Tony might consider himself lucky. He does what he wants because he’s rich, he’s attractive, he’s popular. Popular in that the public loves him whether he’s face-down in the gutter or on top of the world. So he lets the words fall from his mouth as they may, like letting the chips fall where they will, damn the consequences. Why have a filter when you didn’t need one? Why bother censorship when it didn’t matter? Why put forth effort when it wasn’t required. Because if Tony Stark could be his ornery, changeable, half-charming self, why bother pretending to be someone different.
The company was his. At 17, it was his. Obie, his father’s Deputy Director, was technically in charge while Tony was still under-age. But when he turned 20, he was allowed to assume his responsibilities as Executive Director. Which he did, whilst still retaining his sub-title as head of R&D. It was, after all, his forte. It was what he was best at. Using his mind and his fingers to create something new, something exciting. Something brilliant. And he did.
Except for when he was in board meetings. His phone buzzed again in his pocket. Prototype Stark phone. It was amazing. Still some bugs in it, but he’d get it taken care of before it ever went to production. He slipped it out of his pocket to secretly check the caller-ID. A number he didn’t recognise. The same number, however, as the one that’d been calling him for the past hour. He sighed.
“Something wrong, Tony?” Obie asked, leaning towards him under the guise of shifting some papers over.
Tony made a show of looking at them. “I just have... I dunno. Nothing. It’s nothing.”
Obie smiled at him. “I hope not.”
He frowned but went back to paying attention to Marshall Grey of general counsel. He’d answer his phone later, after the meeting was over. Hopefully these windy old bags of money and stupid advice would wrap up soon.
Obie patted his wrist and gave him a small smile, not really looking at Tony.
Sometimes, it reminded him of his father, when Obadiah did that. It felt like a dismissal. But he’d always been in Tony’s corner, so he let it slide. Of all the people in his life, Obadiah Stane was the one who had supported Tony the most, validated Tony’s dreams the most frequently, and listened the most attentively. Actually listened. Not just nod along or tell him to shut up, like Howard had done. Tony’d have thought that engineering and creating would have been something that he could have shared with his father. Seeing as they both enjoyed it. But Howard was always too busy with business, women, making a name for himself, and drinking to ever pay Tony too much attention. Any attention.
This was taking too long. He leaned over to Obie. “I’m going to the bathroom. Be right back.”
Obie nodded distractedly, jotting down notes.
Tony snuck out, making the appropriate apologetic faces and smoothing down the front of his jacket. He breathed a sigh of relief in the empty hallway. Ducking around an abandoned corner he checked his phone again. Four messages. He dialled his voicemail and leaned against the wall to listen in peace.
“Mr. Stark, this is Colonel Karen Breyers of the United States Marine Corps. You were on Lieutenant Colonal Rhodes call list. I am regretfully sorry to inform you of his passing.”
Tony didn’t hear any more. Sagging against the wall, he stared at his phone, feelings buzzing along his bones until his hand shook so much he dropped the phone. A distant part of his brain said Bad for circuitry! but the rest of him didn’t much care.
He was still there when Obie found him after the meeting ended.
“Tony? Where the hell are ya!” Obie rounded the corner and pounded over to him until he was standing in front of Tony, hands on his hips. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
“Rhodey’s dead...” he said, staring at the wall as if the awful wallpaper would change. “He’s dead.”
“Oh Tony...” Then Obie was all sympathy and soft smiles. His big hands came down on Tony’s knees, using them as leverage to pull Tony closer, tucking him against Obie’s chest. They were the only hugs he got.
He hiccupped and shoved Obie away to escape to his office where he could lock the door, shut out the light of the windows, get drunk and cry for the only friend who had taken his shit. And if he was really honest, the only friend he had period.
Over the next four days, Tony listened to all four messages. He half-dialled the number to Colonel Karen Breyers personal line, but never managed to complete it. From her messages, however, he learned that Rhodey’s body was en route back to the U.S., and the funeral would be on Monday. He would be buried with full honours. He’d died in action. A smart missile. No other details. He listened to the voicemails until he was sick of them and chucked his phone against the wall. And then limited himself to an hour of tears, heart-sick at the loss of his only friend.
Day two and a half after the discovery of his best friend’s death, he called up Colonel Karen Breyers and was half-way through a message asking about the missile when his phone beeped to let him know another call was in-coming. He answered.
“Mr. Stark, this is—”
“Colonel Karen Breyers,” he said, knowing her voice thoroughly. “And call me ‘Tony,’ please.”
“Yes, Sir, Mr. S—Tony. I’m sorry for your loss.”
He barked a cold laugh. Then coughed. “I... I’m sorry. To you. As well. I just... I wanted to call about...Something didn’t sit right. I just had a question.”
“Go on,” she said tiredly.
“The missile. You said it was a smart missile?”
“Did you... Who’s was it?”
“It was Stark made, Sir.”
He reeled back, phone pressed tight to his ear, lungs fighting for air to make his body work.
He tried for breath again, making a horrible wheezing sound instead.
“Tony? Tony!” Colonel Karen Breyers barked over the line.
“Thank you,” he croaked. Numbers, sales, world satellites, and geography tumbled around in his head. Shit.
“Sir, are you alright.”
“I’ll...be.” He hung up and sagged back into the plush leather of his sofa. Then pulled up his laptop to do research.
Friday, he was able to corner Obie and have him call a meeting. He cleared his throat as he smoothed the front of his suit jacket down, standing at the head of the table. All eyes on him. No pressure. He closed his eyes, just a minute, pretend it was a blink, don’t let them see weakness, and then sighed. “I’ve come to an executive decision.”
Obie sat straighter in his chair, corners of his mouth tipping down in a frown of disapproval.
Tony repressed the cringe and shoved his hands into his slacks pockets. “It’s come to my attention that Stark weapons aren’t remaining in the hands they’re made for. My...” He cleared his throat again and fought to keep his voice level. “In the wake of...” Fuck. “My best friend lieutenant James Rhodes was a recent victim of Stark weaponry. He was one of our own men. United States military. That’s not what the Stark weapons department is for.” Obie was giving him a narrow-eyed look. He forged onwards. “As such, Stark weapons production can’t be allowed to continue if they’re going to fall into the wrong hands.”
Even if Tony wanted to say more, everyone was suddenly talking. Objections, disagreements, varying opinions. Tony couldn’t get another word in edgewise with everyone clammouring for other options and flat-out refusals.
Then Obie stood. “Alright. Enough! Tony.” He turned a kind eye on him. “While we understand that this is a horrifying and tragic event, I think it might be a good idea to take a step back on this one and wait until you’re a little more objective.”
“Objective. Objective? Obie, our weapons—my weapons killed my best friend! That’s unacceptable.”
“Mr. Stark, weapons production and R&D is our most productive source of income,” one of the board members said.
“I know,” Tony said.
Obie quickly covered him. “Tony’s well aware of that.”
“And there are other routes to take!” Tony inserted stubbornly.
“Of course there are. But this is a decision that’s not to be made lightly--”
“I’ve only spent the past three days thinking about it!” Tony protested.
“But you’ve not talked to anyone about it?” Obie asked with a tilt of his head that indicated Tony’s error.
“Well no, but it’s something I feel strongly about—”
“Of course you do. This was your best friend. But we have a lot of current responsibilities in weapons production right now. We have a lot of business contracts that we can’t just bail on, Tony, unless you’d like to see the company go under.”
“It’s definitely something that we can talk about, however. And,” Obie said with a significant look around at the now-less-disgruntled board members, “it’s not a decision that has to be made today. Right, Tony?”
All heads swivelled towards him. Most with derision and scorn. Many with bored expressions that spoke to their confidence in his abilities, or apparent lack-there-of. He swallowed again. “I...”
“Great!” Obie clapped his hands and all attention was back on him. “Thank you, everyone, for your time.”
And just like that they were dismissed and filing out of the room, grumbling to one another and chuckling. At him, he imagined. Laughing at his inexperience. Laughing at his sentimentality. He stayed at the head of the table, frowning down at the patterns in the wood until everyone was gone. Save for Obie.
“I want to stop weapons production,” he said again.
Obie settled a heavy hand on his shoulder. “I know. I understand. That’s... that’s real rough, Tones. It sucks, is what. But we just can’t do that right now. You understand?”
“No. No I don’t! It’s stupid! We can just stop! There’s no reaso—”
“Tony. Tony. We can’t just let down hundreds of investors and share-holders. You’ve got to understand. If we let go of our military contracts, then we’ll lose a good 65% of our business. Stark Industries would go under. Is that any way to hold up your old man’s legacy?”
Tony snorted, lip curling up.
“Hey. Hey now. Don’t be like that. Your old man did some great things for this world.”
“Oh hooray. He helped humanity kill itself faster!” He waved his hands around.
“Tony,” his mentor said sternly. “Don’t speak poorly of the dead.”
He flinched. “It’s not...” He took a deep breath. “Rhodey’s gone, Obie. You don’t understand. His blood is on my hands!”
“Tony, don’t be ridiculous!”
“It is!” He stepped away and started pacing in tight circles. “It’s my fault! And I can’t... The only way I can honour him is to stop making weapons. I don’t care about the company. I just care... Fuck, Obie! I just care about this not happening again!” He was getting hysterical again.
Obie shook his head. “Let’s take a couple of days to think on it. You just relax. Go to James’ funeral on Monday. Over the weekend, I’ll look into our possibilities and see what avenues are available to us. Will that work?”
Tony sighed in relief and nodded. “Yeah. That’s... There are other things that we can corner the market on. Green energy. Cell phones. I’m workin—”
“Okay, Tony. Why don’t you take the rest of the day and go home. Get some sleep. Relax.”
He nodded and headed up to his office to collect a few things to go home and work. He wouldn’t sleep. The only thing, he knew, that would wait for him was blood-covered corpses of his best friend and closest associates.
Monday, Tony stood silent and rock-still at Rhodey’s funeral, watching woodenly while the flag was folded and handed to Rhodey’s mom. The casket was lowered into the ground. The dirt was dropped. The final prayers were said. Rhodey’s mom, Jennifer, stood as still, as silent as Tony, clutching the flag to her chest and staring, dry-eyed as her son was put into the ground.
People began to disperse until finally it was only he and Mrs. Rhodes left by the hole. Symbolically appropriate, he thought. A hole in both their lives, he thought.
He cleared his throat.
“Save it, Stark,” she said, voice gravelly and thick. From holding back sobs. He knew what that sounded like.
“I...” he began at barely a whisper. He tried again. “I’m sorry.”
“I said save it!” she barked.
He took a shaky breath of air. “I’m sorry. I’ll fix it.”
Her eyes finally focused on him. “Fix it? Honey. What can you do? You’re just a little boy playing businessman. You can’t do nothin’. There ain’t no way to fix this.”
“Mrs. Rhodes,” he pleaded. Because he needed her to understand. He needed her to forgive him. Since Rhodey couldn’t.
“I know what happened,” she said sharply. “And there ain’t nothin’ you can do to make it better. So please don’t insult me by saying you’ll try. Good day, Mr. Stark.”
Tony watched her turn on her heel and stride off, flag still clutched tight in her hands. “I...! I’m going to stop weapons production!” he called after her.
Her foot paused a second. But that was the only time she gave him before continuing down towards the rows of black cars. The limo that Tony had provided for her. Because he owed her.
Owed her. This wasn’t a debt. There wasn’t anything that Tony could hope to repay here. This was... This was life. And death. And he’d caused Rhodey’s. How many others had he caused. The world spun.
Happy’s voice. He let himself be lead back to the car and driven to his house where he promptly loses himself in good scotch. Then bad scotch. Then the toilet. And finally in nightmares he’s too tired to wake from.