He hasn’t slept in days. Maybe weeks. The quacks at SHIELD’s medical division diagnosed him with PTSD, an understandable reaction to suffocating to death, alone, in some corner of space that might not even be in this universe.
Nothing prepared him for a fall from a dimensional rift. Or the alien invasion. Or Norse gods. Or Captain Fucking America.
For that matter, nothing prepared him for dying of palladium poisoning, only to be saved at the last moment by Howard Fucking Stark’s cast-off ideas. Even the rush of adrenaline from synthesizing a new goddamn element out of scraps and a prototype Captain America shield was somewhat lessened by the sour taste of following in his old man’s footsteps. Or maybe that had been the heavy metal poisoning in the back of his throat.
Nothing had prepared him for being tortured in Afghanistan for months either. Having his chest cut open, no anesthetic of course, and having a glorified car battery sunk into the place his breastbone used to be. The razor edge he’d lived on for weeks without end, constantly asking himself is this the day I die? How many more days until I die? And killing, actually killing with his own two hands, the tech responding not to some drone operator or pilot flying on a general’s orders, but to his commands. He didn’t think he’d ever get those images out of his head.
His life, pretty relentlessly, for the past few years has been a glorious shit-show, with dancing chorus girls and fireworks exploding trauma all over his brain. So yeah. It’s fucking understandable.
It’s understandable if he can’t sleep. It’s understandable if he has panic attacks. It’s understandable if he prowls restless in the lab, initializing upgrade after upgrade until the servos are ready to fry. It’s understandable if the only thing that keeps him steady is medically inadvisable amounts of caffeine.
It might even be understandable that he invited a terrorist to attack his home. No, not invited. Challenged. Threw down the gauntlet. Dared him to do it. No sane person would invite a terrorist to attack their home, of course, but the last person to call Tony sane might have been the pediatrician at his birth.
Pepper would never forgive him. And that’s probably the most under-fucking-standable thing of all.
He wakes up with the alarm ringing in his ears, tasting blood and sweat, and blearily opens his eyes. JARVIS’s voice is raised in concern, and it takes him a moment to realize that he hasn’t woken in his bed, or his lab, and that the blue and red holograms in his field of vision aren’t the technical specs floating above his workspace, and it’s not the light from his arc reactor either. It’s the HUD of his armor. It’s a road in a field covered with snow and trees and oh shit he’s going to—
He plows a furrow any team of oxen would be proud of, felling trees and throwing up sheets of snow and frozen soil as the world spins like a top. His stomach spins and he manages to hold down his lunch (his medically inadvisable amounts of caffeine) as the suit slams down one final time and the sickening lurch stops.
JARVIS’s frantic presence disappears, and the suit goes dark. He hauls the faceplate off, eyes rolling, voice shrill and calling for his AI. There’s no answer. He has no idea where he is, or even how he got here, and panic surges, bile and the sting of regurgitated coffee in the back of his throat before he swallows it back down. For a man who has never felt claustrophobia, for a man who has never felt at home anywhere like he does in the Iron Man armors, the suit is suddenly too tight, too close, and he has to get out of it.
There’s just enough power left to open the suit and he scrambles out of it, shivering as the cold seeps in. He dressed for California winter, nothing but a tee-shirt and jeans. He’s in the middle of fucking nowhere and it’s snowing and there isn’t enough power to check his email, let alone track his flight records. For one moment, he entertains the notion that he died at the bottom of the ocean after all, and this is a frozen hell designed especially for him. No WiFi, no cell signal, nothing but the arc reactor lighting his way through the flurries.
He says it’s brisk, mostly to hear his own voice because it always reassures him that he’s still alive. But it isn’t brisk. It’s actually really fucking cold and he can’t stay here because he’ll freeze to death. If he’d known he was going to end up in the middle of a field in Kentucky or Idaho or Virginia or wherever the hell JARVIS flew him while he was unconscious, he would have worn a parka. Did he own a parka? He had to own a parka, right? Except his parkas were probably in New York and he’d been in California so it wouldn’t really have helped him anyway.
How is this even his life anymore?
Oh right. Pretty relentlessly a glorious shit-show. That’s how it’s his life.
The Texaco station looks like something the ‘50s spat out. It’s all peeling paint and quaintly retro signs and normally, he’d avoid it like the plague, but beggars can’t be choosers and honestly? Right now? It’s right up there, vying with Pepper (or Steve) for the prettiest goddamn thing he’s ever seen.
There’s even a painted Indian on the verandah, and even his give-no-shits brain thinks Holy fuck, that’s the most racist thing I’ve ever heard of, and I have a friend who literally punched Nazis. It’s wearing a poncho, which he’s almost sobbingly grateful to see. He steals the poncho, pulling it over his head with a glee he usually only reserves for nights in the lab, or dates with Pepper. (Pepper’s never going to forgive him, but he can’t think about that right now.) Normally, he wouldn’t be caught dead in the rough, likely-never-meant-for-human-garmenting cloth, but it’s that or literally die.
The station is locked tight, but there’s a phone booth. He pauses for a moment, sitting on the shoulder of the dead, silent armor he dragged he doesn’t even know how many miles through the freezing snow, and stares in wonder at it. He doesn’t remember the last time he saw a phone booth – he’s pretty sure they’ve been exterminated with prejudice from the streets of New York – but he’s deep enough in sleep debt that he half expects Bill and Ted to spill out of it, playing air-guitar.
His first call is to Pepper, but he gets her voice mail. Belatedly, he thinks that her phone is probably at the bottom of the Pacific, along with the rest of his West Coast belongings, and it’s probably going to be awhile before she has the mental wherewithal to get a new phone or check her mailbox, but he leaves her a message anyway. I’m sorry I nearly got you killed, but hey, I’m alive so that’s something, right? Haha, I’m so sorry.
Words really aren’t enough, no matter how many he uses in which combinations. Feeling perfectly inadequate, he hangs the receiver back up. He leans his head against the cold box of the phone and closes his eyes. The world spins around him, and bile-coffee-mucus rises in the back of his throat again. He’s so tired and he doesn’t want to break into the station. He needs help, but he doesn’t even know where he is and who the hell else is he going to call anyway? Rhodey’s overseas, and Happy is in the hospital and Pepper is probably never going to speak to him again and JARVIS isn’t answering him because the suit is dead. He wishes he had Bruce. Bruce would know what to do. Bruce would know who to call.
His eyes snap open. He’s a fucking idiot. He can call Bruce. Science Bros for life to the rescue. Except he gets Bruce’s voicemail too, meaning Jolly Green is either down in the lab, sound asleep in his bed, or is halfway around the world running from his problems in third-world hellholes. He leaves him a message too, just on the off-chance he’s in the john or something, and reels off the number of the payphone, helpfully printed under the receiver.
But now that he’s remembered one Avenger, he remembers the others, and he snatches the receiver up to dial Natasha’s phone. Which, according to the helpful robot lady, is no longer in service. He doesn’t think he ever got Barton’s phone. Fury’s too paranoid to have a phone Tony can access without JARVIS to hack it for him. Agent Agent is dead.
“Goddammit,” he grumbles, and reminding himself that beggars cannot be choosers when they are freezing to death and in the middle of absolutely nowhere, he punches a number from memory and listens to the phone ring. He can almost imagine the national anthem playing on the other end as it rings twice, three times, and then there’s an answer.
He doesn’t open his eyes, but he pictures Steve on the other end. Probably sitting on his crappy bed in his crummy little SHIELD-approved apartment, with that quizzical look on his face. In Tony’s mind, he’s wearing the suit, because he probably doesn’t even take it off to shower. This is a terrible idea, and Tony should hang up now.
He sighs. “Hi Cap,” he says.
“Tony?! The news said you were dead! Your house--”
“Yeah, hi.” It’s lame and it’s weird, but the rest of the words stick in his throat in a giant lump that tastes like stale coffee and shame. No, it’s not lame and weird, it’s fucking ridiculous, because he’s freezing to death at a Texaco station in a winter wasteland hell, and he can’t unfuck his brain or his pride enough to ask Captain America for help. But he’s so tired and cold and, honestly, he’d just like to sit back and have someone ride to his rescue for once, even though he probably doesn’t deserve it. He gets himself into these messes, and he should get himself out, shouldn’t he?
There’s silence at the other end as he belatedly realizes he’s said all of that out loud. He has the horrible sense that maybe he should just hang up now before Captain America can tell him that he’s not coming. Maybe he can find someone in some Podunk town nearby who’ll let him crash in a garage or something for the night, feed him a sandwich or maybe be smart enough to provide him with semi-skilled assistance in getting the suit ready again and is he still rambling all this aloud?
“Yes.” There’s amusement and concern and a whole lot of Steve’s particular brand of… Tony’s never quite sure what that tone means. Warmth? Exasperation? Resignation? All of the above?
The answer is, because of course it is, “All of the above.” Tony resists the urge to bang his head against the ancient payphone, because a) he doesn’t need the line to decide percussive engineering is enough to cut it off, and b) because he also doesn’t need a headache on top of everything else. Well. More of a headache than the one he already has. “Where are you? I can have a quinjet in the air in ten minutes.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t exactly conscious when I faceplanted in a forest. If you can get to the Tower, JARVIS can track the phone number.” He reels it off again, and he can hear the rustle of paper, the scratch of a pencil, as Steve scribbles it down.
“Got the number. JARVIS is running it now. Are you alright? Are you safe?”
Tony lets out a bark of laughter, and it spirals up into heaving hysterics of laughter until he’s crying with it, because it’s the most hilarious question he’s ever heard. Is he alright? Is he safe? Only Captain Fucking America could think to ask that when he’s at a Texaco of all goddamn places on a two-lane road in the winter with dead armor and a house that got blown up by a terrorist in broad freaking daylight. “Peachy,” he croaks, and there’s a lump in his throat, and the world feels just a little bit more distant than it did two minutes ago. “Except for the hypothermia. I’m pretty sure it’s hypothermia.”
“We’re on the way, Tony. JARVIS says you’re in Tennessee. We’ll be there in thirty minutes. Just stay where you are. Find somewhere warm. Stay awake.” Steve is all Cap now, firm commands that must be obeyed. Simple words, easy to understand. Good news for Tony, who is beginning to feel like his brain is about to give up. Simple words are best.
He hangs up the phone without saying goodbye, prying icy fingers from the receiver, and backs out of the phone booth, nearly tripping over the leg of his armor but catching himself in time. The snow is coming down harder now, and Tony can’t stay out on the porch, not even for thirty minutes. He stares, hard, at the station, watching the string of Christmas lights in the window blink on and off, on and off, and he has to blink himself out of the daze it lulls him into.
He’s debating breaking the glass on the door, unlocking it and dragging his armor inside, because Steve told him to get somewhere warm, and it’s the only semi-warm place, and he can totally spin his vandalism into a convincing argument that Captain America told him to break and enter for his own survival. He doesn’t get much further than that before exhaustion drags him to the wooden planks of the verandah and his eyes slide closed.
Gotta stay awake. Help is on the way. It’s his last thought before the darkness swirls him under.