When Tony dreams, he is back in a cave in Afghanistan, standing over the body of the man who saved his life.
"I want this," Yinsen whispers, his voice as broken as his body. "I want this."
It is not the killing Tony sees, the faces of the soldiers in the camp or the soldiers he killed later. Not Obie in the midst of betrayal or his father smug and proud as he tells Tony "You are my greatest creation." Not Rhodie leaving with War Machine or Pepper and strawberries or a childhood hero sneering "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, what are you?" It's Yinsen, a good man dying so Tony can go free—a good man who planned all along to die.
I want this.
Sometimes, Tony wonders what it must be like, to make such peace with death that you welcome it.
Don't waste your life.
Tony sits up in his too-large bed, wiping the remains of the dream off his face, and sighs. Sleep is bad. His brain's not meant to shut down, the gears aren't meant to stop turning while Tony's still breathing. Coffee's a good substitute, especially on nights like these.
Tony glances at the clock.
Well, mornings like these.
He pulls on an old shirt and staggers into the kitchen, where a fresh pot of coffee is already brewing. "JARVIS, have I mentioned that I love you recently?"
"I shall make a note, sir." The AI sounds pleased, which Tony isn't exactly certain he wrote into the programming, but then with the accent he can't exactly tell.
That's all right, though. If Tony has to have one thing go beyond him, one thing become bigger and greater than him, he's glad that it's JARVIS. Even before, when Tony was—
(A man who has everything, yet nothing)
—not Iron Man, JARVIS was still incredible, amazing, decades ahead of even Tony's best work. He's still that way. The mere fact that he's a he makes him beyond everything else, because in making JARVIS, Tony made someone.
Really, it's so incredible that it still takes his breath away.
(Sometimes, he thinks that Yinsen would have liked JARVIS, but that's a foolish thought, and he dismisses it.
The thing with Pepper—if there ever really was a thing to start with, and it wasn't just mutual loneliness or an unhealthy degree of codependence—begins and ends with a kiss on a rooftop, because for all of Pepper's post-freak out babbling, she was right. She is right. She can barely handle Tony the Genius Playboy Inventor, let alone the addition of Tony the Self-Sacrificing Idiot Hero With Societal Debts to Pay.
They're better—much, much better—off as friends, and if a couple of gossip rags (and Nick Fury) happen to get the wrong idea, well, that's not Tony's fault, is it?
Tony's in the kitchen when she comes in. Down the hall, the wind whistles through a gaping hole in the exterior, and New York is in ruins below. Tony is sitting on the counter beside the coffee machine, slumped back against the cupboards. There's coffee brewed, but the mere thought of having to stand up, get a mug, lift the pot, and pour himself a cup is exhausting, and Tony doesn't have any energy to spare at the moment.
Pepper stands in the doorway for a long moment, beautiful and put-together and lovely, and it hurts Tony's heart a little to look at her and think what if, even though he really does know better.
Then she meets his eyes, cracks a tiny smile, and says, "Still don't play well with others, Tony?"
It's such a Pepper thing to say, in the wake of so much destruction and weirdness and by-the-skin-of-their-teeth victory, and she's so very Pepper with that slightly smug, slightly sad smile and I-told-you-so-Mr.-Stark arch to her eyebrow that Tony has to laugh. It cracks as it tumbles from his lips, breaks in the too-cool air and twists into something sharp and shattered but still genuinely amused.
Pepper laughs with him, softly, and crosses over to pull herself up onto the granite countertop across from him. She doesn't bother smoothing down her skirt, and she kicks off her heels. They drop to the floor with satisfying thumps as she pulls the tie from her hair and lets the red strands tumble free around her face, and just for a second, Tony sees what could have been, sees this easy, loose, relieved Pepper with all of her defenses down, and it's bittersweet. But maybe it's a bit more sweet than bitter, and that's good, because he's happy for her.
"Your tower's going to need to be rebuilt," he points out after a moment, and the words feel slow-stupid in a way they usually only do after seventy-two hours awake with minimal coffee. He hasn't slept at all since this whole thing started, and honestly, he isn't as young as he once was. MIT and weeklong sleepless benders are far behind him.
With a roll of her eyes, Pepper reaches up and around to grab a coffee mug out of the cabinet she's leaning against and tosses it to him. "I thought it was your tower, Tony. Twelve percent, remember?"
Tony raises an eyebrow at her, one that clearly says 'genius here, remember?' as he pours himself some coffee. "It's still broken and needs to be fixed. Maybe we should just remodel all the affected floors while we're at it. And see if we can't get the arc reactor hooked into the city power grid, at least for the work crews."
Her phone makes a miraculous appearance from wherever she keeps it—Tony's latest theory is some sort of portable pocket dimension, but all Pepper has to say on the subject is that he watches too much Doctor Who—and she immediately starts making notes. "Anything in particular?"
"Mm." Tony sighs and rubs one hand over his eyes, which feel grainy and rough. "Yeah. Dr. Banner's going to need a lab—the bigger, the better. Put it right below mine, actually. And…can we turn the residency floors under that into a communal space and five apartments?"
Pepper gives him a long look down her nose, and it's amusing that she can do that even when she isn't wearing four inch heels and he's in his bare feet—not that he's ever been taller than her, but that's normal for Tony. She doesn't say anything, but offers him a smug, knowing smile and murmurs, "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
Tony waves a hand at her. "Not hardly. Do you think we can get Cap one of those great sets of Captain America sheets? I'm sure he'd love them."
The smile he gets in answer is sharp and so sweet that it should be a warning all by itself. "You mean like the ones you had as a teenager? I'm sure I can dig out an old set somewhere."
"Pep, that's mean," he protests. "Abuse! Emotional abuse! I'll have my lawyers take you for all you're worth!"
As Pepper laughs at him, sweetly wicked, Tony reflects that Yinsen would have liked her, too.
(It's not foolish this time so much as bittersweet, but Tony dismisses it anyway.
Yinsen is dead, and he's not coming back.)
Tony's working on the arc reactor that powers the tower, trying to increase its output so he can hook it up to the rest of the city grid without shorting it out, when a throat being cleared alerts him to the fact that he's not alone. Since he's elbow-deep in wires and couplings, he waves his free hand in acknowledgement and gropes for a screwdriver.
The exact one he needs is dropped into his hand, and he glances up in surprise to see Bruce staring into the glowing blue heart of the reactor, apparently captivated.
"A warm light for all mankind," he murmurs, and it's easy enough to see that his mind is already racing, that beautiful brain putting together everything he knows about it and how it works. "What are you using as the—?"
"Palladium," Tony mutters around the handle of the screwdriver, squinting at the wires in his hands. This configuration should… "Room-temperature—"
"—superconductor, right." Bruce keeps looking for a moment, and then something seems to register. His eyes widen, and he glances down at Tony with a little bit of horror on his face. "You're using a heavy metal for the one in your chest? The discharge—"
Tony slaps the panel shut and spits out the screwdriver, then leans back to give Bruce a grin that hurts his face. "Could have used you a few months back when I was dying from that." He taps the arc reactor in his chest, because he's proud of this if he's proud of nothing else, and he knows full well that it's brilliant and revolutionary and all the things SI's board would rather pretend Tony himself isn't. Bruce is also one of the few who can probably understand even the smallest fraction of the technology behind it. "It's vibranium now. I built a cyclotron in my lab; synthesized a new atom that actually hit the island of stability rather than falling apart. Turns out it's the same as Dad used to make Captain America's shield. Besides Cap's flying saucer, the only other vibranium on Earth is right here."
"Originally? One point six grams of palladium generated three gigajoules per second with a lifespan of roughly five thousand years. And the bigger the reactor, the more efficient the output." Tony climbs to his feet, and it's a relief that his knees don't creak. He feels like they should, sometimes. "Of course, that was the first one. I've streamlined the power distribution and energy economy. 'Cause, you know, I'm a genius and I've got some spare time here and there—why not redefine clean and affordable energy to be marketed across the world?"
Bruce actually smiles a bit at that, though he touches his glasses nervously. "Amazing," he murmurs. "Once this is easily accessible…"
Tony nods. "Yeah. Worldwide distribution with a focus on developing countries. That's the plan. I don't just call myself a philanthropist for fun. JARVIS, how's it looking?"
"Very good, sir," the AI answers. "Two point seven times the previous output; should I alert the science team that it's safe to establish a connection now?"
"Yeah, sure, they can knock themselves out. Let the mayor know I'll be expecting first consideration in any new energy projects for this. Let's see if we can't get some good publicity while we're at it." He glances over at Bruce, whose eyes are a little wide, and smiles. "JARVIS, meet Bruce. Bruce, JARVIS. He's my genius Igor."
"I do my best, sir," JARVIS murmurs.
"JARVIS?" Bruce asks, raising an eyebrow at Tony, though Tony can't tell if it's because of the name or the accent.
"Just A Rather Very Intelligent System," JARVIS explains. "My apologies. I'm afraid sir was trying to be funny."
"Hey, don't be like that," Tony snipes, flapping a hand at the video camera in the corner. "I can still rewrite your systems and donate you to a community college."
"The horror, sir."
(JARVIS, of course, is exceedingly good at deadpan. Tony likes to think he learned from the master.)
Bruce laughs at both of them, but that's fine, because he looks younger and more at ease when he laughs. Tony grins back at him and slings an arm around his shoulders, and it's a victory when he only tenses a little bit.
"So, Dr. Banner," he says grandly, as the elevator door slides open in front of them. "How about I give you one of those nifty Stark Industries employment contracts Pepper had drawn up for me, and then we set you loose in your shiny new lab and slightly less shiny new quarters?"
(Tony knows that Yinsen would have liked Bruce, and this time, the thought won't go away.)
It's—well, it's probably morning when Tony stumbles into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and no longer entirely certain which direction is up. He's been marathoning it for the past two and a half days, finalizing the code for a new breed of prosthesis made of light, durable, cheap materials and upgraded with an incredibly simple version of JARVIS' learning code, to help it respond to environmental stimuli like a real limb. Unfortunately, the "simple" part of that is proving to be the most difficult, and Tony can't remember the last time he took so much as a bathroom break.
For those reasons, it takes him a good twenty seconds to realize that there's a live body sitting at the oak breakfast table, and another five to get his eyes to focus enough to see that it's Natasha. She's watching him with a politely arched eyebrow, dressed in loose pajama pants and a tank top, with a carton of cookie dough ice cream sitting in front of her.
When he's this tired, Tony's learned not to trust anything he sees, so he squeezes his eyes shut, shakes his head hard, and scrubs his hands over his face.
"Will you kill me if I say I'm imagining you eating ice cream in your pjs?" he asks, voice muffled by his hands.
Natasha snorts softly and kicks out the chair across from her. "Not your imagination, Tony," she says dryly. "I thought Pepper talked to you about this."
Since she's offering it, Tony collapses into the seat and waves a hand. "Eh, Pepper likes the toys I send her, especially when she can bribe the board with them."
Natasha hums like she's paying attention, but her lashes are veiling her eyes and she's licking her spoon like it's foreplay. Tony appreciates the show, he really does, but he's so tired that any response greater than a bit of drool is too much effort. Besides, she can probably kill him in several hundred inventive ways using her spoon alone. With a groan, he drops his head to the tabletop and closes his eyes. "That's not fair," he says plaintively.
Natasha laughs, soft and husky, and pushes the container across the table.
Regarding it, Tony sighs and then levers himself to his feet to get another spoon. "I hope you know that you're supporting methane production, global warming, childhood obesity, and the epidemic of diabetes in this country," he informs the assassin in the cuddly pajama bottoms—
Which, now that he looks more closely (and can focus his eyes), are Star Trek.
Tony's just found his new favorite Avenger. Thor will have to settle for second place.
"You are amazing," he tells her earnestly. "Really. Star Trek? Marry me. I'll upgrade your taser bracelets as a bonus."
She laughs at him again, shaking her head and stealing the ice cream back. Rather than acknowledging what an awesome idea marrying Tony would be, she says, "The room is nice."
And…that's how Natasha moves in.
(Yinsen was a pacifist, so Tony isn't entirely certain that he would have approved of Natasha.
But he likes to think the old man would have.)
With the Black Widow ghosting around the tower and terrifying the cleaning staff, Tony's fairly certain that Hawkeye's presence is inevitable. Therefore, he only has a mild heart attack when he returns from getting popcorn and soda to find Clint seated on the couch, with a movie already cued up and waiting.
It's Repo Man. Tony can forgive a lot for Repo Man.
With a huff, he drops onto the other end of the couch and offers up the bowl.
"Kettle corn?" Clint asks, snagging a handful.
"Heathen," Tony laments. "You're a heathen with admittedly awesome taste in movies. It's parmesan."
Clint makes a dissatisfied noise, but pops the kernels into his mouth anyway. Tony offers him one of the glass bottles of cola, and they toast each other before turning back to watch the movie.
When Natasha spontaneously appears between them some minutes later, it's a relief that Tony isn't the only one to spill his drink and send the popcorn flying.
(As for Clint, well, Tony's not entirely certain Yinsen would have approved, but then, the archer likes Blade Runner. He's got to be at least a little approval-worthy, if only for that.)
It's another ten days after Clint's appearance that Steve requests entrance to Tony's lab. Tony grants it, because he's curious as to what the good captain could want, and shoves up his welding mask to watch Steve pick his way awkwardly around the various tables and benches and piles of projects in various states of completion. He seems like he wants to march in and salute, but he keeps being waylaid by Tony's organizational system.
"Yeah, Cap?" Tony asks, once the supersoldier is within speaking distance. "What's up? Avengers emergency?"
"No, everything's fine." Steve looks entirely self-conscious, and rubs one big hand over the back of his neck. "I…Natasha said you had rooms for us here?"
It takes a second, even though Tony's relatively fresh (because he's never been good at social cues, though he can fake it with the best of them, or at least better than most other geniuses he knows—Reed Richards comes to mind), but then it clicks. This is a peace offering, an outstretched hand when he and Cap have been holding each other at a wary distance since Loki's departure. Steve's trying to be the bigger man, to put the past behind him—though, Tony thinks a little regretfully, he's had plenty of practice doing that lately, hasn't he?
He drops the torch with a clatter and grins at Cap, entirely pleased. After all, this is the man who was his biggest hero when he was a kid, the only way he and his father ever managed to connect. He holds out his hand, and Steve takes it with a breath of relief, smile spreading over his face.
"Nice to have you, Cap," Tony tells him. "Need help carrying things? Because I've got people for that."
"Steve," comes the gentle correction. "Call me Steve. Thanks, Tony." The old Steve, the one from the hellicarrier, who was out of his time and out of his depth and bitter about both things, would have remarked on Tony's comment, said something snide, but after a motorcycle tour of America, this Steve seems more relaxed, easier. He smiles at Tony and jerks a thumb at the duffle bag sitting beside his shield outside the lab. "I've just got that, so I'm fine."
They stare at each other for a long moment, uncertain of what to say. Tony fiddles with his welding gloves, rubs the pad of one finger over a shiny new burn to go with the countless others on his skin, while Steve bites his lip and shifts slightly on the balls of his feet. Then Steve draws himself up a little straighter and says, "Would you, uh, mind showing me where I can stay?"
"Not at all!" Tony pounces on the excuse, stripping off his gloves and taking half a second to make sure everything flammable, hot, or capable of exploding is out of danger, and then leads the way to the elevator. Because this is Steve Rogers, and Tony's had a crush on him since the first time his father gave him a Captain America poster for his birthday. Even if Steve's never going to feel the same way, Tony's the type to milk his presence for all it's worth, even if that's just sporadic company whenever Tony surfaces from his work. "Right this way. I think Pepper might even have found a set of Captain America sheets from the eighties, really, they're vintage and awesome, you'll love them."
He glances back at Steve, following obediently, and makes a note to inspire that particular shade of red as often as possible. It's adorable, and while that term should probably not apply to a six-foot-something muscle-bound supersoldier from the last World War, it so totally does.
(Yinsen would definitely have liked Steve, Tony thinks, and it makes him feel a little warm and a little sad, all at once.
But that's fine, that's good, and Tony sets the thought aside with his new designs for the Mark IX for later contemplation.)
Tony doesn't often mingle with the general public; he's a little too much like Reed, though he'll never admit that to anyone, to completely trust himself in unexpected social situations. It's fine when he's prepared, when he can establish the correct mindset and shut away Tony the Eccentric Inventor, but whenever he's out alone he tends to wander, to get lost in plans and ideas that make his fingers itch for a pen.
Sometimes, though, it's nice to skip out on the end of the day and wander through Prospect Park, down curving, shadowed paths and over small streams. The world seems particularly peaceful, then, and Tony doesn't have to worry about more than the rare overzealous fan.
It's on one such walk, thoughts entirely consumed by a new alloy for use on SI satellites, that Tony feels a sudden touch on his arm. He turns, startled but not yet defensive, and finds himself face to face with a thin Afghani man with round glasses and a small smile, dressed like any other New Yorker.
Tony's heart, even maintained as it is by the world's strongest electromagnet, stutters and skips a beat.
Ho Yinsen smiles at him, and there's something heartbreaking in his face, his eyes. Tony's never really seen that expression from anyone before—shades of it, maybe, but not like this, bright and shining and warm.
"I'm proud of you," Yinsen says softly, and lays his hand on Tony's shoulder. He's still smiling. "So proud. You took something so rough and turned it into something amazing, Stark."
Tony tries to breathe past the constriction in his throat, tries to put the wet stinging in his eyes down to the breeze, even though there isn't one. "The suit," he manages after a moment. "I'm still…working some of the kinks out."
But Yinsen is already shaking his head, closing his eyes as he smiles. "Oh, no," he says. "I'm not talking about the suit, Anthony Stark. I am talking about you. This man you have become—I like him very much."