even know Yinsen's name at first, because it doesn't occur to him to ask.

That's not true. It totally occurred to him to ask. Not right away, yeah, but eventually. At first he thought maybe Yinsen was with Raza's men; and then after he saw the pile of weapons, each one personalized with his name like some sort of fucked-up Sharper Image accessory, he didn't care about anything for awhile. Didn't give a fuck about the name of the guy who was going to die with him. Or more likely, after him. Either way, they'd both be dead, and he didn't want to know the guy's name first, okay? He'd already made that mistake once.

And what kind of name was Yinsen anyway? Didn't sound Afghani. Not that Tony knows anything about Afghanistan beyond the fact that its caves are fucking cold and things are fucked up enough that both the U.S. military and the people they're fighting are killing each other with his weapons. Weapons he designed. He remembers that much -- remembers standing there before an audience of uniforms, his arms spread wide like he was a cheap Vegas magician, watching their faces as he pulled off his latest trick. Remembers seeing the RPG with his name on it before it exploded.

Now he's a tin man, with an electromagnetic heart. And dollars to donuts when the car battery runs out, that's it. No more Tony Stark. He could calculate how long he has, but really, what would be the point?

So yeah, he's cold. Like, all the fucking time. Yinsen tells him it's the blood loss, because it wasn't like he'd had a transfusion or anything after the surgery, but that doesn't help when his teeth are chattering together so hard he can barely get a word out.  Not that he's feeling very talkative. Not after the morphine starts to wear off.

He doesn't know that's what it is at first, because he doesn't know about the morphine to begin with, since he was unconscious when Yinsen shot him up. But the pain in his chest starts to build and build, and pretty soon he's about ready to gnaw off his own arm as a distraction. And be careful what you wish for, because he gets a distraction pretty quickly, what with the command to build a Jericho from spare parts and the dousing in water when he refuses. Cold water, thank you very much.

The very idea is insane, really. He hadn't actually built the Jericho. He'd designed it, sure, but it's not like he'd assembled it by hand. Even if he'd wanted to, he doubts he could build one now. He doesn't bother to tell his captors that. He doubts it would make any difference.

Yeah, the water is fucking cold, and some detached part of his mind gets obsessed with the thought that he'll never look at his jacuzzi in quite the same way again. At one point he can't help but break out in manic laughter, but it's a bad idea. It only starts him choking, and his hosts aren't exactly in on the joke, and he's not about to share it with them.


"How much pain are you in?"

It takes Tony a long time to understand the words and even longer to find an answer, but somehow his mouth won't work when he does.

"Stark, I need to you talk to me. I need to know how much pain you're in."

When he can open his eyes he finds himself back on his cot and Yinsen crouched down at eye level, inches away from his face. On instinct he tries to pull back, but that's not a good plan at all.

"What happened?" Tony manages. His breath hangs in the air when he speaks. He's not sure which is worse, the chill that's seeped so deeply into his body that it feels like his blood is running cold, or the agony that is everywhere at once but worst in his chest, centered there like something has buried its claws in and is twisting, pulling, yanking at his flesh.

Yinsen makes an impatient gesture. "They just brought you back. We need to get you dry, but first I need to know--"

"Yeah," he says. He can only get out one or two words at a time. "I'm... I can't..."

Yinsen nods, as if Tony has answered his question. "Okay. Okay, Stark, just a moment."

Tony closes his eyes. All he can do is try to hold as still as possible, hope he can ride it out. He's not sure how long Yinsen is gone but when he returns he puts a hand on Tony's forehead, brushes back his wet hair like he's a sick child. Then there is a prick in the muscle in the back of one arm, and a few minutes later a warm sort of relief starts to wash over him. After that he can hear Yinsen talking to him as his soaked clothes are stripped off and he's wrapped in a scratchy wool blanket, but it all feels very far away.

After awhile he sleeps, dreaming of the cool expanse of his shop back home, the artificial brightness, the engine of the roadster solid under his hands. He dreams of the morning he left for Afghanistan, of Pepper shooing him out of the house with a smile still lurking in her eyes. And when he wakes again he lies still on his cot and drifts for a long time, until the cave sounds start to bleed through the morphine haze, until he starts to feel the cold again.

It's not the last time they drag him off to the dunk tank, but the pain is never quite that bad again. Though Yinsen has a few doses of morphine left, in the end Tony decides it isn't worth it, because yeah, the pain might fade, but he can't think, and now that's all he's got. His billion-dollar brain. Ensured by Lloyd's of Fucking London, if Obie had a choice. The very thing that got him here, if he stops to think about it, which he doesn't.

He doesn't.


He has one thing on his mind when he descends into his darkened workshop, five hours after he sets foot back on California soil, still dressed in the suit Pepper picked out and sent to Germany for his big homecoming. Well, most of the suit. He lost the jacket and the tie somewhere between the model arc reactor and the house. And he's got more than one thing on his mind, if he's being honest. Which he's not. He's okay with lying to himself, because really there's only one thing he can do anything about right now, and that's enough to keep him busy for awhile. A few days, at least.

So anyway, the workshop is dim and cool and at first it's soothing -- the grey concrete of the ceiling stretching above him, the graceful curve of the outer wall, the black rectangles of the windows that overlook the sea. Tony just stands there for a long time, eyes traveling over the blank computer screens and the neat row of cars and the jukebox and the refrigerator and the workbenches and the fabrication equipment and everything is so clean and unfamiliar that he forgets for a moment what he came down here to do. For a moment he's frozen in place, and he can't think at all.

But only for a moment.

He crosses to his computer station and takes a seat at the desk. "Jarvis," he says into the air. "Bring up the lights. And we need to do a scan."

"A scan of what, sir?"

"Me," Tony answers, unbuttoning his shirt as the lights flicker to life overhead.  "Full body scan. Let's do it."

He taps the cover of his own personal arc reactor while he waits for the scanner to boot up. Considers the effect of miniaturization on Cerenkov radiation, the palladium ring floating in his mind's eye. As everything narrows to the problem at hand the workshop loses the aura of jamais vu, the familiar made alien, a phrase a Parisian banker's daughter taught him once, a phrase he'd just thought was sexy at the time, because, you know, French always sounds sexy, especially when the speaker's got her tongue in your ear.

Jamais vu. Sounded sexy, but it wasn't. Not at all. Not when you finally got what it meant.

Pepper shows up for work the next morning like it's just another day, and for some reason he's not expecting her to do that, so when he hears a noise and glances up over the wall of computer screens where plans for a new and improved miniaturized arc reactor are taking shape and finds her just looking at him, her lips pressed in a thin line and her eyes too big, it takes him by surprise, and all he can do is stare back.

"Hi," he says finally.

She shakes herself, just a little, and the corners of her mouth turn up. "Hi," she echoes. She hasn't looked away, like maybe she didn't expect to see him there, either, like maybe she can't look away. He can't either, so that's okay, except his chest has gone tight and now he wishes she would break the contact first, because he's pretty sure he's going to pass out if she doesn't.

Thankfully three months hasn't done anything to erode Pepper's ability to read his mind, because she turns her head aside right when he's sure he's going to embarrass himself somehow. She doesn't say anything about the fact that he's clearly still wearing yesterday's clothes. Instead she sets a mug he hadn't noticed she was holding down on his desk.

"I thought you might want some coffee," she says, as if this hasn't been part of their morning routine for the past seven years.

"Yeah, thanks," he manages, and wraps his hands around the mug. It's hot and black and made of actual coffee beans, and he hadn't realized he was so cold.

Usually now would be the time when Pepper would run down the day's schedule for him, harangue him about calls he's supposed to make or appointments he forgot about and missed. Today there's... nothing. Just Pepper, standing there like she doesn't know where she fits anymore.

He knows the feeling.

The schematic image of the Mark I armor floats in mid air like a toy, and in one glance at the display he can see how inefficient it is, too bulky, the design rushed and filled with flaws. Poor materials, even poorer craftsmanship. He hadn't meant it as anything more than a means to an end, a way to get free. But now he can do it right. He has the tools, he has the time, he has all the resources in the world. He can make it right.

"Jarvis," he says, "Strip it down. Back to basics."

The heavy iron shell vanishes, leaving behind something a little more elegant, rough outlines which have the potential to be so much more. It's the only thing that came back with him and he can't just let it go to waste. Well, there's the arc reactor, that had come back with him too, but now that he's upgraded, technically it's... he loses his train of thought.

The workshop's fluorescent lights are giving him a headache. He's not used to the glare.

Anyway.

So. He's stumbled on probably the first fully functional powered exoskeleton, something D.A.R.P.A. and, well, everybody else who's ever read Starship Troopers have been salivating over for years. The hilarious thing is, until he needed one himself he'd thought the whole notion of wearable armor was a waste of time, since the problem of the power supply had been all but insurmountable. But necessity, it was the mother of invention, or whatever. And yeah, out of a fucking huge amount of necessity he'd solved the power issue without realizing that's what he was doing at first, and after that the rest had been a cake walk. So to speak.

He'd had help with the first set of armor, though. It had been his design, but he'd had help. And now he has Jarvis. Jarvis is better at numbers but he doesn't have any hands.

Pepper has hands, yeah, but Pepper's gone home. He thinks. Actually, he's not sure, he can't remember... no. She came down and said goodnight. He keeps forgetting his watch, not used to it anymore, and he's never been great at keeping track of time to begin with. He thinks it's probably still night, since Pepper hasn't been back with coffee and the frown behind her eyes, the one that doesn't really go away even when he prods her into a smile.

She hasn't asked what he's working on. He thinks maybe he's glad she hasn't, because he's not sure what he'd tell her if she did.


Obadiah's footsteps fade and the front door slams shut and Tony is left with the crackle of the fireplace and the sound of his own breathing, a harsh panting that feels like it belongs to someone else, because he doesn't have any control over it, can't control anything. The couch is the only thing holding him up, the leather smooth against the back of his neck. His body has disconnected from his mind and he's trapped there, and despite the glow from the fireplace that he can just see out of the corner of his eye he's gone cold.

Obadiah left and took everything. Everything he's worked for, everything he has left. The only thing he... yeah. Everything. And there's nothing he can do but wait.

By the time he can blink at will, the pain has set in. His pulse throbs in his ears and there's blood drying on his neck and he's broken out in a cold sweat. He can't think, can't fucking think of anything but the look on Obadiah's face, the delight, the pleasure he'd taken, and he doesn't understand what just happened. He's missing something somewhere and nothing adds up and what the hell did he do to make Obadiah want to take him apart like a broken toy? Just pry him open and tear out his battery and toss him aside? It doesn't make sense. Nothing makes sense.

There's someone next to him on the couch. He can't see who it is, but there's the warmth of another body, a tingling all down his side. His breath catches and he strains to turn his head but he still can't move. And Obadiah left. Didn't he? He'd watched Obadiah go, but he hadn't heard him come in to begin with, so maybe he's wrong. Maybe Obadiah stayed to watch him die.

For a moment, just a moment, he gives in to a smothering panic, and he thinks he's back in the cave, the Mark I a chilly weight on his shoulders as the lights flicker and Yinsen quizzes him on the escape route and then there's a deafening blast and a flurry of gunfire and he's alone again in the dark, waiting.

When his eyes snap back open to the clean light of his living room, the presence at his side hasn't moved, hasn't made a sound, and suddenly, irrationally, Tony is sure it's Yinsen. But he can't turn to look, and it doesn't make any sense anyway, because Yinsen is dead. Obadiah is going to kill Pepper, and Yinsen is long dead.

Proof That Tony Stark Has A Heart.
The image blossoms in his mind and he clings to it: the glass case, the first arc reactor. He'd told Pepper to destroy it but instead she'd built it a shrine. If he can get down to the workshop... when he can get down to the workshop, there's a chance that it could save his ass. That he can reach her before Obadiah does.

Tony concentrates on breathing. It's all he can do, and after a while the panic dials back a few notches, and after another long while he can turn his head, and yeah, there's no one there next to him, and he knew that there wouldn't be. There's no one there at all.


 

The first thing he's aware of is that he can't move. Maybe he's still on the couch, and he never… no. He's on his back this time, and he feels heavy. So heavy. There's a crushing weight on his chest and it takes too much effort to breathe. A roaring in his head blocks out sound and thought and everything hurts.

There's metal grating against the back of his head, and when he tries to sit up he meets resistance. His arm slides against something hard and stiff and his leg is stuck and he realizes he's shivering, the muscles in his thighs and back twitching from over-exertion.  One of his hands is free, so he tries to curl it into a fist, but something stops him. Warmth closes around his fingers and hangs on tight. And there's a voice, coming from a long distance, muffled. It takes several repetitions before he can understand the words.

"Tony. Tony, please," the voice is tinny and flat. He turns his head towards the sound. "Open your eyes."

He obeys, but it doesn't help. At first he can't see anything, and he's sure he's blind, and then in a burst of white light it comes flooding back – he'd told Pepper to overload the arc reactor. She'd been inside the factory when it had blown. He'd told her to—

"Pepper." He can hardly hear his own voice over the static in his ears, but he feels the name scrape his throat on its way out, so he knows he's spoken. Pepper squeezes his hand so hard he can feel his bones rub together. He tries to squeeze back but his fingers are clumsy and stiff.

A blur hovers above him, pale and edged in light. "I'm right here," she says. Her other hand smoothes over his forehead and down his cheek, trailing warmth over his skin in its wake.

He lets himself rest. Lets his eyes slip closed. A sharp pain at his ear lobe brings them open again. "Ow," he manages. "What the hell?" This time when he blinks, the image of Pepper's face resolves, slightly fuzzy around the periphery.

"Stay awake, Tony." Her voice has gotten more solid, but it's harder now, too.

"You pinched me."

"I'll do it again if you don't keep your eyes open." This close her fear-sweat is a sharp note against the stench of ozone and scorched metal from the explosion. There's a fine scratch on her temple and a smear of soot across her chin and her hair sparkles, dusted with pulverized glass. "We need to get you out of the armor and we need you to tell us how."

He tries to shrug. It doesn't quite work, with the metal shell weighing him down. Out of the corner of his eye he can see a pair of feet in shiny men's shoes. "Who's we?"

"Tony." Now Pepper sounds irritated, but there's relief there, too. "Focus, okay?"

"Yeah," he rasps. "Okay." His eyes are burning. So's his throat. There's not much smoke, considering the strength of the blast, but the fumes can't be healthy. Though after everything that just went down, worrying about fumes is probably a little ridiculous.

He considers closing his eyes, just to get Pepper to pinch him again, but then he remembers that he can't move because he's trapped in his armor like a pickled herring. The old arc reactor wasn't designed to keep both his heart and the Mark III running, not for long anyway. So yeah, getting out of the armor would be a good idea. Designing an easy way to get out of the armor would be a good idea too. He'll have to remember that for the next upgrade.

Which is going to be sooner rather than later, judging from the helmet Stane crushed, and the dents he can see in the chest plate when he cranes his neck. The arc reactor is flickering, and that's not a good sign. Not at all.  The light steadies as he watches but it's not as bright as it should be. The pressure in his chest eases, just a little.

"So how do we get you out?" Pepper's voice has gone hoarse, and she breaks into coughs with the last word.

"Uhhh." He takes a shallow breath.  Another. "Got a blowtorch?"

She just gapes at him. He erupts into helpless, choking laughter, and even that hurts.


 

In the middle of a particularly precise bit of soldering the thought strikes him: he's on his third heart. He leans back on his stool and lets the idea settle in, his eyes roaming around the workshop, over the smashed corpse of the Cobra, up to the impromptu skylight in the ceiling that he'll have to patch over when he's finished here.

Most people do fine with just the one heart, but he's Tony Stark, so he's working on number three. Somehow he finds this more amusing than he should. Technically speaking he still has his original model, the damaged one made out of muscle, so that's four hearts. And counting Yinsen's electromagnet brings the total up to five, but this is his metaphor, so whatever.

Actually, he hasn't even gotten as far as a metaphor yet.

He sets down his soldering iron and considers the circle of palladium and glass and wire Butterfingers is holding up for him gingerly between its clamps, but nothing comes. So he calls Pepper.

"I need a metaphor," he says when she answers.

"A -- what?"

"Metaphor, Potts. You know, it's a literary term--"

"I know what a metaphor is, Tony. Why do you need one?" She sounds sleepy. He has no idea what time it is, but since she's here to answer the intercom it can't be too late.

"That's a very good question," he says, sliding off the stool to his feet, then grabbing a towel to wipe his hands.  "Maybe you should just come down here."

"What's going on?" Her voice is scratchy and far away and he can't picture her expression. Can't figure out if she's irritated or amused. Since the press conference yesterday she's been a cipher and it makes him itchy in the back of his mind in a place he can't reach.

"Nothing. I was just working, and it occurred to me that--" It sounds really stupid out loud. "Look, can you just... I don't know. Forget it."

"Give me a minute," she says with a sigh.

And now he's totally lost his train of thought, forgotten why he even needed a metaphor to begin with, and why he thought it would be a good idea to ask Pepper to supply him with one. He exchanges a helpless glance with Butterfingers, realizes what he's doing, and scrubs at his face with his hands. Maybe he needs a vacation.

"What's this all about?"

His biological heart, the one that'll stop ticking if he doesn't finish this third iteration of the miniaturized arc reactor sometime in the next few hours, tries to crawl up his throat at the sound of Pepper's voice, because she's right behind him and he hadn't heard her come in. He turns to face her, a little out of breath and a little annoyed that she's managed to sneak up on him like this and whatever he meant to say flees his mind.

She's standing there barefoot in loose cotton pants and an oversize Bard College sweatshirt. Her hair is in a ponytail and her face has been scrubbed clean of makeup, which leaves her with nearly invisible eyelashes and reveals the full strength of her freckles. She looks both five years younger than he's used to and immeasurably weary, and he's not sure what to make of it.

"Um." Brilliant. He's supposed to be a genius, right? That's what everyone's always told him.

The grad school version of Pepper, who seems to have wandered into his workshop out of the past, frowns at him. "Why do you need a metaphor?"

"I--I don't, really." He leans back against the worktable, crossing his arms over his chest. Blinks. Blinks again. The sweats don't magically turn into a business suit.

Pepper tilts her head, her frown deepening. "Are you okay?"

Is he? He has no idea. The workshop seems too bright and his chest is tight and his eyes feel open too wide. Pepper wavers a little, not quite solid. "What time is it?" he manages.

"Nearly two," she says.

He has no idea if it's the afternoon or the middle of the night. Pepper's unusually casual attire makes him lean towards night, but why would she still-- "Why are you here?"

"Tony, you're hyperventilating."

"That's ridiculous," he says, but then he realizes it's true, he's breathing too fast, and he's not sure why.

"Sit down," Pepper orders, dragging a stool over to him and then giving him the evil eye until he obeys.

"Why do you need a metaphor?" she repeats after he gets himself under control.

"I don't, really. I don't know what I was thinking."

Pepper's eyes flicker to the work table, take in the half-finished arc reactor. Something in her face tightens up. "How long do you have until--"

"I'm almost done," he lies.

The first arc reactor -- the one he'd built in Afghanistan, the one currently keeping the shrapnel from his heart -- was damaged in the fight on the rooftop. Since then its top output has been half of what it should be. Which would have been good enough to keep him alive as long as he didn't try anything stupid like donning the armor, but when he's sat down this morning to take a look at it he realized the damage was worse than he'd thought.

It's losing power at an exponential rate and it's not as if he can take it out in order to repair the problem. The second arc reactor, the one Stane ripped from his chest, was destroyed in the explosion at the factory. The third is taking him too long to finish because he keeps getting distracted by things like the sudden desire to find a coherent metaphor for the situation, which probably doesn't exist.

"How much pain are you in?" Pepper asks, point blank.

"I'm not--"

"How much?"

"Pepper--"

"What do you think I'm doing here, Tony?" There's a thread of bitterness there that he doesn't want to think about.

"It's not bad yet," he says instead of answering her second question; but it's the truth, because if he lied he's not sure what she would do. Some time over the last month Pepper has developed an uncanny ability to see right through him. "I'll finish in time."

He will. He doesn't have a choice. There's no one who can do it for him.

Pepper brings him a tall glass of Gatorade and makes him drink it. He wrinkles his nose but he does what she asks, and he won't admit it but a few minutes later he starts to feel more like himself. The burning need for a metaphor fades enough that he can turn back to the work table.

When he raises his head again there's a bottle of Gatorade by his elbow and Pepper is curled up with the Financial Times on the workshop couch.

By the time the new arc reactor is ready to be installed, sunlight is streaming through the windows and his hands are shaky as hell. Pepper takes the glowing ring from him and waits for him to strip off his tee-shirt and lay back in the chair of the medical station. She sets the reactor aside and helps him attach the heart monitor's leads to his chest.

Pepper looms over him just a little as he lies there and he refuses to think about Stane. The heart monitor is loud in his ears and the insistent beeping sounds much too fast, which probably means his pulse is racing. It's starting to really fucking hurt, like there's pressure expanding outward from the middle of his chest, but he doesn't say anything to Pepper. Can't tell her to hurry. Can't say anything.

He can't help a gasp as Pepper removes the dying reactor and drops it onto the tray of instruments near his head, trading it for the newest model. This time she doesn't comment on the pus and doesn't touch the edges of the new reactor to the metal core embedded in his chest cavity as she slides it home. When it connects a jolt runs through him and his shoulders jerk up off the chair, out of his control, and the heart monitor flares into red before settling back down to an even rate again. Pepper won't meet his eyes at all and when he can't suppress a shudder at the feel of the thing locking into his flesh, she doesn't say a word.

After it's finished all he can do is lay there catching his breath. Pepper picks up the old reactor from the tray and it flickers before finally going dark. She sets it back down, staring across the workshop at nothing. Neither of them mentions how close he's cut things. Then she wipes her hands on a towel, takes one last glance at the dead reactor and heads for the glass door. She doesn't turn back, just disappears up the stairs.

The original arc reactor is useless, totally drained.

He reaches over and picks it up, holds it in his hands for a long time but a suitable metaphor never comes. Instead, he can't shake the memory of the look on Pepper's face when she told him she would quit before she'd be a part of anything that would lead to his death.

She'd pushed that button at the factory, she'd made sure the big arc reactor overloaded in an explosion seen for miles and yet she's still here. He doesn't know what that means. Maybe he never will.

On one monitor he's got Jarvis sifting through a copy of the ghost drive he salvaged from S.H.I.E.L.D., searching for shipping manifests or anything else he can use. The revamped design for the Mark IV floats in green and blue, rendered in 3-D on another screen and that's where his focus lies. When the video pops up, dredged from the depths of Stane's betrayal, he's not paying any attention. He's just reached for his coffee mug when the speakers come to life with scratchy words he doesn't understand, spoken in a voice that hits him, visceral and immediate, right in the gut. Before he can turn his head to look his mouth is flooded with a metallic tang, and that's familiar too.

He has to remind himself to breathe.

He can't face the screen again until the sound cuts off.

There's just a blank window now, a string of code for a filename.  He leaves it there and pushes his chair back, shoves away from his desk.

 
He's on the floor by the roadster. His cheek hurts and his head pounds in time with his heartbeat and everything blurs and slides side to side when he opens his eyes so he squeezes them shut until it stops. It takes him longer than it should to sit up. The way his vision swims and the sour taste in his mouth clue him in to the fact that he might just be drunk.
 
Not that he remembers drinking anything stronger than coffee. But there it is – when he can stand up, off-balance and swaying, he sees a mostly empty bottle of bourbon sitting on the work table next to the roadster. And when he can focus enough to check the time it's six hours later than it should be.

Fuck. This little lapse in time should probably be a big deal to him, but instead he's just grateful he came to before Pepper found him.

Pepper. Pepper had copied the ghost drive for him. Pepper had –

His stomach bucks and he makes it to the sink in the kitchenette in time to lose a lot of bourbon and not much else. When the heaves wind down, he runs water into his cupped hands and splashes it over his face. Sucks in a mouthful of water and spits it out. Hangs on to the edge of the sink for a moment before his knees give up on him. Slides down to the solid ground of the floor and sits in a heap, propped up against the cabinets, shaky and queasy and cold, his nose and throat burning, his guts twisting like they're trying to eat themselves. 

Pepper had seen the video.

He doesn't remember watching it, but he must have, because there it is on a loop in his mind's eye, superimposed over everything like the screens that overlay his windows upstairs. His own face, blurry and battered. Blood in his mouth when he breathes. And it's like he's watching it and living it at the same time and that's just too fucking much, so he pulls himself to his feet, lurches over to his desk, and collapses into his chair. And what do you know? The file is still open on the screen.

He hits play and sits back.
 


 

He wakes to the dry chill of the cave and the sound of an argument and goes rigid before he even processes what's happening. He can't understand the words but he knows it's an argument because one of the voices is loud and brash; probably the big guy with the beard and the delusions of grandeur. The other is calm and reasonable and has to be his cell mate, the doctor, the man he'll later know as Yinsen, because he's the only calm, reasonable voice here so far. If not for the doctor, Tony would probably have forgotten what calm was by now, not to mention reason.

He sits up and turns towards the voices. Beardy blocks the doorway and looms over the doctor, who stands his ground, gesturing with his hands. A placating move but even so he's got steel in him, he doesn't budge. Beardy gets overly dramatic at whatever the doctor says.Shoves him back a step. The doctor stumbles but keeps his feet and repeats whatever it is he's been asking. Beardy roars a bit but it's all show. Tony wonders who the show is meant for because the doctor doesn't seem too intimidated, at least not this time. Whatever it is they're arguing about, the doctor knows he'll win.

Beardy rears his hand back like he's about to strike and that's as much as Tony can take.

"Hey," he barks, struggling to his feet, weighed down by the car battery and the clawing ache in his chest and the lingering exhaustion.

Beardy and the doctor break off their tussle and turn towards him with identical expressions of surprise. And Tony's stomach clenches because for a moment he just doesn't know. He doesn't know what they were talking about -- he doesn't speak a word of Arabic or Pashto or whatever they've been arguing in. For all he knows the two men could have been debating the best way to kill him. He thinks this isn't true, but the doubt curls up in his belly and decides to stay awhile.

"It's okay, Stark," the doctor says. He smiles faintly. "Just a minor difference of opinion." He holds up a hand, warning Tony to stay back.

"Right." Tony obeys the nonverbal request, trusting it more than the doctor's words. His shoulders are tight with the knowledge that even if he needs to he can't move very quickly, not with this thing wired to his chest.

Beardy gives one of those shit-eating grins and claps the doctor on the back, then steps back into the tunnel and slams the door behind him. After he's gone, the doctor takes off his glasses, wire frames wobbling a little as he wipes the lenses with his handkerchief.

"Thank you," the other man says, and Tony's not sure what that means. He hadn't done anything. Wouldn't have been able to act even if he'd known what to do.

Later, Beardy and his men carry in a crate of canned beans, a bag of rice, a big jug of fresh water and a box filled with fresh gauze and vials of antibiotics. Tony rolls over on his cot, faces the rough cave wall and pretends to sleep, a little sick that he's the kind of man who would ever consider the doctor would betray him.
 


After he agrees to build them the Jericho, they stop turning off the lights at night. He's not sure if this is supposed to be encouragement to work or a special new torture but it makes sleeping that much harder. Not that he's been getting tons of shut eye, here in the Afghan Hilton. Yinsen on the other hand seems to have the ability to sleep at will.

"A skill I picked up during medical school," Yinsen says when Tony grumbles about it. He fills their single, battered pan with water and sets it on the grate over the fire.

"Yeah? At M.I.T. I learned I could go four days without sleep before hallucinations set in." Tony sets down the soldering iron and squints at the ring of wire and glass he's been working on for the last forty-eight hours or so.  At least, that's how long it feels.
 
"Four days?" A smile breaks through Yinsen's placid surface. "Very impressive. Is that with or without chemical enhancement?"

"Without." Tony scrubs at his eyes. He can't really focus anymore. The lights might never go off, but they're not exactly bright and everything is starting to blur.

"It's good to know what to look for," Yinsen says. "Were they visual or auditory?"

"Huh?"

Yinsen doesn't answer right away. Instead, he makes a mournful face at the pan of boiling water. "Ah. If only we had some cardamom for the tea." He takes the pan off the fire, adds a handful of loose leaves, and the cave fills with a warm, herbal scent as the tea brews. A moment later Yinsen deftly pours out two full cups from the pan.

"I was referring to your hallucinations," he says when he's finished.

"Oh. Auditory, mostly. People calling my name. Some flashing lights." Tony tilts his head. "Sleep deprivation seemed very cool when I was fifteen."

"Not so cool now, eh?"

Yinsen hands him a chipped cup of strong black tea and Tony grimaces. "I'll let you know when I get to that point."

He fails to mention that he's already heard something. Yinsen might ask him what it was and he doesn't want to think about it; he can't understand why that particular voice had come to him here, in this place.

"Come, tell me more about your youthful experiments with sleep deprivation, Stark," Yinsen says, taking a seat next to the fire.

He knows what Yinsen is doing, knows he's trying in his roundabout way to get Tony to take a break. And he knows he'll give in too, despite the fact that he feels every passing minute with an unfamiliar and intolerable acuteness. He can't afford the time but he can't afford to make a stupid mistake, either.

"Whose voice did you hear back then?" Yinsen asks when Tony joins him, cradling the warm cup of tea between his hands.

He rolls his neck and closes his eyes and tries to remember that far back. "My father's, probably." Suddenly he doesn't want to talk anymore. "It was a long time ago."

Yinsen does that thing where he reads Tony better than anyone despite only knowing him for a month and change. "Whose voice do you hear now?"

Tony feels Yinsen's eyes on him, but this isn't something he wants opened up for discussion, no matter how gentle the probing. Instead he stares into the fire and neglects to answer.

Yinsen starts looking at him differently after Tony shows him the schematic for the armor. Tony's not sure exactly what he sees, but he catches the other man watching him out of the corner of his eye sometimes. There's too much to do, though, so he lets whatever it is stand unspoken.

He's stripped down to his undershirt, slick with sweat in this place that just days ago felt as chilly as a mausoleum. Caught up in the rhythm of hammer to metal, he doesn't notice Yinsen standing right in front of him until he feels a hand on his wrist. He takes a step back, the hammer raised, and Yinsen doesn't move, just waits for him to focus.

"Don't do that," Tony says, once he finds his voice.

Yinsen nods, solemn. "You didn't hear me."

Tony shrugs and drops the hammer onto the work table.

"I asked what you'd like for our evening meal," Yinsen says.

Tony blinks. "What's changed? I thought we had a set menu."

Yinsen smiles. "Nothing changed. But perhaps we might try a different ratio of beans to rice. For variety."

It takes him a minute, but Tony realizes this is Yinsen's idea of a joke. "Yeah?" He digs up a grin. "Surprise me." Then he turns back to his hammer and anvil.


"It's a good plan," Yinsen says, a little later, gesturing towards the scattered pieces of armor.

Tony watches him ladle out two bowlfuls of beans and rice from the pot over the fire. He sets one on the table near Tony's hand and doesn't comment when he ignores it.

"Uh-huh." Tony squints, threading a wire through the frame of the armor's right arm. This would go faster if he had Butterfingers to-- fuck. The wire tangles up and he has to pull it out and start over. "It won't be easy, though."

"No, no it won't." Yinsen sits down next to him at the table and digs into his food.

"Aren't you sick of beans yet?" Tony mutters.

Yinsen shrugs. "Of course. Remember, I've been here longer than you. Many more meals of beans and rice under my belt. So to speak." Yinsen doesn't actually have a belt. Neither does Tony. His watch is gone, too, not to mention his cuff links. He's not sure what the Ten Rings think he would do, armed to the teeth with his accessories, but he hasn't bothered to ask.

"What ratio did you decide on?"

"Ah," Yinsen says. "This time? Forty-five to fifty-five." Leave it to him to be so precise. Yinsen has developed at least ten separate ways to prepare beans and rice. Mashed beans, bean cakes, a sort of bean-and-rice stew. It's a good thing, too, because Tony would have been eating beans straight out of the can for weeks if left to his own devices.

"Interesting choice." The wire won't thread. Tony yanks it out and tosses it onto the table. He's constantly correcting his mental schematic of the armor to fit with the supplies at hand. There's always too much of whatever he doesn't need, and he has to spend time he doesn't have hunting for vital parts. Yinsen has some engineering skills and a good eye, so it's not that Tony doesn't want the help -- he needs the help -- but the closer they get to finishing the armor the harder it is for him to articulate what has to be done.

"There's not enough palladium to make a second reactor," he says, digging through the pile of stripped supplies for a better length of wire.

He looks up when Yinsen doesn't respond. Yinsen tilts his head, something like amusement playing over his face, and Tony doesn't know what to do with it. Doesn't know how to explain.

"Even if we could find another power supply, we'd need--"

"Stark," Yinsen interrupts. "It's a good plan."

"You won't be protected," Tony says, forgetting about the wire. Yinsen doesn't understand. If anything goes wrong--

"It won't matter."

"It matters. I won't have much peripheral vision. I won't be able to--"

"You will. And then what?" Yinsen sets aside his bowl, his smile fading. "Once you have left this place, what will you do?"

"I dunno. Got enough to do here, if you hadn't noticed. Not much time for what-ifs." He grabs the wire and stretches it out taut between his hands. "Hand me the pliers. The needle-nosed."

Yinsen fishes the pliers from the pile of tools on the worktable. "There's time. We have time now. What else do we have to talk about? The weather?"

Yeah, Yinsen's sense of humor is on the dry side. Tony likes that about him, it feels right, given their predicament. "Kind of hard to discuss what you can't see," he tosses back, taking the tool.

"Very true. So. When you are free?" Yinsen is also a persistent bastard.

"When we get out, I'll torch my weapons," Tony says. "The cache they have outside. Whatever else I can find."

"And then?"

"And then what? We'll find a way out of here. You'll go back to your family and I'll..." he breaks off. Yeah. He'll what? He doesn't know how long he's even been here, doesn't know if anyone's looking for him, if Pepper-- He doesn't know anything.

Yinsen picks up his bowl. Stirs his rice and beans with his spoon. Waits him out.

"I don't know," Tony admits. He sets the pliers aside, turns to his own cooling meal. "I don't know what I'll do. Too much has--" He shakes his head. The words won't come. "I can't think about that right now."

Yinsen nods and lets it go. Two hours later, Raza gives them their deadline, and there's no time for anything else but the problem at hand.


The hulk of the original armor hangs in a corner near the motorcycles, watching over the workshop with a baleful stare. He'd gotten it back from S.H.I.E.L.D. two days after the press conference and Pepper hadn't let him immediately melt it down like he'd intended. He isn't sure why he doesn't just do it anyway, except that Pepper's instincts have already been proven out once, and he's just superstitious enough to hedge his bets against an endless array of what-ifs. Which is why he still has the dead arc reactor on his desk, back on the little stand Pepper had made for it before he drained it dry.

Even so, after awhile the thing Pepper and S.H.I.E.L.D. found in the factory, the thing he'd left in the desert in a hundred pieces, starts to weird him out, becomes too much of a distraction, so he covers it with a sheet of plastic.

"It looks like a ghost now," Pepper protests when she comes down with his morning coffee.

He looks up from his desk with a grimace. What had taken him and Yinsen two months of eighteen hour days to rig together, Jarvis had completed in five hours, start to finish. After the Mark IV was fabricated, Tony spent most of the night tinkering, making adjustments. So he's smeared with grease and bleary-eyed and not really ready to do much talking, but Pepper hasn't vanished back upstairs yet, so he makes an attempt.

"It was looking at me." He's got one of the Mark IV's boots out on his desktop and the face plate in his hands. He holds it up to his eyes like a mask, peering at her through the slits.

She doesn't smile. There must have been too much of the truth in his voice. "Tony--"

"I didn't scrap it, okay? But I can't work with it here."

Pepper tilts her head, studying him. She's been doing that lately. He wonders what she sees.

"I'll have it put in storage."

His shoulders slump with relief and that only makes her scrutiny sharpen, her frown deepen. There are faint lines at the corners of her eyes that he's never noticed before and her makeup doesn't quite cover the scratch on her temple from the falling glass at the factory.

"You have a ten o'clock meeting with Agent Coulson at the S.H.I.E.L.D. office in L.A.," she says.

"I thought we were done with them." He drops the face plate and wipes his hands on his jeans.

"Well, they're not done with you. Happy will be here to pick us up in an hour."

"I suppose they're not taking no for an answer?"

"Don't do this," she says.

"Do what?" He turns his chair so the shrouded Mark I disappears from the periphery of his vision.

"They helped us, Tony. Helped you. If they hadn't--"

"That's not how I remember it." He can't sit still any more. He crosses to the kitchenette and pulls a bottle of Perrier out of the fridge. Screws off the cap and takes a swig.

"They're helping with Obadiah," she says, and he hurls the bottle against the wall.

Shattered glass flies everywhere, pieces land in the sink, on the coffee table, at the floor near his shoes. Fizzy water splashes the television and runs down the screen. When he turns around Pepper has backed into the desk, her face gone blank.

"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" she says, and for the first time the phrase is drained of everything but the sound of the words.


The meeting with S.H.I.E.L.D. goes about as well as Tony expects, which means he pokes at Coulson to see what will happen and Coulson refuses to react. Government agents are never any fun and Coulson is no exception. Pepper seems to like him, though. She smiles for the first time that day when Coulson shakes her hand.

Needless to say, he and S.H.I.E.L.D. don't see eye to eye about his extracurricular activities. Pepper sits next to him as the conversation disintegrates and she doesn't say a word, and when the meeting peters out she's the first from the room.

They spend the drive back to the house in silence. He catches Happy's anxious mug staring back at him in the rear view mirror a couple of times, but there's really nothing to be said. Once inside Pepper carries her lunch into the office she never uses and shuts the door.

So he heads downstairs and pulls up the first of the shipping manifests from the ghost drive. Tells Jarvis to ready the armor while he tracks down the location. It takes him longer than he expects to find what he's looking for: a remote village in Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border.

It's not going to make him any more friends at S.H.I.E.L.D.

Pepper walks in on him just as he's pulled the flight suit on. He can't help it; he freezes up, and he knows he probably looks guilty as all hell. What does he have to feel guilty about? Nothing.  Nothing at all.

"Where are you going this time?" is all she says at first. She hugs a clipboard to her chest, probably papers she needs him to sign, probably whatever brought her down here in the first place. Wisps of hair have escaped her neat bun and hang in her eyes and he has to trample the urge to reach out and tuck them behind her ear. She's out of his reach, anyway.

"Pepper--"

"Do you even have a plan, Tony? Can you tell me that much?"

Of course he has a plan. He's going to find another cache of the weapons that were sold under the table to goons, and he's going to take care of them. That's plenty of plan, right there. Plan enough for him. Apparently not plan enough for Pepper, though.

"You don't, do you?" Her blouse is wrinkled under her jacket and her thumbnail is jagged, torn off near the quick. She shakes her head. "You don't have any idea what you're doing."

"I know what I'm doing," he says. "I'm putting things right."

"Are you?" She tilts her head. Scrutinizing him like she's never seen him before. "You think this is the best way to do that?"

"I don't know any other way." He zips up the flight suit and half turns away from her, staring at the floor. "Jarvis, let's go." Jarvis doesn't comment, but the assembly robots bloom from the floor and hover there, waiting for him.

Pepper's gone quiet, and it's worse than if she'd started yelling at him, because he has no defenses at all against her silence.

"What do you want me to say?" All at once he's practically begging. "When I left that cave, I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know..." He swallows, remembers hearing her voice calling his name as Beardy shoved his head under the water in the dunk tank. "I just wanted to get out of there. Get back. And when I did, nothing fit anymore. And now..."

He's run out of words. It's the first time he's tried to tell her about the cave, about Yinsen, but there's no way to explain, there's nothing he can say to make her understand. He's not even sure he wants her to understand.

"You told me you were alive for a reason." Her face is drawn in the garish light of the workshop. "Is this it? Is this is your reason?"

"Pepper, I--"

"No, I want to understand. You survived, you're alive, and so now you're convinced you have to do some kind of penance because Obadiah--"

"Yes. Okay? Yes." He steps into the boots of the armor and the robots hesitate, drawing back from him. "I designed those weapons. They're my responsibility. As long as they're out there..." he breaks off, shaking his head. He has to do this. There's no one else.

Pepper nods, but it's not in agreement. He can see that much. "If that's the reason you came back, the only reason you're alive, then I guess there's nothing else to be said."

It feels like an ultimatum, but he has no idea what lies in the balance. Not really. He can see it in her eyes but his head is full of gunfire and there's no room for anything else. No room for anything quiet, anyway.

"I have to go," he says, and it doesn't sound as confident as he would have liked.

"I know you think that's true." Pepper smiles, just a little, and he doesn't know what that means, either. Can't read her at all. "But Tony--"

He waits. Doesn't interrupt.

"You survived," she says. "Don't throw that away."

She stays while Jarvis suits him up, and he can't meet her eyes again until he's sealed inside the armor. He steps out of the assembly station and takes a moment, waiting for her to say something, cataloging her expression through the readout on the helmet's H.U.D. She just returns the stare, and he's not sure what it is he's seeing in her eyes but he nods, and she nods back, and when he takes off through the hole in the ceiling of the workshop she's still there.

The last thing he sees is her upturned face, watching him go.


Pepper is sitting at his desk with a cup of coffee between her hands when he descends back into the workshop. She's wearing the same suit as the last time he saw her, eighteen hours before, and she blinks at him sleepily as Jarvis releases him from the armor.  He can feel the absence of each piece as it's plucked away and despite the neoprene flight suit that acts as a buffer between his body and the armor, it's as if Jarvis is peeling his skin from his flesh. When it's gone, he's left feeling inexplicably raw and exposed in the cool expanse of the shop.

Pepper straightens in her chair and the awareness that she's watching prods him to step out of the assembly station. He stretches his arms over his head, one shoulder cracking, and then rubs at the back of his neck where the armor tends to press into his spine during long flights. There hadn't been a fight this time but even so he's sore and stiff and a little strung out from wasted adrenalin.

The Mark I still haunts its corner. Tony crosses to stand in front of it then pulls the sheet of plastic that covers it away. It stares back at him, hollow eyed and slumped, just a pitiful metal shell.

He feels Pepper as a warmth at his side. He hadn't expected her to be here -- he'd convinced himself he'd come back to an empty workshop and a neatly typed letter of resignation.

"There wasn't anything left," he says, instead of asking her why she stayed. "Whoever they were, they'd cleared out a long time ago."

She doesn't respond, but she presses her coffee mug into his hands and he takes a drink. The coffee is black and bitter; Pepper usually takes hers with cream. It takes him a long time to find the right words but even then they feel inadequate. His stomach is clenched and it's as if he has to fling himself over a cliff before he can speak, but he does it.

"I'm alive because of a man named Yinsen," he says, facing her square on for the first time since he stepped out of the armor. Maybe even for the first time in days. 

Something in her face breaks open, and he doesn't understand it. He glances across the room towards the desk, where the original arc reactor sits in its stand. Taps the cover of the third iteration embedded in his chest and pushes on past the catch in his throat. "I'm alive because of you."

After a long, long silence, Pepper says: "Melt it down."

He cocks his head and considers the Mark I. The hours and days and weeks that went into it. Everything that can be traced back to it like branching circuits: Yinsen bleeding out on the sacks of rice, Stane's monstrosity, Rhodey's doubt and wonder. Pepper beside him, right now.

"No," he says. "You never know. What if we need it one day?"

Turning his back on the Mark I, he casts his gaze over the workshop. Over the cars and the computers and the robots, over all the things he didn't have in that Afghan cave.

"You have a videoconference with the New York office in an hour," Pepper says in her brisk all-business tone, but the corners of her mouth turn up, just a little bit.

"Do I?" He has no idea what the meeting is about, but he figures Pepper will tell him before he totally makes an ass of himself. Or not. It might be more interesting that way. Keep him on his toes.

"Yes," she says, taking the mug from him. "You do."

He strips off the flight suit and catches Pepper averting her eyes when she sees what he's wearing underneath -- the close fitting boxer briefs, the sweat-stained undershirt with the hole chopped out of the center for the arc reactor. He's not sure why she's looking away. It's not like she hasn't seen him in less, in more compromising situations, even.

"Guess I'd better get cleaned up, then," he tosses back, once he's free.

"I guess you'd better," she agrees, poking at her Blackberry, a flush spreading up from her neck, "unless you're planning on expanding the definition of Casual Friday."

"Maybe I am," he says. He finds a pair of slacks on the floor where he'd dropped them before he took off, then pulls them on. He'd heard her voice in the cave, and now she's here, with him, in the flesh. "Will that be all, Miss Potts?"

Her lips quirk as she takes a last look at the Mark I. She hasn't left. He doesn't know what to make of it but he's not stupid enough to ask her why. Not yet.

She turns to face him, holds his gaze for a long moment, and then nods. "That will be all, Mr. Stark."