She pretends to scrutinize her hand. “Small enough?”
There is no answer.
Pepper shrugs and then slides two fingers into Tony's chest. It is horrendous. Still unconscious, he convulses, and there is a kind of whine from the battery beside them, a jerk in the wires. Bright froth swarms the tube out his nose. Chambers of muscle flutter around her manicure as his whole body fights the invasion, the impossible pain.
Pepper coolly ignores this new dying, and---slowly---draws the iron matter from his heart, like a string of New York pizza cheese.
As quick as it has happened it is over. Her hand retreats, the holes close up, and Tony's body ceases to spasm. He shudders, his eyes still closed. She cradles his whole, sweaty head in her arms. “Hush.” She kisses his sick brow.
The air, at her request, becomes a little colder.
Obadiah kneels in a corner of the cave, watching, inattentive to the triumphant 5 Yinsen has just rolled. Pepper meets his eyes and lowers her lips to her employer's ear. Cries: “Tony!” Her voice sounds distant and pleading and scared and she has to pull away to giggle as his dreams eddy. Obadiah chuckles too. It is the funniest thing in the world.
Pepper reaches down and detaches one of the bulky clamps cabling Tony to the car battery, and the circuit. The copper is still hot when she touches it. She closes Tony's hand around the separated bit and lets it dangle, dead.
She nods to Obadiah and together they stand and exit the cave, the heavy metal doors sealing behind them. Yinsen will look up from his loss on the board---who had he been playing?---and realize what has happened. It will be another five minutes before he has enough nerve to knock on the door and tell the guard to please get Raza, he has failed, failed, Tony Stark has committed suicide.
When Raza returns, Tony is breathing normally again. He is almost awake. Neither understands---Yinsen: why the prisoner's heart is functional; Raza: why the doctor is wasting his time with miracles. Get him cleaned up.
When Tony opens his eyes a day later, Yinsen doesn't bother to introduce himself. He's seen what Stark's best efforts look like.
Tony builds the Ten Rings a Jericho Missile System and sits still for their videos and is executed by a gun of his own design. His final thoughts---before it's over---are of the phones ringing in the silence of his parents' house. They pack the hole in his chest with dirt.
Obadiah claps. Pepper takes a sweeping bow.
It is the eve of Tony Stark's public upcoming---there is a press event tomorrow---and Obadiah is leading his adopted son around the room, coaxing handshakes. Everybody is charmed. Tony's ongoing drinking project has been scaled back, and he will likely remember a few of these introductions, but will he will not meet this Pepper Potts for another six years. She slips out of his mind the second they step apart.
“And this is...”
“Colonel Tyson, head of Marine Response Secondary. A longtime supporter of Stark RD.”
Tyson is surprised at being singled out but manages a nervous “It's a pleasure.” He tries to recognize a face over Tony's shoulder. He is not starstruck.
Obadiah leans closer---all punchlines---and explains: “Tyson here knew your father.”
The elegance of this doom, Pepper understands, is relative to its origin, a stitch central to a lattice of effect. There is no better way to focus Tony's attention, and no worse time to ask questions. His eyes go wide, and they don't even need to watch the next bit.
An older Obadiah sets down his serving tray and signals to Pepper: done here. They step together through the doors of the kitchen and Tony, now half-listening to Senator Something-or-other, blinks away the picture of a dress on pale shoulders. Probably just the alcohol.
Four days after that, Jacob Tyson will arrive at the Stark summer home to discuss the charges---”conspiring with hostile interests. Attempting to dispossess the military of funds or other property, including”---the government will file against him. Tony's flight to Paris is delayed---a man on the runway---and Obadiah will ensure his son is present for this meeting.
Things progress quickly from that point out, but Pepper Potts is impatient, and wants to skip to the best parts. Fortunately, she is matched in Tony's eagerness for first-hand knowledge of his father's life. Tony wakes up early and arrives on time and turns down parties while he still has one foot on the dock. These are methods of his birthright, and the men his father greeted by name, and Obadiah has realized that the young man respects his heritage. Soon, Tony is sometimes the second Stark his clients have met, and sometimes the very first.
A copy of "Beginners' Arabic" comes wrapped for Tony's birthday.
Pepper adjusts her valet uniform.
“And what about your other nickname? 'The Merchant of Death'?”
“Get out of my face.”
Obadiah---not so much younger, now---passes Tony a handwritten letter. Tony tears through the seal and then through the paper. “He says their price has gone up.” Obadiah shrugs.
“We'll stop buying.” The scraps go into the fireplace.
“I don't really know if that's going to be an option. Who's this?”
“Pre-grad, writing for the scholarship.”
On the other end of the couch, Pepper tilts her head and Obadiah and Tony fall into an angle with the fireplace. Tony stares blankly upward as Obadiah quotes:
“'It's not, ultimately, a question of finances, or arsenal-might. It's not the Shakespearian see-saw of personal interests. It's a matter of worldly direction, a vision of the international course. The Stark Aim is to put the balance of power back in our hands. The right hands.'”
Tony blinks. “Jesus. Did we ask for essays?”
An older Obadiah sits in the fireplace like a demon. He tucks the torn letter into his left breast pocket, the flames wildly puppeting the shadows of his arms.
Tony follows Obadiah up the steps into the plane.
“What am I telling Pepper?”
“You're at a demonstration.”
Obadiah hands Pepper a zul from an abandoned cart and together they watch nebulae of dust explode and vomit anti-tank missiles. It is a world of smoke. Men in iron suits draw guns and kill James Rhodes. The citizens of Gulmira lament the ruin of their village, kneeling in the dust to God. An angled logo is clear on every surface. Eleven time zones away, Tony rolls out of bed and picks up the phone. The news hits.
Obadiah takes a modest bow.
Pepper Potts and Obadiah step politely aside as Yinsen runs ahead, waving a stolen machine gun and screaming excitedly at his captors. His first time, and it is everything he expected it to be. It has nothing to do, however, with the way the men in the cave die one by one and perfectly, so Yinsen will not remember how he had accomplished this. Those secrets---and those bullets---belong to Jim Rhodes.
When the hydraulics carry Tony into the sunlight for the first time in a twenty-nine days, Yinsen will not have bled to death on sacks of thieved rice. He will mutter something about his family, confused, and then climb into a hesitant piggyback on the millionaire's rocket armor. They are both tired of that place.
They make it out just fine.
Yinsen, even in the cave, has never been Lost in the Desert, and they meet the road three hours out. Tony wants to jump in the air and wave his shirt like a flag and scream he is so relieved but Yinsen tells him to be calm, and quiet. They wait for cars here, sometimes. “You would not want to seem possessed by... 'religious ecstasy”
Tony is very quiet, even when they get in the jeep, and after that.
Yinsen looks up.
“If you could come with me, sir.”
Yinsen knocks Tony's water bottle with his own and grins. Tony rolls his eyes at his own examiner---not a suit, though---and nods exhaustedly. A second suit is waiting at the door, unhurried. Yinsen folds his towel and proceeds out and down a hallway of the base.
It is the last time Tony will ever see him.
Obadiah fiddles with his headset and peers over Jim's shoulder at the phone placed on the desk. Pepper---milking the role---calls from the console bank: “Sir, we've got an unidentified... something in a no-fly zone.”
“That's a plane?”
Radar screens flare. Lines of audio are extended and established.
“We're getting readings from A-six as well.”
One dot, pulsing, is suddenly flanked by two dots, pulsing. Everyone watches. The phone on Jim's desk lights up.
[[Incoming: Call from: T. Stark]]
“No, no, wait, hang on, this is too early, sorry.”
“Because you're my friend, Jim.”
“Tony... Jesus Tony---”
“You're my friend, Jim, and I really want to trust you.”
“That's why you're here, asking me this? You couldn't just call?”
Tony bites his lip. “Your phone's been sorta weird lately.”
“You're not...” Rhodey takes a step back, aware his students are watching. “Are you even allowed to be here? This is an Air For---”
“I wanna know where he is, Jim.”
“I understand that, Tony, but there's really nothing I can---”
“Do you know something about it? Is there something you can't tell me? I need to know if there is.”
“No, I... Have you been sleeping?”
“Fuck you. Stay on topic.”
“Tony... you should really get some rest.”
“Fuck you, Jim. Fuck you. Why am I in the states if he's not?”
“Who said he's not in the st---Tony, you've been asking me to jump clearance to help you find some man you met in the headquarters of a terrorist faction. I don't know who he was, but maybe you were just confused after three months underground.”
“He saved my life, Jim. He's why I'm here. What are you so goddamn afraid to say to my face?”
Rhodey looks at Tony seriously. “Tony... they needed you alive.”
“Well maybe I'll just look in the fucking phonebook then if you're gonna feed me the same---
“Tony you'd better leave right now.”
“Obie, no, look, I know we have contracts. I'm pulling the plug on everything until they let him go. I can do that... No, no I have no idea from where... I know, no, they won't tell me that. I don't even know if... Obie... I don't care, Obie, Obie, I'll talk to you later.”
“Mr. Stark, the nature of the information you've requested is classified. We sugges---”
“The what? The nature of the information is classified?? Well how about the goddamn information itself? Does that---”
“We cannot inform you whether data pertaining to certain persons is of a sensitive nature to the United States until such time as th---”
“Look: he was a doctor, his name was Yinsen Welling---”
“Mr. Stark, I'm going to hang up now.”
“Jim... please... I just want to know if he's alive.”
[[Incoming: Call from: T. Stark]]
Jim snaps the phone closed.
Rhodey claps as the three blue dots converge and suddenly they are points of cloud and watching a bright red figure tear an F-22 in half.
Pepper quotes into the headset. “There's a problem with the shute deploy.”
Tony is holding part of the shute deploy, watching scraps fall out of his hands like sand. He hangs, suspended: as still and alone as his accompanying radar blip. Then he arcs out of the sky and hits Mach, vanishing.
Pepper passes the nachos back to Obadiah. The TV clicks on.
“---like some sort of comic book 'supervillain'---”
The TV clicks off.