He sits, ironclad and empty, on the edge of the world. Or that's what it feels like anyways, looking down from the top of his tower. He watches the constant stream of city life below him. Sounds of traffic travel the endless distance from the ground only to be stopped by his armor. He has muted the outside world, preferring instead the numb silence.
His mind is blank for the first time in years, and just that thought should be enough to set him on edge, but he can't find the energy to care. Instead he just watches the lights below, bright and beautiful against the backdrop of night. He takes a deep, controlled breath.
Images flash unbidden to the forefront of his mind.
Short, dirty hair flying wildly in the wind. Tiny fingers reaching, grasping, believing. Wide and innocent green eyes on a too young face, meeting his with a desperation that can only be found when hope has been lost. The smile that graced the young boy's face was heartbreaking, a joyful realization that he was going to be sav-
Tony stands. His body is shaking inside the suit. Feverish and panting, he frantically scrabbles at the metal plates, trying to get out, trying to rip himself out if he has to. The metal, once so comforting, is now constricting around him. He can't get enough oxygen, the chest plate is crushing against his lungs and he wants to shout, scream, breathe, but he has no air.
He brings his hand to his face plate, intent on tearing it the fuck off, when he sees the blood. Analyzing the dark stains down his mechanized arm, smeared and patterned in a unique way that can only be accomplished by the air streaming around him during flight. Chunks of flesh and viscera are trapped in the crevices of his second skin. The blood and the guts and the tufts of hair with shreds of scalp still attached, all of it was burnt until black and crusted.
A robotic voice is speaking into his ear, steadily growing more and more urgent. Tony was having trouble putting meaning to the words.
“Friday.” The lilting dialogue stops immediately. “Open the suit.” His voice is calm but his heart is pounding and his breaths are coming in shaky gasps.
“Boss, your vitals-”
“Open the goddamn suit.”
The armor opens up, and Tony attempts to free himself. Wounds he had ignored to the point of nonexistence suddenly flare up as the armor falls around him. Blood had clotted inside the suit, injuries going through the first stage of healing had been torn open again. He cannot lift his left arm, and looking down he glimpses a terrifying flash of white. The pain is throbbing and intense, completely overtaking all other sensations. Until it hits him.
A horrifying odor of burnt hair and cooked flesh mixing with smoke and fire.
Vomit travels up his throat so quickly he nearly chokes on it. Falling painfully to his hands and knees, he expels every available liquid from his body, until he's just dry heaving. He crawls away from the armor, choking and sputtering from the scent, that god awful scent that has no justifiable place in this world. Yet here it is, and Tony knows it's something he'll never forget. The convulsions rip through his body, agitating his injuries, but he keeps moving. His blood drips sluggishly onto the gravel, unnoticed.
A cool breeze sweeps across the rooftop and he takes a deep breath of the clean air. He uses the brief moment of reprieve to get on his feet. He moves as fast as his body will allow, an unsteady lurching gait that grows more painful with every step. But anything is better than that acrid stench, and the reason it fills his nostrils. He forcefully shoves the thought from his mind, refusing to acknowledge it, because he knows that he can't. Not now, and definitely not sober.
He makes it to the control panel. He attempts to press his thumb on the scanner, but the blood covering his hand smears across the surface. He bundles his shirt fabric around his functioning fist and wipes it clean as best he can, all the while holding his breath. He tries again, and this time it takes. The door slides open with a hiss. Tony almost falls in his haste to get off the roof.
When the door clicks shut behind him, he leans onto it heavily, desperate for something besides his own legs to support him.
Since when? Your own two legs are all you have, all you’ve ever had. That’s two more than Rhodey. Stop being such a selfish bastard.
He wishes with all of his might, meager as it is right now, that Cap were here. Shit, anyone. Rhodey, Nat, Bruce, Pepper. Anyone who could tell him that it wasn’t his fault. To be alone after finally getting a taste of what a real family is, was cruel even for him, and he’s burnt people alive. Terrorist people, sure, but people all the same. A haze is settling over his senses, and he is no longer in Stark Tower.
80 stories up, on a building owned by the same enemy that started him on this path. He sees that god awful flag waving fluidly in the wind, proudly displaying a symbol that has haunted him since the caves. He watches as the man below it lifts the struggling child-
“Put everything we have into the thrusters!”
“Boss, we won’t be able to sustain-”
“Do it, goddammit!”
The suit breaks the sound barrier with a familiar crack, and he’s shooting toward the man with a velocity so high the world warps around him. The weight of the Earth’s gravity is pushing into his body as he straightens out, flying vertical at top speed and he can see black spots dancing in his peripherals. Black spots that threaten to overwhelm him, to stretch far and wide until he’s floating inside the empty space, watching as the HUD dies around him and the world lives below, just out of his reach. Cold seeps into his limbs, and his lungs are trying to collapse in on themselves. The portal closes and the blast incinerates whatever is left of ‘the great Tony Stark’.
Shaking away the sickening vision, he lands in front of the man, the terrorist who holds a boy no older than eight.
“Drop him. I won’t say it a second time.” His voice is firm and strong through the suit’s audio filters. He mutes them, just long enough to ask Friday to scan the child for injuries.
“He is severely malnourished and I have detected an unknown device inserted in his abdomen. I cannot decipher it’s purpose, as the scanner cannot penetrate deep enough from this distance.”
The man lifts the boy, who has gone limp in his grasp, and bares his teeth in a feral smile.
“Drop him? Your wish is my command, Mr. Stark. Consider this as an invitation to a war you will not win. Courtesy of the Mandarin.”
“Boss, you have multiple calls coming in, Ross in particular is demanding that you respond.” Friday’s voice echoes around him, and all at once his world is re-calibrated. His mind slips back with a surge of clarity.
“Tell Ross he can fuck off, I’ll be in the workshop. Block any and all attempts at communication, with the exception of world-ending catastrophes. Evacuate any staff in the building and lock us down. Nothing comes in. Alert me immediately if a breach is attempted, but keep all defensive maneuvers non-lethal unless I say otherwise. Clear?”
He pushes off from the wall and immediately staggers. A wave of dizziness hits him hard, but it’s not enough to make him fall. The elevator doors open as he approaches, sliding shut behind him as Friday takes him to his lab. They open again with a cheerful ding and he walks, bloody and limping, toward his haven. His nest, as Barton would’ve called it. If he were here.
“Must be getting sentimental in my old age.” His tongue is rounding the words off as they leave his mouth, an unwelcome slur presenting itself. He clenches his teeth and walks on, and if he’s unusually silent, Friday doesn’t comment on it. She seems to understand that now is not the time for their usual banter.
The first aid kit hangs on the wall, and he takes it down with a shaking hand.
“Alright, gimme the list, doc.”
“Deep bruising covers approximately half of your body, and you have several cracked ribs. The laceration on your right leg has caused a dangerous amount of blood loss over time, but does not seem to be life threatening. And as I’m sure you’ve noticed, you have a compound fracture on your left forearm. I recommend you seek immediate medical assistance.”
“Advice has been acknowledged and ignored. If I pass out, and I probably will, you are not allowed to contact anyone unless my vitals reach critical. Then, and only then, you may do what you need to.”
He can feel her frustration in the silence that follows. He limps to one of the many work benches scattered throughout the workshop, one broken arm cradled painfully to his chest, and the other gripping the first aid kit with a white-knuckled fist. Opening the clasps takes him much longer than he would ever admit.
Tony cuts off his pant leg with a pair of wire cutters found lying on the bench. Pressing the bundle of fabric to the sluggishly bleeding wound and leaving it there, he begins emptying the kit of what he’ll need. Quickly popping some painkillers beforehand, of course.
He takes out the suture kit and sterilizing solution with practiced ease, and disinfects both his hands. This part takes some time, as he can’t completely straighten out his left arm. He supposes the chunk of bone playing peekaboo has a lot to do with that. Then he pours more of the solution onto the curved forceps, needle, thread, and the gash itself, which hurts like a motherfucker and leaves him gasping for air.
He struggles getting the latex glove onto his right hand, but manages all the same. He examines the tear in his thigh for any foreign materials, and though he finds none, he douses the area with more solution, just to be safe. Threading the needle is easier than he thought it would be, taking only a portion of an eternity. Without letting himself stop and think about it, Tony pushes the needle through and around, tugging it until the first suture is secure, and moving on to the next.
Push, pull, repeat. Push, pull, repeat.
His brain reacts to his actions very eloquently, bringing a fantastic array of curses for him to groan out at random intervals.
27 stitches later, and Tony can no longer feel his left arm, which is both a relief and also fucking terrifying. Tying off the thread and cutting it, he finally shifts his attention to the gruesome wound on his forearm, and promptly freaks the fuck out.
“Okay, shit, that is a part of my body that is supposed to stay inside at all times. Can I even set that without killing myself?”
“Boss, if I may, I believe you should seek assistance in this matter. You could sever an artery or cause permanent nerve damage if you botch this one.”
Fuck, shit, fuck.
“Okay, if I put the gauntlet on, you think you could inflate the anti-gravity gel enough to set the bone without cutting any of the squishy stuff I need to, oh you know, not die?”
“It’s possible, but are you that intent on avoiding professional treatment?”
“Cut me some slack, I’m one of the few Avengers left that by some miracle isn’t on the world’s most wanted list. I can’t show weakness now, not when Earth’s defenses are so understaffed. Besides, hospital bills are way too expensive.” Tony could practically hear her metaphorical eye roll. It wasn’t a lie, but neither was it the whole truth. Every time he thought of a brightly lit hospital room, the cloying odor of death and lemon-scented disinfectant, it led to dangerous thoughts.
The horrifying whir of the bone saw as it neatly cut out his sternum, smoke drifting serenely upward. Yinsen hunched over the gaping hole in his chest, bloody gloves rubbing against his frantically beating heart and he can feel it. Shouting and unbearable pain surrounding him completely until a sweet smelling cloth is forced over his mouth and his eyes roll back-
“Let’s do this.” Tearing his train of thought right the fuck off that set of tracks, Tony lifts his right hand up to catch the gauntlet Friday sends toward him. He holds it for a moment, just thinking about how badly he doesn’t want to be doing this, but not willing in the slightest to ask for help from those not created by his own two hands.
People, it turns out, just can’t stop betraying him. Stane. Natasha. Steve. Even Rhodey took his turn, when he went to Hammer. Pepper didn’t betray him, not really. She stayed longer than anyone else, dug her way into his mangled heart, came to know him better than anyone, and then left him.
Threat is imminent, and I have to protect the one thing I can’t live without. That’s you.
The one thing he couldn’t live without, and here is, living without her. If waking up, cold and alone, to nothing but his sweat-soaked sheets and an empty fortune is considered living. But, hey! At least he’s still got his good looks, right?
Slipping the gauntlet onto his arm, a hoarse groan escapes when the exposed bone makes contact.
The gauntlet locks into place, and the gel inside swells so quickly he has no time to regret his decision. He hears the bone snap together, and bites his tongue trying not to scream. Which he does manage, barely. His whole arm throbs with every beat of his heart, but he’s not done yet. Disinfecting every tool again is tedious, but infection is a slippery slope that he’d rather not slide down. He takes the gauntlet off, quickly cleaning the newly opened gash (ohmyfuckinggod I can’t I can’t I can’t, I have to) he sutures the wound that's left behind. He uses the sterilizing agent to decontaminate the inside of the gauntlet. Tony carefully wraps some bandaging around his pulsing limb, then puts the gauntlet back on. It latches together and locks itself, becoming a million dollar splint.
“Just another day in the wonderful life of Tony fuckin’ Stark.” The words fall heavily from his mouth, dripping with exhausted sarcasm as he slumps into unconsciousness.