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prologue.

"I am Iron Man."

Tony says it and a single flashbulb goes off before he gets the chance to smile pretty for the camera, before he even makes it all the way out the door. He flinches back from the light, realizes it's just the afternoon sun, low in the sky. Been a while since he got a good look at it. He missed it, maybe, but not this godforsaken heat.

He stands on the steps of the courthouse, blinking, breathing, taking a good look around. Runners on the quad. Blue, blue sky, no clouds. Long shadows over dying grass. Artillery fire in the distance. It's a perfectly normal day.

The flash goes off again and he turns and squints at the cameraman. It's a guy named Mitchell, writes for Stars & Stripes now, but used to be in Tony's unit. Didn't re-up. Obviously smarter than Tony, because here they are.

"Hey, Stark," Mitchell says, trying too hard to be casual. He drops the camera, and it dangles precariously from the strap around his neck.

"Mitchell, hey. Good to see you. Did you get that? It's important. Iron Man." He pauses, waits. "Don't you think you should be taking notes?"

Mitchell just looks at him, though, doesn't take out his notebook, stands there staring at Tony like he's the fucking bearded lady at a circus, says, "I think I got it." He doesn't write anything down.

"Seriously, man, just--"

"That's enough, Stark. Let's go." The two MPs on either side of him each grab one of his elbows. The cuffs dig into his wrists. He's sweating through his greens after all of three minutes in the Georgia summer sun, but he's pretty sure he's never going to have to put on this uniform again. He tells himself it's worth it.

 

 


"Your eyes are red."

"Allergies," Potts says, not smiling, her familiar face shimmering through the hot exhaust belching out from beneath the bus.

Tony shifts on his feet, nodding, and slings his rucksack over his shoulder. He's been back in Georgia for 30 seconds, and already the heat is closing in around him, pressing down on his shoulders and curling into his lungs. He hasn't seen Potts in a year, but he's having trouble looking at her now; he squints into the setting sun and sniffs at the air, breathes in the lush scent of damp earth and marshland. The two of them watch in silence as the Greyhound disappears in a cloud of red dust and fumes.

"So," he says, when the bus is out of sight, bouncing a little on his toes. He thought it'd feel good, being out, but mostly he just feels lost and jittery, like he's going to shake right out of his skin.

Potts sighs, finally, a small smile curving her lips. "All right, let's go."

"Thank fucking god," he breathes, something loosening in his chest. "I thought you'd never ask."

They head to the car, and Tony sees she's driving the same shitty Civic he rebuilt until it stopped being a Civic. Never managed to make it stop being shitty, though, and he shakes his head when Potts offers him the keys. He hasn't driven in ages, doesn't remember the roads, isn't sure where they're going, hates her piece-of-shit car anyway. "What happened to my truck?" he asks, not sure he really wants to hear it.

She glances at him over the hood of the car. "I don't know."

"You know everything, Potts, come on. What happened to it?"

"Get in the car."

"You know I hate this thing, right?" He opens the door and slides into the passenger seat.

"I see prison was good for you," she says, getting in. "Taught you some manners." But she's got a slight grin on her face, and he returns it as well as he can. It doesn't last, though, and he rolls down the window, drowns the silence with the wind.

 

***

Tony can't tie his fucking tie. Well, he can, but he can't do it well enough to pass inspection. It's too short or it's too long or it's too far to the left and doesn't line up with his belt buckle. He's about to fuck up the fourth inspection in a row, and god knows what the hell they're going to do to him this time.

"Stark, come over here."

Tony blinks at Potts. He'd noticed her right away, of course -- he's pretty sure he's constitutionally required to notice long-legged redheads -- but when that first shock of attraction had faded, she'd fallen off his radar. She was competent and confident and kept her head down, and he had to worry about the fuckups in his squad. Potts wasn't one of them.

He apparently was, though, and Potts was worrying about it. "You can field-strip and reassemble an M16, blindfolded, in 37 seconds -- which, by the way, is not normal -- and you can't tie a four-in-hand." She mutters under her breath and yanks at his tie. "What is wrong with you?"

He lifts his chin to give her better access. "Maybe I was just hoping you'd help me out."

Her knuckles are cool against the hollow of his throat. Her nose wrinkles in concentration, and he watches what it does to her freckles. "And maybe I was just hoping for a chance to strangle you."

He doesn't smile, because smiling isn't allowed and he's forgotten how, but he feels the ghost of one stretch behind his eyes. "No time like the present."

"You're a little crazy, aren't you?"

"Aren't you?"

She makes one last adjustment and steps out of the way, ignoring his question. "There."

He looks in the mirror, and the end of his tie is exactly one inch above his belt buckle, perfectly aligned. He passes inspection for the first time, and after that, Potts always ties his tie. He has to polish her boots in exchange, and he's a piss-poor excuse for a bootblack, but Tony thinks it's a pretty fair trade.

 

***

Even when she makes him roll the window up -- "You fixed the air, remember?" -- they don't talk much. Tony doesn't know what the hell there is to say. He wrote her letters, long ones, all the time, and he hopes she kept them because they've got schematics in the margins, but letters were easy. This is different, everything's different, and all he can do is stare out the window, marking changes in the landscape as it blurs on by.

At the Waffle House on Oglethorpe Highway, they drink too much coffee and talk about the weather.

On the banks of the Jerico River, they find some solid ground and sit with their feet in the water, watching the moon rise over the marshland, its light glinting off the surface of the water like shards of broken glass. They get muck on their clothes and don't talk about anything at all.

 

***

It's every cliché in the book, but Tony has a plan: He's out with his buddies, he's going to get drunk, he's going to get laid, and in the morning he's going to war. Captain Fucking America, that's him.

Tony and maybe 30 other people, most of them shipping out, roll into the parking lot of some bar an hour west of nowhere. It's perfect: an old converted barn, big and sprawling, with an unpaved lot and a line of people out the door. The crowd's a little more country-western than he's used to, but Tony's pretty sure they'll have tequila.

"What's with this place?" Tony's never heard of it, and he likes to think he's familiar with most of the area bars.

Haines, the guy who set up the expedition, grins. "You'll see, man. Just wait."

Everyone stands in line for maybe 15 minutes, crowding together as they get pushed toward the open doors. The place is huge, one big room broken only by wooden beams and a raised ring in the center that catches Tony's eye. "Oh, yeah," he breathes, grabbing Potts and spinning her around by her hips to look inside. "Look." He points, grinning against her ear.

She turns away with an exaggerated groan and an, "oh, no," dropping her head to his chest.

"Oh, yeah," he says again, throwing his head back and laughing, his hand falling back to her hip. "Come on, Potts, I could be killed."

Her breath is hot as she mumbles against his neck. "You get to use that line once tonight, Stark. Think hard."

He shakes her hips, still smiling. "I don't think there's much choice. They have a mechanical bull." He wants to jump up and down, but settles for just shaking Potts some more. She finally lifts her head and glares at him, but before he can say anything, Haines is pushing them through the doors.

"If I'm riding that thing, so are you," she says, three shots later and readying the fourth.

"You're on. I'll even go first. And I'll bet you twenty bucks I can stay on longer than you can."

An eyebrow goes up, and Tony knows he's got her. Her eyes don't leave his as she raises her arm and swipes her tongue across her wrist. He grins and licks his own wrist, salts them both, and they put away another shot of tequila.

By the time they call his name to ride, the rest of the guys have heard about the bet, and two hundred bucks are at stake. He's not drunk, but the tequila's got him feeling pretty good, and he borrows a cowboy hat from a random brunette and swings into the saddle with a wink at the chick behind the controls.

It starts off slow and easy, and Tony keeps his seat without a problem, one arm in the air. It's loud, whistles and catcalls and old-school Johnny Cash, and the room is spinning and the lights are bright, but sometimes he can see Potts smiling.

The cool January air outside doesn't keep the room from being sweltering, too many people jammed too close together, and the lights beating down on him aren't helping. He can feel the sweat streaming down the back of his neck, and his hand slips on the strap as the bull jerks to the left. It's bucking harder, more randomly, and he leans too far to the right, sending the too-small hat flying off his head.

He makes the most of the moment, clamping his thighs down hard and pulling his t-shirt off. It gets a lot louder, and he smiles for the ladies and throws his shirt at Potts. She snatches it out of the air with a roll of her eyes he can see from where he is, and then he has to hold on tight.

He lasts 32 seconds before he loses his balance and goes flying, landing on his ass in the sawdust padding the floor. He's laughing too hard to stand, but then the announcer calls Potts' name and she's there, offering Tony a hand up.

"That cash is mine," he says, smirking, but she just smacks him with his shirt and then plants a hand in the middle of his chest, bracing against him as she pulls off her heels. Her hand slips through the sweat on his skin, but she doesn't lose her balance.

"Hold onto these for me," she says. Her toenails are purple. Her smile is all teeth.

As Tony makes his way out of the ring, he picks up the lost cowboy hat and tosses it to Potts, who catches it neatly in one hand, puts it on, and swings up into the saddle in one smooth motion. She barely takes the time to settle herself before she puts her left arm in the air and nods at the operator. The bull's back end rises, and she lays down almost flat against it, one hand wrapped tight around the reins, her torso stretching, her thighs flexing, her hips lifting, her back arching, her shirt riding up.

"Fuck me," Haines says, his tone one of deep awe, and Tony has to agree.

As he watches Potts, the din of the bar and the room itself warps and fades from his awareness. He blames it on the heat, but it probably has more to do with the way Potts' thighs look in those jeans, clamped tight on the saddle, and with that bare patch of skin he sees every time she stretches.

She takes the hat off, holding it up in the air as she shakes her wrecked pony tail loose with a few tosses of her head. Her hair's curly from the humidity, and it hangs to her shoulders, more red than he remembers. Maybe it's just the lighting. The bull speeds up, starts looking downright dangerous, and Potts rides the thing out, arm in the air, hair flying, torso twisting, thighs working, toes curling.

Potts rides for 57 seconds, and just when she starts to lose her balance and it looks like she's going to get thrown, she vaults off and lands on her feet. The room explodes with deafening cheers and whistles, and Potts' eyes find his. She's wearing a little smirk on her face, and Tony can't help but grin in answer. He lifts two fingers to his forehead, tips the hat he isn't wearing.

When Potts finally makes it to where Tony's standing, she looks at him with shining eyes, obviously trying to keep a straight face.

"What the fuck," he shouts, and she loses it, throws her head back and laughs herself breathless. "What, are you some kind of bull-riding hustler or something? Where the hell did you learn do to that?"

"Natural athleticism," she shouts back, still smiling, combing her fingers through her hair to restore some order. She gets it tied back and holds out a hand. "Shoes."

He hands them over, and she plants another hand on his chest as she slides them on. "Admit it," he says, watching her. "You spend your weekends watching 'Bull Durham,' getting tips."

"'Bull Durham' is about baseball," she tells him, still laughing. "Come on, Haines, pay up."

Haines forks over the cash with a "very nice, Potts" and an impressed look that's mirrored on the face of everyone there.

Tony shakes his head and puts his hands on Potts' shoulders, points her at the bar. "Shots. You're buying shots, now that you've hustled us all out of our money."

One of the guys gives Potts his seat, and Tony leans against the bar, shoved sideways between Potts and the stool next to hers. He stares and stares and keeps on staring.

"What?" she finally asks. "Stop looking at me like that."

He bends his head, resting his forehead against her temple and speaking into her ear. "Like what?"

Potts moves, too, rolls her head so their cheeks press together and her mouth's against his ear. "Like you want to take me apart." He feels her jaw work as she swallows. "Find out how I work."

"I'd put you back together," he says, smiling against her skin. "Write to me."

She tenses, enough that it pulls her head away from his. "Write you what? Letters?"

"Yeah. You know, pen and paper, Dear Tony. Letters."

Her laugh doesn't sound amused, and she turns and puts away another shot of tequila, no salt. He edges closer, and she sighs, brings her head back down to rest against his. Her eyelashes brush against his temple. "Are you going to write back?"

"If I can, but I'll probably be pretty busy."

Silence.

"Oh, come on, Potts, it's tradition. I'm supposed to have a girl back home sending me letters."

She stiffens like she's about to pull away again. "I am not--"

"I know, I know," he says, moving closer and bending to keep their heads together. "But you know what I mean. No one's ever written me a real letter."

"I'm sure any of the million girls you've slept with would be happy to send you letters. Pictures, even, if you play your cards right."

He snorts. "Like any of them have anything interesting to say. But you know what? Forget I asked."

"No, it's not--"

"Seriously, forget it. It's fine. Whatever."

"You are such an idiot."

"At least come see me off in the morning?"

She doesn't say anything for a few seconds, just breathes against his ear. "All right."

He leans back with a smile. "Thanks, Potts. I'll see you in the morning."

Tony leaves Potts to her fan club and proceeds to get wasted. He looks for her occasionally, and every time he catches sight of her, she's laughing, surrounded by guys, and it takes her about half a second to notice he's looking, to look back and meet his eyes.

He goes home with two blondes. Potts lifts her drink as he leaves the bar, and when she hugs him goodbye at the airfield in the morning, she looks more exhausted than he does.

 

***

"Where are we going, Potts?" His stomach twists as they come off the crest of a hill and round a corner at the same time, 80 mph through the dark. He'd forgotten. "I mean, I'm good if we're just out for a joyride, but I did just spend almost two straight days on a bus, so, you know, I'd like--"

"I moved," she says, but doesn't take her eyes off the road.

She hadn't told him that, but he's not surprised. He's glad, too, because it's not like he wanted to stay on base. Not like they would have let him, anyway. So he doesn't say anything as he peers into the darkness of the surrounding forest and waits for them to come to an intersection. He tries to read the road sign as it flies by, tries to place it on his mental map. He fails on both counts. "Seriously, where the hell are we going? We must be halfway to Florida by now."

"You'll see," she says. "We're almost there." She obviously means it, because the car lurches suddenly, and they're heading through some thinned-out trees down a winding driveway, gravel crunching underneath the tires.

They climb out of the car and Tony rolls his shoulders, cracks his neck. He'd forgotten this, too, what it's like to be out here. He used to find it suffocating, the way the pitch-black humidity seems so close, the way the crickets and the frogs roar in rhythm. The middle of nowhere isn't supposed to be loud, but it is, and Tony listens happily to the great outdoors and peers into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

"Hey, is that my truck?" It's parked behind some trees, barely visible, but he knows the outline of a 1953 Chevy pickup when he sees one.

"Yeah."

"Nice," he says, and he's about to say more, but then his eyes catch on the house. "That's your house?" It obviously is, and he doesn't wait for Potts to answer. "It's--. You own this house. You're a homeowner. Wow." He tries, briefly, to come up with something that isn't insulting. "Okay, I'm sorry, but does it look better in the daytime? What is this? Other than fucking falling apart, I mean."

Because what it looks like to him is a ramshackle old farmhouse, one story, bricks and cinderblocks and rotting wood. The roof sags a little in the middle. He's seen a thousand just like it, run-down reminders of times long gone, but he didn't think anyone actually lived in the damn things.

Potts is standing on the other side of the car, watching him look at her house, and suddenly she starts laughing. Tony blinks. Potts keeps laughing, and he hasn't heard her -- or anyone, actually -- laugh like that in years, since before he went to Iraq. Her laugh is loud and full and free, sounds like she might never stop. She gasps for air, bends at the waist, and keeps on laughing.

He walks to her side of the car and watches her, concerned, but that only seems to make her laugh harder, and the next thing he knows, he's laughing, too. They slide to the ground, asses on gravel with their backs to her car, shoulders touching, and they laugh until they can't breathe and they've got tears in their eyes and they're clutching at their stomachs and it fucking hurts.

Tony can't remember the last time he felt so good.

 

***

He never thought he'd say it, but he misses Georgia, misses everything about it. Iraq is a different kind of hot with a different kind of dirt, fine-grained and fucking everywhere, the kind he spits out of his mouth every time he coughs, the kind he expects he'll be shitting out ten years from now. The work is better, though, more interesting; the terrain is so harsh and the conditions so shitty that he damn near has to rebuild every vehicle from scratch when it comes through. He spends 18-hour days covered in mud and oil and he rips apart Humvees and M88s and Bradleys and he puts them together better than they were made in the first place.

He even writes to Potts, tells her about the new drive train mechanism he designed for the M577 and how much ass he kicks at Gran Turismo IV. He tries to tell her about the desert, but he stares at the paper and the words don't come. He shakes sand out of his hair, folds up the paper, sends it off the next day without writing anything at all.

 

***

"So are you going to tell me why you bought this thing?" They're still sitting in the driveway, but Potts went into the house and grabbed some beer. The bottle sweats in his hand, condensation dripping between his feet, and he watches out of the corner of his eye as she tips her head back and takes four long pulls.

"Foreclosure. House, outlying buildings, three acres, sixty grand."

"Yeah, okay," he says, and takes a few pulls of his own. "But really. Are you going to tell me why you bought this thing?"

"Nope. I'll show you, though. Come on."

They tramp through the weeds for ten minutes, maybe longer, and then the silhouette of yet another ramshackle structure materializes out of the darkness. He supposes it used to be a barn, but the outline is jagged and sloping, fixable only by wrecking ball. He doesn't say anything, though, just shakes his head and takes another drink. Potts keeps walking and then digs in her pocket for a key to unlock a side door. He looks at her curiously but stays silent, following as she ducks inside. She pauses for a moment, hesitating over something, and then she hits a switch.

Lights come on, actual lights, illuminating the inside of the barn, and Tony stops breathing. It's been structurally reinforced with new wooden beams, the concrete floor is flat and clean and newly poured, and there are several sturdy work tables in the center of the room, all scattered with tools. At first glance, he can see a soldering station, welding gear, a hundred different hand-tools. Most of it doesn't look new, but Tony doesn't care.

"Pepper Potts," he breathes out, still not moving, taking it in. The left half of the room looks like a junkyard. There are piles of car parts, old computers, bits of aluminum siding, kitchen fixtures, Tony doesn't even know what else. His eyes finally make it to the back of the barn, and his chest constricts painfully, cuts off his breathing. Three generators. Under the hole in the roof, a forge. Next to it, the Mark II.

At his side, Potts shifts on her feet. "Are you actually speechless? Most of this, it's not... I mean, some of it's the stuff you stole, and I got a lot of it from your old shop," she says. "Not the parts, though. I don't really know what most of that is. I just, if I saw it and it looked like it might be useful, I brought it back. I don't know, though, if it's good enough for-- what?"

He's moved to stand in front of her and he knows he's staring like she's got four heads, but he thinks he might be drowning. His chest is tight, he's having trouble breathing, his eyes are watering. He tries for a smile, but it seems somehow inadequate.

"What?" she says again. "I mean, I know it's not much, but--"

She stops babbling when he reaches out and takes her beer away. He sets the bottle on the ground next to his, and then pulls her into a hug. It startles her -- they've never been much for hugs -- but he holds on, and it doesn't take her long to relax against him. As soon as she does, his control breaks and he starts shaking, and she's the one who tightens her arms, slides a hand around the back of his neck, pulls him close.

"It's everything," he says, when he's able to speak. "Thank you."

 

***

Fire. Chaos. Shouting. An explosion. Gun shots. Another explosion.

*

The first night he's conscious, everyone's in pretty good spirits, all things considered. There were only two trucks out, just a quick supply run, and Tony's the only one from his who survived, which makes him the only one who's now badly injured. Considering he's got an electromagnet embedded in his chest, hooked up to a car battery to keep the shrapnel out of his heart, he's doing pretty well.

Yinsen's given everyone else a clean-as-you-can-get-in-a-fucking-cave bill of health, and after dinner, two of the guys drag Tony's cot over to the fire. Everyone huddles in close, but it's cold, and Tony shivers under his blanket, curled around his new best friend, the car battery. His eyes closed, he listens to them talk, not about the three men they lost in the attack, but about their wives and girlfriends and children and dogs and crappy church softball teams. They talk shit, tell stories, hum under their breath. They sound hopeful, and Tony falls asleep trying to believe.

*

Everyone's sense of time is off. One of the guys insists they've been in the cave for five days; another thinks it's only been three. Tony has no fucking clue; he only manages to stay awake for a few hours at a time, and they took his watch.

Time passes, and eventually he's conscious enough to start piecing together what happened. He's heard this one before: the roadside bomb, the cave, the videos sent home, the endless waiting, the cold fear masked by flimsy bravado. What's different is who's got them; it's not any of the insurgent groups they're familiar with, it's no branch of al-Qaeda they'd been warned about. It's some motley group called the Ten Rings, and they haven't told anyone what the hell they want. Not even Yinsen knows, and he's been in the cave forever.

Tony's able to piece together a little more, based on what he sees of the cave complex. He follows the wires and does the math; the generators running the lights and computers and cameras and space heaters aren't cheap. Whoever they are, they're well-funded, but when he gets a look at their weapons stores, he realizes they're not particularly well-armed.

 

***

The house, like the barn, is nicer on the inside than it looks on the outside. It's clean and tidy, feels like a home instead of just a place to crash, but even so, it isn't a place Tony ever imagined Potts would live. He pictures her someplace new, spacious, beige carpet and hardwood and gleaming cabinets and coordinated accents. Hunter green curtains and place-mats and throw pillows, maybe a striped sofa. Instead, she has faded runners over cracked linoleum, crooked windows, banged-up floorboards, battered furniture with uncomfortable lumps and loose springs that poke him in the ass if he sits in the wrong place.

He has no idea how much of it's for him, how much she had to sacrifice to turn that disaster of a barn into a functional shop. He'd given her access to his bank accounts when he'd gone to prison, but it's not like he had much in the way of savings. Still, even if he ignores the question of how -- even if he assumes she worked some crazy Pepper I-Am-The-Greatest-Thing-Ever-To-Happen-To-Army-Logistics Potts magic, which she obviously did -- even then, it leaves him wondering why.

 

***

When the Ten Rings start asking questions, it feels half-hearted, like they can't come up with anything to do with their prisoners, so they might as well ask about base defenses.

None of them talk (name rank serial number), even when they've got burlap on their heads and water in their lungs. Everyone seems all right (name rank serial number), whatever that even means in this place, but Tony's pretty sure it's going to be a while before any of them go swimming.

They play cards. They do PT. They tell jokes about Marines. They name his battery Clara-Belle. They sing the filthiest songs they know. They exchange life stories.

"Corporal Carson Wilson Clare. 362-29-1846." Clare is from Atkins, Michigan, a farming town he says has a population of ten, and they're all his brothers. The town is dead and he was dying, and he got out the only way he could.

"Private First Class Thomas Anderson Hetland. 839-28-4839." Hetland is from Menard, Texas. His father enlisted and his grandfather enlisted and Hetland enlisted, and anyway, it was the right thing to do.

"Sergeant Anthony Edward Stark. 568-93-3205." When it's Tony's turn, he tells them more of his story than he's told anyone else, talks about the car accident that killed his parents and turned his life into a series of run-ins with assholes: assholes on the street, asshole cops, asshole judges, assholes in lockup. He woke up one morning in a pool of bodily fluids too disgusting to contemplate, and realized he had no money, no clothes, no friends, nowhere to go, nothing to do. He got arrested just to get arrested, for a shitty bunk in a holding cell and some watery jello, and when the judge told him to call the recruiter or go to jail, Tony made the call.

"Corporal Jeffrey Allan Ascher. 521-43-9384." Ascher is from California, a rich kid from Marin who enlisted to piss his parents off. He's not sorry he did it, not really, not anymore, not stuck in this cave with the only brothers he's known, but sometimes he feels like shit about his reasons.

"Private Harold Friedman Corrigan. 425-89-5792." Corrigan's from Chicago, says "the west side" like it should mean something, and a judge gave him the same ultimatum one had given Tony: Call the recruiter, or the next time I see you, you're going to jail.

"Yinsen." Yinsen's a biomedical engineer from a small town in Afghanistan, Gulmira, educated in the U.K., and the coalition forces had asked him to go to Baghdad, do some consulting. He doesn't say for what. He thinks he's been in the cave for a few months.

Yinsen doesn't say anything about the thing in Tony's chest, about his very limited lifespan, but he doesn't have to; Tony knows. A few times, he comes close to doing the math, to putting a number on it, but he never actually solves for x. He just knows it's not long, knows it makes him a little reckless, knows he doesn't much care when they haul him and Hetland in for questioning and one of the goons puts a gun to his head.

Name rank serial number, but he says, "Fuck off," and time slows to a crawl. That big motherfucker with the ring is in the room, and his face hardens and shifts. He nods. Tony screams. The goon shoots Hetland through the temple. Tony's face is warm, dripping, and he doesn't close his eyes as Hetland's body slumps to the ground.

 

***

"Fucking monkeyfuck cockr-- oh. Hey, Potts." Tony is sitting at the kitchen table, where everything is completely and totally 100 percent fine. He takes two deep, calming breaths. He gently turns the phone off, and places it carefully on the table. Then he takes a few more calming breaths.

"You okay?" Potts shoots him a look over her shoulder, and then starts bustling through the kitchen, peering into the fridge and sniffing at the tupperware and digging through the cupboards, taking notes as she goes.

"Oh, great. Fantastic, actually. Is it shopping day? Because, you know, as long as you're going out, I could really use some--"

"Shop for yourself, or come with me. Those are the rules."

"The rules are completely unreasonable! I can't go with you to the commissary, but--"

"Actually, Stark, you can come with me to the commissary."

Tony gives an exaggerated full-body shudder. "No, thank you. And anyway, I was convicted of stealing $2.3 million worth of supplies and weaponry. They're not going to let me come on-base to shop for hand towels and home electronics."

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they did not issue us all a picture and instructions to shun you."

"But--"

"What was that?" She turns on her heel and is suddenly right there, looming over him with her arms crossed, looking between him and the phone.

"Um," he says, partially because he's still caught up in the horrors of the commissary, and partially because he doesn't really want to discuss his phone call.

Potts raises an eyebrow. Tony caves. "It's just, I used to know this guy, Reynolds, one of the MPs, and I thought he might know something about my laptop. I didn't want to go through official channels or whatever, because -- I don't know if you knew this, Potts, but official channels are these disgusting moats full of raw sewage and giant alligators, and who needs that?"

"Who needs what? What on earth are you talking about?"

Tony splays across the table and buries his head in his arms with a groan. "My laptop! I need my laptop. It had, you know, information on it."

"Information," she repeats, and he hears her pull out a chair and sit down with a heavy sigh. "You didn't make a backup?"

"Of course I made a backup," Tony mumbles. "But I don't know where it is. It should have been in the underground bunker."

"The--." Potts breaks off whatever she'd been about to say. "Is there beer? I think I need a beer."

Tony sits up. "I don't know, you won't buy me any." He points an accusing finger in her general direction, but she ignores him.

"The underground bunker? You mean your locker at the Stop N Stor?"

"Yeah," Tony says, waving a hand in the air. "That's what I mean. Bunker, locker, whatever. There wasn't an external hard drive in it?"

Potts frowns, thinking. "I don't remember seeing one, but it might have been in one of those boxes. I'm pretty sure I got everything out of there, though."

"You're 'pretty sure'?" Potts is usually entirely sure about things like this, and she reddens slightly, a splash of color over her cheekbones.

"I tried," she says, defensive. "I didn't exactly have a lot to go on, and they were watching me."

"Wait, what? Who was watching you?"

"CID," Potts says, looking confused and speaking slowly. Tony is too appalled to respond, and Potts says, "Um, you know, the Criminal Investigation--"

"Thanks, I know what it stands for," Tony snaps. "I meant, why were they watching you? And why didn't you tell me any of this shit?"

Potts shrugs. "I just didn't," she says. "I thought you knew they were watching, and anyway, it didn't matter."

"Well, that's great, Potts, but my hard drive is gone, so I think it fucking matters."

Potts rubs at the bridge of her nose, color spreading over the rest of her face and down her neck. It's not the embarrassed kind of color, though; it's the pissed-off kind. "That's not what I meant," she snaps. "They're detectives. Did you think you'd get sent to prison and they'd just shrug off the weapons you stole? Of course they were watching me. But it didn't matter, because I didn't know anything. I couldn't lead them anywhere, no matter how convinced they were that I knew where you hid everything."

"But you did know where I hid everything."

"No, I didn't. It took me months to find your ridiculous clues."

"Hey, they were not ridiculous! They were--"

"Stark. You were tapping out messages in morse code at the court martial."

"--totally subtle but understandable."

"Then you shouted 'MORSE CODE, BABY,' at the judge for, what, five minutes straight?"

"What's your point?"

"My point is that they were watching me and hoping I would lead them to giant warehouses full of stolen goods. And I didn't."

"I appreciate that, Potts."

She rolls her eyes. "And because I didn't, they might still be watching. I'm pretty sure I got all the tools, but the supplies, the raw materials, the weapons... I didn't go anywhere near them. You want those, you can get them yourself."

"Ohhh," Tony says. "Okay." He props his chin up on the palm of his hand and tries to flutter his eyelashes. "Really, Potts. I appreciate it."

"Mmm-hmm," she says, and goes back to her shopping list. Tony leans over the table and watches carefully, but she does not write beer at any point.

"Anyway," Tony says. "I need to take inventory, and that'll go better with a laptop. With my laptop."

"Yeah, yeah," Potts says, standing up. "Your very special laptop. I know. Give me a few days, and if they haven't destroyed it, I'll get it for you."

"How?"

"Oh no," Potts says, shaking her head. "You've got your secrets; I've got mine."

"Is one of them that you're going to buy beer?"

"That's for me to know, and you to find out."

She leaves, and once her car disappears behind the trees at the end of the driveway, Tony heads to the shop to look through the boxes she'd rescued from his storage locker. The hard drive should be in one of them.

It isn't.

Three days later, Potts comes home with a case of Miller Lite, his old laptop, and an apologetic look on her face. It was wiped clean, its hard drive zeroed out, all its data irrecoverable. He'll have to rewrite Jarvis from scratch.

 

***

Tony doesn't talk for three days after they lose Hetland, and the first thing he says, he says to Ring Guy, who's obviously in charge. They've pulled him in for questioning again, alone this time, and he nods in the direction of a makeshift bomb in the corner of the room before anyone else has a chance to say anything.

"Blast radius on that thing is going to be 1.2 meters, tops. Might as well not bother. Won't even cut through the armor on a Humvee, let alone anything heavier."

The guy stops playing with his ring.

"Make you a deal," Tony says, and taps his electromagnet. "I'm dying. You let everyone else go, and I'll build you bombs until I do. Ones that work."

There's something like a showdown, then; the room goes dead quiet and nobody even blinks. Finally, the guy lifts his chin a little, and someone jerks the sack down over Tony's head. They march him outside, march him some more, and when they pull the bag off, Tony's squinting through the sun at a broken-down Humvee. One of the other goons is setting up the bomb near the drivers' side wheel.

"Let's find out," Ring Guy says. "What did you say the blast radius would be?"

"I said 1.2 meters, tops." Tony feels his mouth stretch into something too grim to be a smile, and he hugs his battery to his chest and stands 1.3 meters from the Humvee. He turns his back and looks the guy in the eye. "Hit it," he says, and when the bomb goes off, he doesn't break eye contact. When the dust settles, some of it's settled on his shoulders, but he's otherwise untouched.

*

No one says anything as the Ten Rings flunkies carry equipment into their room. They bring in a soldering iron, welding gear, precision tools, piles of weapons and munitions. Whatever Tony asks for, they come up with it. When everything's set up and the guys are alone again, Ascher looks at all the gear and asks, "What the hell is this, Stark?"

Tony walks over to a pile of missiles, runs his hand along an old Soviet SA-8. "Our ticket out of here," he says. "I cut a deal."

"You son of a bitch," Ascher snarls, and punches Tony in the face.

 

***

In the barn, Tony's first order of business is to get the mini-fridge working. That takes half an hour, and then he stocks it with beer. The old radio already works, although they're so far from civilization that it only picks up three stations. Tony picks the one that isn't country, and as it crackles its way through "American Woman," he wipes his hands on his jeans, opens a can of this week's on-sale beer -- Schlitz -- and gets to work.

He'd like to get the air-conditioning up and running, but that's not going to happen until the place is organized using something other than the One Giant Pile system. Tony likes that system for paperwork, but it's no good for actual stuff when he's trying to work. At least there are cabinets and tables and hooks and shelves and pegboards and toolboxes for him to use. It's all empty at the moment -- Potts invoked the It's-Your-Shit-You-Deal-With-It clause of their friendship -- but Tony thinks he can get everything sorted out in a week or so.

"Jarvis," he says to his laptop, but there's no answer, and Tony sighs. Maybe it's better this way. He knows paper trails are best avoided by using actual paper, but that doesn't mean he likes it. He isn't 100 percent sure he needs to be avoiding a paper trail, but he isn't 100 percent sure he doesn't, either, so he digs around and comes up with a water-damaged pad of graph paper and a grease pencil, and starts the inventory.

Potts' assessment of what made it and what didn't is right on the money: the tools are here, along with a few supplies and some materials he'd stored separately. The Mark II is here, but that had been in its own storage locker in a different town. Almost anything stolen is hidden under rusted-out air-conditioners and rotted aluminum siding and whatever the hell else Potts scavenged for him, and he decides to stick to the secrecy plan until... well, until he doesn't know when. He tries to think his way around the word forever, but he can't. It echoes in his head, louder and louder until he turns up the radio, but even that doesn't help. He may be out of prison, but he took too much from the Army for them to ever leave him alone, and he cracks another can of beer and wonders if this is his whole life now.

Probably, probably, probably, but he puts it out of his mind and goes back to his lists and to wondering why Potts saw fit to bring him a literal kitchen sink.

 

***

Tony pulls rank. He doesn't want to, but none of them will shut up and listen to his plan until he starts barking orders. He's pretty sure the plan will work, sure that he knows enough about the coalition fleet to build bombs that look impressive but don't do much damage. He figures he can do this for a while before the Ten Rings guys catch on -- they're not the sharpest pencils in the box -- and by then, maybe they'll have let some people go.

"They're not going to let anyone go," Yinsen tells him, when everyone else is asleep and Tony's scribbling furiously on the sheets of paper he'd asked for.

"I know," he says, not looking up. "Just buying time."

"Stark," Yinsen says, apology in his tone. "You don't have a lot of that left."

"I know," Tony says again. He cocks his head and puts the finishing touches on his drawing. He glances up with a grin, and then pats the battery. "That's why I'm breaking up with Clara-Belle here. It's just not working out between us."

He hands Yinsen the sheaf of papers and watches as Yinsen skims them, his eyebrows ratcheting slowly upward. He reads them a second time, then a third.

"Stark," he says, and the tone of his voice is not one Tony's used to hearing from anyone. "Who are you?"

Tony grins again, knows this one's a little cracked around the edges. "Sgt. Anthony Edward Stark. 568-93-3205," he says. He stands up, grabbing his battery and surveying the pile of equipment. "All right, let's get to work. Anything with a multilayer ceramic capacitor, I need it."

Yinsen stands, too, and drops the drawings back on Tony's cot. "For what?"

"We're harvesting palladium."

*

Tony knows the first bomb they build is just for show, just a demonstration to show the Ten Rings what he can do. It has to be good. So he gives his men instructions and tells them to go slow, thankful they're all mechanics and combat engineers. "They need to think this takes a while," he says. "They need to think you guys don't know much about this shit."

It takes a few days. It blows that old Humvee into a million pieces.

No one asks what the hell he and Yinsen are working on, but Tony can feel them watching, suspicion and anger bubbling just underneath the surface.

*

"That... doesn't look like an IED," Corrigan says, when the lights come back up. Everyone's crowded around his work table, staring at the blue glow of the thing in its center.

"That's because it's a miniaturized arc reactor." Tony flicks it with one finger. "I saw one once, on the Discovery Channel, back when I had TV. This should keep the shrapnel out of my heart."

"What could it generate?" Yinsen asks.

"If my math is right," Tony says, "and it always is, three gigajoules per second."

Clare whistles, long and low. "Sounds impressive," he says.

"It is," Yinsen says, still staring at the reactor. "That could run your heart for fifty lifetimes."

"Yeah," Tony says, flicking at it again. "Or something big for fifteen minutes."

*

Yinsen swaps out the electromagnet for the reactor. Corrigan hums Taps as Tony cannibalizes Clara-Belle for parts. Ascher watches everything from his cot, a frown between his eyes.

"Step two," Tony tells them, fingers drumming against the edges of the reactor, newly embedded in his chest. "Something big for fifteen minutes, and we're going the hell home." He points with two fingers. "You too, Yinsen."

Yinsen nods, a small smile on his face, but Tony can see the glimpse of doubt behind his eyes. He doesn't know how to fix it, so he does the only thing he can: He keeps making plans.

He puts Clare on bomb duty, has him build IEDs for use against the Bradleys, writes out detailed instructions, comes up with design after design intended to maximize vehicular damage and minimize casualties. Clare isn't an explosives guy but can read schematics, so he goes slowly, stalls for time. Ascher and Corrigan, both of whom are explosives guys, work on rigging up the room, work on making it unnoticeable in case one of the Ten Rings guys decides to pay them a visit. He rotates the duties every once in a while, has someone else build bombs, spreads the guilt a little more evenly, just in case. Tony himself doesn't build any, but the designs are his and so is the deal, and he's giving all the orders, and he figures that's most of the guilt right there.

 

***

"What're you wearing?"

Potts pours herself a glass of orange juice and looks around the kitchen, like she's trying to figure out who he's talking to. "Usually you don't ask that question when you can actually see the other person, Stark."

"Can I have some of that?"

"No, the OJ's mine. Get your own." She opens the fridge to put the carton back, and Tony comes up behind her, looks over her shoulder to see if there's anything breakfast-worthy. They've divided the fridge into halves. Her half has healthy food and a variety of beverages. His half has beer and thousand-island salad dressing. Shit.

"Yeah, yeah." He drops into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. "Seriously, what's with the civvies?" He hasn't seen her in uniform since he was shipped off to Leavenworth. She goes to work every morning in jeans and a t-shirt, or in PT clothes. "You are still in the Army, right?"

"Yeah," she says, shrugging, something awkward in the movement of her shoulders, the shift of her eyes away from his.

"Not parachuting into Augusta every day to play golf?"

"No." She takes a drink of orange juice, sets the glass down on the counter, squares her shoulders, meets his eyes. "You really want to see me in my uniform?"

Tony grins, starting to make some smartass comment about seeing her out of it, about how she fills it out, about something, but when he opens his mouth, what comes out is, "If I never see another Army uniform in my life, it'll be way too soon."

"That's what I thought," Potts says. "I'll see you later."

She leaves for work, angry for some reason Tony doesn't understand, her duffel slung over her shoulder. Tony scratches the back of his neck, drinks the rest of her orange juice, and jogs out to the barn.

 

***

He might not be making bombs, but he's still working non-stop, building the suit with Yinsen, a grim determination fueling his every move. He barely eats, not that there's much food anyway, and he only sleeps when he literally collapses from exhaustion. Even then, he's only out for a few hours at a time. He's worried the guys are going to mutiny, worried the Ten Rings are going to figure it out, worried his plans won't work, worried none of them are going home.

A knot of fear has lodged itself permanently in the back of his throat, and with every hour that goes by, it gets a little bigger, spreads a little lower down his spine. Everyone else feels it, too. They're all on edge, waiting, not knowing how many of the bombs they're building are actually being used, not knowing how effective they really are, not knowing how well the plan is working, how long they've got left.

Ascher's the most outspoken about his anger. He follows Tony's orders, but still manages to spend most of his time glaring at Tony like he wants to beat the shit out of him. Tony almost wishes he would.

 

*

The Ten Rings guys leave them alone for a while. They come in to pick up bombs, drop off food and supplies and equipment, and don't give anyone a hard time. No one gets hauled off for questioning; no one gets beaten up. So when Beard Guy shows up one day, his squad of goons in tow, Tony isn't sure what to think. He's pretty sure this guy is the second-in-command, and everyone looks around in a bit of a panic before Yinsen gestures for calm and steps forward, his hands in the air. Tony does the same, and everyone else hangs back.

The guy smiles broadly, his chest puffed out. "Your bombs are quite impressive," he says, through Yinsen. "They take apart coalition vehicles like they are toys."

Tony almost pukes.

There's a rustle of movement from behind him, but Yinsen motions again for the guys to calm down, wait. "My men have not yet learned all their intricacies," Beard Guy continues. "But they will. Next time, not so many will escape."

He claps Tony on the shoulder. Yinsen shakes his head a little, trying to tell Tony to keep his mouth shut, but Tony has to know. "Ask him how many escaped this time."

Yinsen hesitates for a few seconds, but then asks the question. The guy's eyes narrow, and Tony holds his breath, keeps his face carefully blank. Finally, Beard Guy answers, sounding a little annoyed, and Yinsen translates. "All of them. He says no one has been killed."

Tony does not smile, but he can't manage to make himself look disappointed.

Beard Guy leaves with his flunkies, and Ascher stops looking like he wants to beat the shit out of Tony.

 

***

It takes almost a month to satisfy himself that no one's watching, that he's not being followed, that his phones aren't tapped and his communications aren't monitored. Then it takes two days to wind his way through the maze of hiding places and storage lockers and safe-deposit boxes to recover the keys to the warehouse he rented outside of Bixley.

Even so, he's nervous on the drive out there, his palms sweating against the steering wheel despite the cold blast of the air-conditioning. He keeps checking his mirrors, checking the sky, but he doesn't see anything.

When he gets there, he knows why: Everything's gone. The place was cleaned out and cleaned up, the weapons hauled away and the concrete floors polished to a dull shine. The only thing in the entire place is a warrant, left smack in the middle of the main hall. The CID left him a note, too, a yellow post-it signed by the agent in charge of his case. It says, "You're not as smart as you think you are."

 

***

Ring Guy is not as impressed by Tony's bombs as Beard Guy. Or maybe he's not as stupid as Beard Guy. Either way, he walks in sometime later -- two days, two weeks, two months, hard to tell -- with the whole fucking goon squad behind him. Everyone stops what they're doing, their hands in the air as he stalks around the room, idly picking up pieces of equipment, flipping through drawings.

His voice is harsh as he speaks to Yinsen, probably in Arabic, and Tony's gut clenches, crawls a little further up his throat as the conversation keeps going. Ring Guy says something else, and time does that same thing it did when Hetland was killed, slows down and warps, bulges around him. Tony's body convulses as his muscles insist he has to do something and his brain tries to shut down the impulse. Yinsen tenses, and two of the guys step forward, shove him to his knees. There are tongs and a hot coal and Yinsen's saying the same thing over and over and finally Tony snaps, steps forward, tries and fails not to flinch away from the sound of 15 guys readying their weapons.

"I need him," Tony says, his hands in the air.

There's another one of those showdowns, but Ring Guy drops the coal and throws the tongs and Tony can breathe again.

That lasts until Ring Guy walks over to him, drags a finger around the edge of the reactor in his chest -- Tony can't feel it, but he shudders all the same -- and says, "You have until tomorrow to deliver a bomb that kills people, and not just vehicles."

Then he jerks his head again, just like last time, and seven guys drag Ascher out of the room, and no amount of yelling or begging or pounding on the door makes them stop.

They can't wait, have to work, have too much to do and not enough time, but everyone works facing the door, not talking.

 

***

"Any luck?" Potts asks him.

Tony changes the channel on the TV, takes a swig of his beer, sinks a little lower into the couch.

"Funny how a dishonorable discharge from the Army makes it hard to get a job in an Army town."

 

***

He fucked up. His timing was wrong and his predictions were wrong and now fucking everything is wrong. Yinsen's dead or dying on some stack of rice, and he'd seen Ascher's body slumped in a corner, and there are more guys than he thought and they have more guns than he knew about and there's no way anyone else is getting out of this valley alive. He's not even sure he can do it, because one of his leg joints has been blown to shit and he's on his knees and all he can see is fire. He can't shoot what he can't see, can't get Clare or Corrigan out of the fucking cave, can't do anything except activate the boots and pray.

 

***

Tony tries. He really fucking does, but there are only so many jobs he doesn't get, so many scrapyards that don't have the part he needs, so many old buddies who might have been able to help him out a year ago who now don't answer the phone.

The Mark II is stalled. He has the plans, understands exactly what needs to happen, knows precisely how to do it. But he can't find a polyphonic resonator that isn't too rusty to fix, and he can't afford to buy a new one. And even if that changes, even if he gets his hands on one and manages to get the boots working, he won't be able to get much farther; he'll die of old age before he can melt down enough pawn-shop wedding rings to make a fucking suit of armor. With what he has, he can make something lightweight enough for sustained flight, or he can make something heavy enough to take anti-tank weaponry, but he can't do both. And what the hell's the point of that?

So after his weekly pawn-shop circuit -- where he buys the goddamn rings anyway -- instead of heading east and going home, he drives west on what passes for a highway and finds himself at the Silver Dollar.

What he can see of the inside hasn't changed much, though it's hard to tell through the drifting smoke and the dim yellow of the lights. It's still early, only a handful of people inside, a few guys smoking at the bar and a few more gathered at the end of the room, around the stage, watching the dancer. Thankfully, she's the only one in the place he recognizes.

She recognizes him, too, smiles and waves and heads in his direction when that awful Big & Rich song stops playing, pulling on pieces of her costume as she walks. "Tony! Hey, there. Been a while."

Tony stretches his face into a smile and tries to remember her name. Short brunette, fake tits, so... Marie? Mandy? Mindy?

"Sure has," he says, and leans over a little, lets her kiss him on the cheek. Her lips are cool against his skin, but her hands are hot, burning through his t-shirt where they rest on his shoulders. "You look great."

"Thanks! Where've you been? I missed you." She runs a hand down his arm, twines their fingers together, and starts tugging, but he's not going anywhere without beer. He asks the bartender for a Miller Lite, and once he's got it, he lets her pull him to one of the open booths in the back.

"Took a trip," he says. "Kansas." He sits down and stretches his arms along the back of the booth, and she moves between his legs, slides onto his lap.

She leans in, lips brushing his ear. "Sounds nice."

"Oh, yeah, it was great."

Except it wasn't great, and he hasn't gotten laid in more than a year, and now there's a stripper in his lap doing things with her pelvis that are probably going to give him an aneurysm. He's got nowhere to be, though, and nothing to do, so he drinks his erection away.

He's not sure how long he sits there, deliberately not thinking, but the next time he pays much attention to anything other than Misty -- her name is Misty, he's pretty sure -- it's because there's a guy he used to know sitting next to him.

"Stark."

"Harden." Tony catches the bartender's eye, motions for another beer. "Have a seat."

Harden's already sitting down, and Tony doesn't feel much like talking, so the two of them just stare at Misty in increasingly awkward silence.

"So," Harden says, "It's--"

"Wait, you should see this." Tony nods at the stage. "It's her signature move." Misty's signature move involves hanging upside-down by one leg, her back to the pole, and then doing some kind of complicated twist-and-spin maneuver so that she ends up with no shirt on, hanging by the other leg, the pole between her tits. Tony doesn't actually think it's very hot, but he admires its sheer athleticism. He claps.

"Uh," Harden says, when it's a little quieter. "Guess this is pretty weird."

Tony just looks at him, drinks his beer. "I don't know what you're talking about. What's weird?"

"Well, you know, the last time I saw you, you were..." He trails off, looking a little embarrassed.

"Being run out of the Army on a rail? Yeah." He smiles, no teeth. "How've you been?"

He doesn't really care, never much liked the guy, and so he only pretends to listen as Harden, obviously relieved, goes on about his girlfriend and his promotion and his impending deployment and his new dog. Tony has no idea how long he talks, just wants him to shut up and go away, but then Harden says, "So what's up with Potts?"

Tony freezes, his beer halfway to his mouth. "What?"

"Reckoned you'd know, if anyone," Harden says, shrugging. "Busted down and moved off-base, a few weeks after you were sent up."

"Oh, shit, would you look at the time," Tony says, glancing at his naked wrist. "Gotta go." He throws 40 bucks on the table and leaves, his half-empty beer still sweating on the coaster.

 

***

The cave was cold. The desert is hot. It's stupid, but he can't think. He tries to walk in a straight line.

*

The Air Force finds him, probably about ten seconds before he collapses, and a bunch of airmen pile out of the chopper and point their weapons at him as he falls into the arms of some light colonel. Army, this guy, which doesn't make sense, but Tony passes out before he gets a chance to wonder much about it.

It's hazy after that; he remembers making a scene, ripping out his IV, not wanting anyone anywhere near him, asking for Potts. They get him out of Iraq, fast, get him to Landstuhl, where he sleeps for a week. He's not cuffed to the bed, and his door isn't locked, but there's a guard stationed outside his door 24/7.

The questions start before he's really ready for them; he blames the doctors, who are obviously curious about the thing in his chest and how it got there. That's how it starts, and once it does, it's an endless stream of lawyers and doctors and shrinks and intel wonks, each one higher-ranking than the last.

"Who designed that thing?"

"Who built it?"

"Who did the surgery?"

"How many soldiers survived the ambush?"

"Who rigged the cave to blow?"

"Why did you have access to explosives?"

"What happened to Hetland?"

"Corrigan?"

"Clare?"

"Ascher?"

"Do you recognize this man?"

"What about this one?"

"How did you get out when no one else did?"

Tony wants to tell them the truth, tell them he did everything he could to get them all out of there, but he can tell by the look in their eyes that, "Oh, yeah, I built bombs for terrorists to use against coalition forces," is going to get him tried for treason, if it doesn't get him knifed in the back first. It won't matter that he engineered them to do minimal damage to human beings. It's too insane, too unbelievable, and what the hell does a mechanic know about explosives anyway?

Still, he might've had a chance if anyone else had made it out, if any of them could have vouched for him, if any part of the plan had actually fucking worked. But it didn't, and it's just him, and so he tells them the Ten Rings rigged the room to blow, scare tactics, and he doesn't know how he got out, blames it on the head trauma, just remembers waking up a few miles out, smoke from the explosion still billowing into the sky. Oh, is it weird he's not burned? Head trauma. Head trauma, head trauma, head trauma.

They don't buy it, but when he tells them to go ahead and try waterboarding because he knows first-hand it's pretty effective, they flinch and stop asking questions for a few hours.

It doesn't help. Every day that goes by makes him crazier, an itch under his skin that gets more and more acute; he can't shake the sense of urgency, the impulse to be doing something. He can't sleep, isn't hungry, and no one will leave him alone, and he's almost desperate enough to talk to the shrinks they send. Maybe they can buy him some peace.

Too dangerous, though, and he hates that everything is suddenly so dangerous. Three months in that fucking cave hadn't broken him, but after three weeks in the hospital, he's pretty much ready to snap.

*

The last guy they send is a Lieutenant Colonel, Jim Rhodes, and Tony recognizes him as the officer from the helicopter. He walks in, and before the door even closes behind him, he tosses a sheaf of paper on the table. "What do you think?"

"Sir?"

Tony can tell, without looking too closely, that they're schematic drawings of a machine gun. Rhodes nods at them. "You heard me," he says. "What do you think?" His tone is casual, like he's asking what Tony thinks about German beer, but his eyes are careful. Tony sees the rings, one from West Point and one from MIT, can tell he's pretty young for even a light colonel, and realizes Rhodes is probably the smartest guy they have to send.

"They're nice, sir," Tony says, shuffling through the papers quickly and putting them back down with a small shrug. "Very legible."

Rhodes just stares at him, eventually lifts one eyebrow.

Sighing, Tony runs a hand over his newly shaved head. "Sorry, Colonel, but I don't know what you want me to say. I'm just a mechanic."

"Bullshit."

Tony blinks. Rhodes turns off the tape recorder. "I know what that thing in your chest is," he says, pointing with two fingers, and Tony forgets to breathe for a second. "I've seen the real one. I know what it takes to make."

"Sir, I didn't--"

"Bullshit," Rhodes says again. "Just a mechanic, huh? You wanna do oil changes the rest of your life? Maybe fill up the washer fluid? How long's that gonna last? You must be bored out of your fucking mind." He pauses, leans back in his chair. "I've read your file. I know what happens when you get bored."

"I wasn't--"

"Shut the fuck up, Sergeant."

Tony shuts his mouth and looks away.

"Actually, Just A Mechanic, tell me something. Tell me how it is that your company, working under the same conditions with the same supply lines as everyone else, has better equipment than the whole damn Army. The men aren't talking, but most of their weapons are so customized they're not even recognizable anymore. They shoot farther, faster, more accurately. They've got better body armor. Looks the same, but isn't. The vehicles never break down, none of them, even the ones you're not cleared to work on, and no shop but yours can figure out what's under the hood.

"That all stopped when you disappeared. And now you show up with an arc reactor in your chest, and you expect me to believe you don't know anything about it."

"Colonel, I--"

"I thought I told you to shut the fuck up," Rhodes snaps. Then he looks away for a second, like he's trying to calm down, but he takes a deep breath and lays right back in. "Your company's fucked without you, you know that, right? Got used to better gear, and now no one can figure out what the hell you were doing."

A few more beats of silence. Tony stares at the wall, his jaw clenched.

"Yeah," Rhodes says. "That's what I thought."

"So send me back," Tony says, even though he knows it's a long shot. Even though he knows he shouldn't go back, shouldn't even be wearing the uniform.

"No can do," Rhodes says, shaking his head. "I can take you back with me, though, if you tell me what you think of those." He jabs two fingers at the schematics.

"Sir?"

Rhodes leans forward, his eyes intense on Tony's. "I don't know what happened in that cave, but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to know you're not proud of it. I get that. But you know what I think? I think you made it out for a reason. I think those men died for you, so you could make it out alive, and I think you owe it to them to--"

Tony sees red. "To what?" The papers go flying as he sweeps his arm across the table and stands up. "To look at your shitty schematics and tell you you've upped the rate on that thing so far it's going to melt the firing mechanism and probably the barrel? To tell you the options are to either make it so heavy the poor dicksuck carrying it will sink balls-deep into the sand, or to make it so expensive that the goddamn Queen of England will have to sell her cunthair on eBay just to buy one? Or maybe to tell you that the increased range is swell, Colonel, but it's fucking useless without a scope that can show me the specs of shit on an asshair at 2,000 meters. Which that--" He kicks at the paper with the scope schematics. "--fucking cannot do. You know all that. Get fucked."

He throws himself back into his chair. "Sir."

There's silence, broken only by Tony's labored breathing, and he finally sneaks a look at Rhodes. That was very bad. It's one thing to talk to the other guys in his squad like that, but a lieutenant colonel he hasn't been pissing with in the desert for six months might be less than thrilled. But Rhodes is just sitting back in his chair, calm and unruffled, looking like he hears that shit all the time. He meets Tony's eyes, his eyebrows faintly raised. "You done?"

Tony nods, and Rhodes just starts laughing. "Yeah," he says, when he can talk again. "Yeah, Stark, I know all that. Took me a hell of a lot longer than three seconds to figure it out, though." His smile is easy, and Tony finds himself smiling back despite himself. "Come back with me. We'll send you to college, and you can stop pretending to be an idiot and earn four PhDs in four weeks or something. Go to OCS, get your commission. Outfit the military the way you outfitted your company."

Tony scratches the back of his neck, shifts in his seat. "I'll think about it," he says.

 

***

Potts isn't home when he gets there, and he debates for maybe half a second before he grabs an open bottle of Jim Beam off the kitchen counter and heads to her room. He jerks open her closet door, runs his free hand over the sleeves of her neatly pressed uniform jackets, and sits his ass down.

He has no idea how long he stays there; when Potts finally shows up, he's still on her bedroom floor, leaning against the wall, knees bent, bottle between his feet. He thinks about moving as he hears her footsteps coming down the hall, but instead he picks up the bottle, takes another swig. When he looks up, she's standing in the doorway staring at him, a blank expression on her face that he knows means she's counting to a thousand in her head and trying to come up with a reason not to kick his ass.

"Hey, Potts," he says, raising the bottle in mock salute. "Sergeant Potts, right? It's weird, you know, I could've sworn you had a rocker on these uniforms when I left. Normally they give those things out, don't they? They don't take 'em away. Things change, maybe."

She stares at him a while longer, and then throws her bag on the bed and sits down next to him, grabs the bottle from his hand and kills it in four long swallows. "Yeah," she says with a grimace, rolling the bottle between her hands. "Yeah, things change."

"Potts, I--"

"Not you, though. Or the Silver Dollar. You have glitter on your face."

"Yeah," he says. "You know why? Because I was there, all right? I was at a fucking strip club and I had to find out from Harden and do you know what that--" He breaks off, shoves a hand through his hair. "When were you going to tell me?"

Her lips thin, and Tony realizes she wasn't going to tell him at all. "It's none of your business," she says.

"Bullshit, Potts. What happened?"

"What do you think?"

"I don't know." Which is technically true, even if he has a pretty good guess. "How far'd they bust you down?"

"E3."

"Shit." Three ranks, and she'd made up two of them, and, "Fuck, seriously, what happened?"

She sighs, stares at the bottle moving between her hands. She's quiet for so long that he opens his mouth to say something else, but she sees him and snaps, "I don't know, okay? There was another investigation, after your conviction, and they subpoenaed me. They wanted... they wanted the suit, all right? They didn't even care about the weapons. They wanted the suit and I didn't give it to them. I wouldn't, Stark, I... I would never."

"Jesus," he mutters. "What is this?"

"I think this is you being drunk in my bedroom."

"Yeah, nice," he says. "You're avoiding. Why are you avoiding?"

The bottle in her hand stops moving, and she slowly swivels her head to look at him. Her eyes are doing that laser thing they do sometimes. "Excuse me?"

He jabs a finger in her direction. "Avoiding!"

"Yes, avoiding. I don't want to have this conversation when you're drunk."

"And I don't want to have it when I'm sober. Anyway, you'll be drunk soon, too, and in the morning we can pretend it never happened. Everybody wins."

"Tony. We--"

"Tony? Yeah, okay, you know what I think? I think this whole thing is fucked."

The back of Potts' head hits the wall with a pretty loud thud. "Oh, you think so?"

"Yeah, and you know what else I think?" He thinks, actually, that he should stop talking, but he can't seem to do it.

"Enlighten me," she says, her head still against the wall, her eyes closed. "Actually, wait, I think I need more alcohol for this."

She stands up, and Tony considers following her, but she's back and sitting next to him with another bottle of bourbon before he manages to get up off the floor. "Okay, go ahead," she says. "Please, tell me what you think."

He can tell by her tone that this is not going to end well for him. "Okay," he says. "Okay, I think you're in love with me."

There is an awful, awful silence. He sneaks a look at her out of the corner of his eye, and her face has gone a little red, her mouth twisted into something that means she's either trying not to cry or that she's trying not to laugh. She leans forward, and he watches her back move as she takes several deep breaths. A few more seconds of that same silence pass, and then she sits up again. "Wow," she says, takes a swig of the bourbon. "Okay. Yes. I'm in love with you. Madly."

Tony thinks about that for a while, decides she can't possibly be serious. "Sarcasm doesn't look good on you," he tells her. "But what else am I supposed to think? Look at this place, Potts, it's a shithole, for what? For me? You work your ass off, and what does it get you? It gets you shit. It gets you demoted. It gets me all the alcohol I want, though, so thanks. Great decision."

Another few seconds, and then she looks at him, nodding like she's figured something out. "You're angry, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I'm fucking angry," he says, and it's true, even if he doesn't quite know why. "I'm not--. I didn't want this for you."

"You don't get to make decisions about my life."

"And you get to make decisions about mine? You know what I think about that?" He grabs the bottle out of her hand, drinks deep. "Fuck that." He drops his own head against the wall, hard, and his vision blurs for a second. "Ow." He closes his eyes.

"Well said."

"What do you want?"

"What do I... what do I want? Are you serious?"

He opens one eye and looks at her, and she does actually look a little shocked, a little pale, a little pissed. He waves a hand in the air. "Yeah, what do you want? Must be something, right? There's no other reason for this. For you to do this."

"I thought I was madly in love with you."

"If you were madly in love with me, we'd be having sex. Right now. Or, you know, ever."

"Okay," she says. "This conversation is out-of-control, and also over."

She moves to stand up, and Tony leans forward and grabs her wrist before he can think too hard about what he's doing. "Pepper."

"Don't," she says, half-crouching, but Tony finds he can't quite let her go, his thumb rubbing in circles at the base of her palm. "I mean it," she says. "Take your hand off me." Her voice is hard, and that's enough to pull him back to reality, to something other than the way her skin feels against his, just barely damp with sweat. He drops her wrist, pushes it away, throws himself back against the wall with his hands in the air.

"Sorry," he mutters. "Shit, I'm sorry."

Potts' eyes are unfocused, but she's rubbing at her wrist like there's a mark where he touched her and she wants it gone.

Tony watches her for a while, but she doesn't move again, just stays half-crouched on her bedroom floor. He knows he needs to say something to fix this, whatever the hell this even is, but he can't think of anything. He swallows some more of the bourbon. "I'm stuck," he says.

Potts blinks once and shakes her head as if she's trying to clear it, and then sits back down with a sigh. Her elbow digs into his ribs, and he whines as she snatches the bottle away, drinks, hands it back. They sit quietly, passing the bottle between them. He guesses he's forgiven.

"Well?" She finally says, startling him. Time is doing that thing it does when he's had too much to drink, bending and swirling around him, and he doesn't know how long they've been sitting in silence.

"What?" He blinks at her, trying to remember what they'd been talking about before they weren't talking at all.

"You're stuck," she says, and Tony wonders if she's drunk, too. Her voice sounds slow and too-precise, like she has to work for proper enunciation.

"Oh. Yeah. Need a polyphonic resonator."

She nods slowly. "Okay. That sounds fancy. Or complicated. Can't you just make one?"

"Yeah, if I find 400 iPods at the scrap yard and melt them down for the neodymium."

"Oh," she says, frowning, moving her head in some kind of circle, like she's trying to shake it and nod at the same time. "That's a lot of iPods. And neo... you know, I've always wondered how you know the names for things."

"...Potts?"

"Like musical geniuses who can't read music. Except. The opposite."

He grins. "Feeling the bourbon?"

"Oh, yeah. All at once, too. I was fine ten minutes ago. Until I stood up. What were we talking about?"

"iPods."

"No," she says, shaking her head slowly. "No, you need a polyphonic resonator. Okay. That's what we were talking about." She pauses, nods decisively. "Okay."

"Okay? It's not okay. I can't buy one or build one or find one, so I don't know how it's okay."

Her eyes close. "It's okay," she says again. "I'm not okay, though, I'm kind of drunk. You should leave, so I can sleep."

"Or we can--"

"Don't say it. I'm not that drunk." She opens her eyes and looks at him, her gaze sharp despite the bourbon haze they're both looking through.

"Right," he says, and he can't keep the stupid smile off his face. "Leaving. Night, Potts." He stumbles out of her room and into his own, and spends the 30 seconds that takes trying to figure out how she's going to make anything okay. He doesn't figure it out, but he believes her, and he's asleep as soon as his body hits the bed.

 

***

Potts meets him at the airfield, looking tired and worried and happy and upset and confused. Tony has no idea what to say, so he stares at her as she fidgets and tries to reconcile the South and the desert and the cave as places he knows. None of it seems real, not even Potts. The sweat beading on the back of his neck is real enough, though, so he stretches his lips into what he hopes is a smile.

"Hey," he says. Her eyes are red.

Potts doesn't say anything for a long while, either, just stares back at him, chewing on her bottom lip, twisting her hands in front of her. They must look like idiots, he realizes, and his voice breaks as he laughs, the moment breaking with it. She grins, rolls her eyes.

"Come on," she says, and they go for cheeseburgers.

 

***

"Well, well, if it isn't Tony Stark."

Tony knows that voice. Big and booming and friendly, it makes his skin crawl. He puts down the box of macaroni and cheese he'd been inspecting and turns around, his prettiest and least-sincere smile plastered to his face.

"Yeah, sure, hi," he says. "I'd be happy to." The guy watches with a bemused, tolerant smile as Tony digs in his pocket and produces a crumpled-up receipt and a pen.

Dear Obie, he writes. Thx for your support! xoxo, Tony Stark.

Obadiah Stane, looking completely out of place in the boxed-food aisle of the Wal-Mart, chuckles loudly, accepts the piece of paper, and settles one huge hand on Tony's shoulder. He starts walking, steering Tony toward the produce section, and even though he doesn't have to take this shit anymore, Tony goes along with it. He's curious about what the hell the guy wants this time.

"How've you been, Tony?" Stane asks.

"Fantastic," Tony says. He gives Stane a thumbs-up.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Really. Thanks for caring, Obie -- can I call you Obie? -- I've been great. Super good."

"I'm glad to hear that, Tony. And yes, please, feel free to call me Obie. All my friends do."

"Friends, really? Because you never call, you never write."

"And yet here we are."

"Yeah," Tony says, not sure what the guy is getting at. "Here were are, in the lovely frozen food aisle of--"

"Years earlier than expected."

Tony digs in his heels and whirls to face Stane. "What?"

Stane looks surprised, his eyebrows climbing up his forehead. "They let you out of prison after one year, Tony."

"Yeah, so? I was very well-behaved." He wasn't.

"I'm sure you were," he says, agreeable. "But tell me something, my boy. Have you ever heard of anyone being paroled from a military prison?"

He hasn't, but he doesn't say so. The best way to get out early is to transfer to a civilian prison -- where the conditions are about a thousand times more horrific -- and try from there. He's never heard of anyone walking out after one year served on a 15-year sentence. He doesn't even have a parole officer. They just handed him a bus ticket and his wallet and told him to get the hell out of Kansas.

"What do you want?" If Stane pulled some strings to get him out of there, there has to be one hell of a catch.

"I thought I might buy you a nice dinner," Stane says.

"A nice dinner? The nicest place we have around here is Applebee's, okay, and that's two hours away. Now, don't get me wrong, I love their riblets as much as the next guy, they're very tangy, but it really doesn't seem like your speed."

"I thought we might take my private jet."

"To Applebee's? I'm not sure where you'd park it."

Stane chuckles like this is the most hilarious thing he's heard in months. "To New York, Tony."

"Your private jet to New York," Tony repeats. "That's a nice offer, Obie, thanks, but I think I'm good here. The Get'n Go's having a sale on foie gras."

Stane sighs and looks around. "You don't have to live like this, Tony," he says, gesturing at the case of Lean Cuisine. "Come on, when's the last time you had a nice, juicy steak?"

Tuesday, Tony thinks. The commissary'd had a sale and Potts had finished some huge project at work and so they'd decided to celebrate. They'd grilled out, sat barefoot on the porch with steak and slaw and too-sweet tea, and Tony hadn't set anything on fire. He doesn't say any of that to Stane, though. Instead, he says, "February 14. Valentine's Day at Leavenworth is steak day. It was nice, thick, medium rare, came with potatoes. I'm thinking about going back next year."

"Tony--"

"Obie," Tony says, cutting him off. "Look. It's not that I don't appreciate what you're trying to do, although, actually, I don't, but you know what? You lost that game of Leavenworth chicken, remember? I wasn't interested in working for you before, and I'm not interested now. I don't need a deal, I don't need your private jet, and I don't need your steak."

Stane steps closer and pulls himself up to his full height, his eyes narrowed. Tony wonders if it's supposed to be intimidating. "Don't you?" he asks. "How far do you think you're going to get on your own? You can't even get a job scrubbing toilets."

"Fine by me," Tony says, his eyes locked on Stane's. "I hate scrubbing toilets."

"Of course you do, and that would be a tragic waste of talent." Stane puts his arm around Tony's shoulders again. "I got the chance to see some of your work in Iraq, and--"

That's it. Tony snatches Stane's hand from where it's resting on his shoulder, uses the leverage to propel him face-first into the freezer case, his breath fogging up the cold glass. He gets Stane's hand up between his shoulder blades, rumples that fancy pinstriped suit, and pulls up until Stane hisses from the pressure on his shoulder joint. "I know you did," he snarls, leaning in close to Stane's ear. Stane's bigger than he is, but Tony's stronger, and he uses all his body weight to keep Stane motionless.

Tony is vaguely aware of a few other customers scurrying away, figures security will be there in a minute, maybe less. "I know you did," he says again. "And I don't care what you've got on me, what strings you pulled, what you think you know. You need to walk away from this, or I'm going to take away that option."

"Is that a threat?" Stane asks, although the heavy sigh that huffs across the glass doesn't sound concerned. "I think you were in prison too long, Tony," he says. "This isn't how we do things."

"You think I give a fuck how you do things?"

"I know you don't. That's why I like you, Tony. I'm just trying to help. You're an extremely talented young man, and I'd hate to see it go to waste."

"You think wasting it is anything that doesn't make you money," Tony says, twisting Stane's arm, shoving him a little harder into the glass.

"It could make you money."

"I am not for sale," he grinds out, giving Stane one last hard shove against the glass before pushing himself away, arms in the air, just as security shows up at either end of the aisle. Stane straightens his suit with a smile, waves them away, assures them that everything's fine, no problem, officer, nothing to see here.

Tony inches away slowly, and as soon of one of them says that they're going to have to ask him to leave, he gets the hell out.

 

***

A few days after he gets home, he takes off again. His stint as a POW apparently earned him some leave and some latitude, so he goes to Savannah, checks into a halfway decent hotel in the historic district, tries to lose himself in the heat and the history and the lethargy. He spends a few days drinking in dive bars, making the locals suspicious, feeling drugged and heavy and hot, like he can't wake up. He thinks it's a few days, anyway. Maybe it's longer.

Potts comes out one day, he thinks on a Thursday, but Tony isn't sure. She finds him drunk and draped over a bench in Hillcrest Cemetery, waxing poetic about the sunset and the spanish moss, and she drags him back to the hotel. The air-conditioning hits him like a wall of ice, and Tony is suddenly, annoyingly sober. He doesn't say anything as he slams into the bathroom to shower, to wash the sour sweat from his skin.

When he comes out of the bathroom, Potts is leaving, and Tony's not sure if she has her own room or if she's going back to base, but he's so fucking tired and stupid that he asks her to stay. She hesitates, a cool unreadable look in her eyes, and the word 'please' crawls its way out of his throat. She lays on the bed, fully clothed, and Tony curls up close enough to feel her body heat. He falls into a deep sleep for the first time in months.

*

"I need to get out," he tells her in the morning, sitting cross-legged on the edge of the bed and staring into his coffee. He doesn't look at Potts, but he can imagine her face well enough, that wrinkle between her eyebrows.

She's sitting in the room's one armchair with her own cup of coffee. "Okay," she says. "Check-out's at noon."

"No." He shakes his head, still staring into his coffee. "I meant the Army. I need to get out of the Army."

There are a few seconds of relative silence, just the rattle of the air-conditioner and the muffled sounds of a too-loud baseball game coming through the wall. "You've got, what, two years left?"

He shakes his head again. "Not soon enough."

"Oh," she says, and there's something in her tone that makes him finally look up. She's got that not-look on her face, the one that means she's trying to hide whatever her regular look would be. "So that's what this is."

"What what is?"

"Your leave was up three days ago, Stark."

Tony feels very cold all of a sudden. "They send you to bring me back?"

Her chin goes up and she lets him wait a few seconds, but she says, "No," and that's good, because he doesn't know what the fuck he'd've done if she'd said yes. Go with her, probably, and then never speak to her again.

"Okay," he says, feeling almost normal again. "What do you think I should do?"

"I..." She trails off, bites her bottom lip. "I think you should talk to Colonel Rhodes. You said he seemed like a good guy."

"You think I should go to the brass with this, really?"

"Stark, I don't even know what 'this' is. I have no idea what your issues are right now."

"My-- my issues? You want to talk about my issues?"

Tony starts to stand up, but Potts puts her hands in the air and sits back like she's surrendering. "Only if you do," she says, and Tony sinks back down, feeling like the biggest asshole in the world.

"Sorry," he mutters. "Fuck. I don't know what my issues are right now, either." He puts his coffee cup on the floor and runs a hand over his head.

"Maybe you should go to school for a while and figure it out," she says. "The change of scenery might be good for you. They said MIT, right? Boston? That has to be better than Fort Stewart."

"And then what? OCS?" Tony stands and starts pacing, back and forth over the too-thin carpeting at the foot of the bed. "Get my commission and go back to the sandbox, back to designing weapons to kill people more effectively? I was just trying to help my buddies, Potts. Better gear to keep them alive, but now they're fucked, or they're dead in that cave, and Rhodes wants me to do it again except with official sanction? I don't, I just... I can't. I'm done."

"If that's what's bothering you, then yeah, I think you should talk to him about it. Maybe you could work on armor or robotics. Drone technology. Maybe aeronautics, work with NASA. You're a genius, you know? You can do whatever you want."

Tony stops pacing and looks at her. "What I want is to not be in the military anymore." He takes a deep breath. He can say this to Potts. He says it to himself all the time. It's all his issues in seven words. "I'm not fit to wear the uniform."

The a/c chooses that moment to turn off, leaving the room in too-dramatic silence for the space of several seconds. Potts rubs at her forehead, unties and reties her pony tail, sighs so loudly the guy next door can probably hear it over his stupid baseball game.

"What I said before, about you being a genius? I take it back. You're a moron." She sighs again. "But I know there's no point in arguing."

"Nope," he says, and he badly wants to tell her why, but he knows 'I built bombs for terrorists' would go over about as well with Potts as it would have gone over with Rhodes, and he can't risk it.

"Okay," she says. "I just want it stated for the record that I disagree with you."

"So noted."

"And if your plan is to get yourself kicked out of the Army by doing something illegal, Stark, you can't tell me about it. Understand?"

Tony nods slowly. She'd be obligated to turn him in or go down for his crimes. He doesn't think turning him in would be easy for her, but she'd do it. "Message received, Sgt. Potts."

"Don't. You know I--"

"It's okay." Tony crosses the small room to stand by her chair. The morning sun is slanting in through the window, illuminating the stirred-up dust in the room and making Potts' hair look too red and her eyes look too blue. "Really, it's fine." He reaches out to cup her cheek, but drops his hand back to his side before he touches her. "But you should probably go now."

Potts closes her eyes, her head drooping slightly, but she nods. "Yeah," she says. "All right."

Tony nods, too, and turns to kick through the pile of dirty clothes by the bed, looking for a shirt that hasn't been sweat-soaked and drenched with beer. He finds one that doesn't smell too disgusting, and as he heads into the bathroom to shower, Potts says, "Take care of yourself, okay?"

"Always do," he says, and pulls the bathroom door closed. When he finishes the shower, Potts is gone. Tony stares at himself in the mirror for three entire minutes before he takes off his dog tags and heads downstairs.

 

*

He checks out of the halfway decent hotel and into one he might call a shithole, if he wanted to insult shitholes the world over. The a/c rattles and coughs up a big cloud of grit, but no cold air. The water that comes out of the faucet looks like piss, the walls are covered with with 20 years of cigarette smoke, and Tony eyes the bedding and figures that purification by fire wouldn't do the trick. He pays in cash.

There's a convenience store next door, the kind of place with bare concrete floors and canned goods from the 70s, their faded labels covered in a fuzzy coating of dust. It does a brisk trade in alcohol, though, and Tony buys three bottles of bourbon and a notebook before heading back to his room.

 

***

It's late when Potts comes home, and Tony is sitting on the couch in the growing darkness, nursing a beer, staring at the fading outline of the ancient oak tree nearest the house.

"You look like a serial killer," Potts says, flipping on the light. "Why are you lurking?"

Tony closes his eyes against the light and raises his can of beer in a mock salute. "I'm not lurking. I'm mourning the tragic loss of Wal-Mart." He finishes the beer and goes to grab another one, leaving Potts standing by the door with her grocery bags. "I'm banned for life," he calls out, saving her the trouble of asking if he blew it up. "Breaks my heart."

When Tony emerges from the kitchen, she's sitting on the edge of the couch, unlacing her boots. "What happened?" she asks, sounding tired more than anything.

"Ran into Obadiah Stane," he says, watching her carefully. Her hands stutter on her laces and then she's yanking angrily at her boots, her breath hissing through her teeth, her face reddening. "You met him?" She'd never said so, but it's pretty clear from her reaction.

"Yeah," she says. "Before your trial. He came by my office. What'd he want?"

Tony ignores the question. "Why'd he come by your office?"

She shrugs. "I don't know, really. He said he was concerned for your welfare, and that I should try to talk some sense into you. I told him it wasn't possible, and he left. It was weird, but no big deal."

"Huh," Tony says. "Well, today he wanted to buy me dinner. In New York."

"Speaking of weird," she mutters. "What'd he really want?"

Tony frowns, thinking about it. "Maybe he's with CID," he says, but discards the thought immediately. "No, no, that's not it, but I bet he's got a few CID agents in his pocket. He knew about the suit. About what happened in Iraq."

"He said that?"

"He didn't have to."

Potts reaches over to snatch his beer out of his hand, takes a few swallows for herself. "If he knew about the suit, don't you think he'd do something other than ambush you at Wal-Mart?"

"Like what? Steal my hard drive?" He thinks Stane's a pretty good suspect. "He said -- well, he implied -- that he's the one who got me out of the Castle."

"He what?"

"Well, think about it, Potts. You ever heard of anyone getting out of there on parole? Hell, I'm not even on parole. I'm just out, fourteen years early."

She frowns, confused. "No," she says, shaking her head. "No, you were always going to get out in a year. Why do you think I..." Her mouth clamps shut.

"You what?" Tony prompts, leaning forward.

"The barn," she says, sighing. "I wouldn't have done so much work on the barn if I thought I had fifteen years."

"How'd you know? Did someone tell you? And why the hell didn't you tell me? I thought I got out on good behavior."

She takes another swallow of his beer. "Good behavior?" She sounds skeptical.

"What's that supposed to mean? You don't think I can behave myself?" She raises an eyebrow. "Okay, okay, fine, whatever. What the hell is going on?"

"All right," she says, holding up a hand. "Let me think for a second. It was in the paperwork I got when you got sent up, fifteen years but you'd be out in one. Then I got a phone call, maybe a week or two later, from a man who said I should get ready for you to come back. He wouldn't tell me his name, but he said I could check with Colonel Rhodes. I called him, and Rhodes said, let me see." She clears her throat, pitches her voice lower. "'If you got a call in the middle of the night from some Deep Throat motherfucker saying Stark's coming home, then Stark's coming home.'" She shrugs. "That was the end of it. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I thought you knew."

Tony flops back on the couch and throws an arm over his eyes. "I'm so fucking sick of this. Could you do me a favor and work your magic, try to find out who got me out of there? I'll talk to Rhodes, see if he knows anything." He'd thought prison would put an end to feeling like a pawn in his own life, but apparently not.

"Sure," she says, and steers the conversation back around. "So, other than your pleasant company for dinner, what'd Stane want?"

"Same thing as last time, basically," Tony says. "He wants me to work for him. Weapons and robotics for Obie's Magical Money And Machine Gun Mystery or whatever. I told him to fuck off, but I don't know, Potts, maybe he's right."

"Oh my god," she says, and then she kicks the foot closest to her. "You went to prison so you wouldn't have to design weapons, and--"

"I know, I know," Tony says, shoving his hands through his hair. "I know. It's just... I'm tired, Potts. I thought this would be easier." He reaches out and turns the light back off, and they sit there in the dark until he asks, "How do you do it?"

"It's different for me," she says, her voice soft, and Tony guesses it must be. Even if he finishes the suit, then what? It's not going to pay any bills or put any food on the table, and he's not going to sell it, and he's not going to work for Stane.

"Fuck," he mutters.

"Oh, come on." She stands up and kicks at his feet again. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. I brought burgers. Go fire up the grill." She heads to her room to change, and Tony grabs a few more beers and goes outside.

 

***

"Oh, Christ."

Tony hears a male voice, vaguely familiar, one he knows he's supposed to listen to. One he's supposed to obey. The guy's not saying much, though, and Tony's sick, in pain, all his concentration used up trying not to puke. He's not sure where he is. Cave, he thinks, and then no, no, impossible, but it's dark and cold and dirty, smells like shit and blood, and that voice won't stop talking, won't stop giving him orders -- stand up, come on, wake up, get up, open your eyes. He tries, but his eyes aren't cooperating; they feel sealed shut, crusted-over and sticky, and the harder he tries to pry them open, the more his head throbs in painful protest.

"You have got to be the stupidest motherfucker I have ever met in my life," the voice says, and then there are hands grappling him up, jostling him around, dragging him off. He tries to fight it, but his feet just scrabble uselessly at the floor. He manages to get his arm up and between him and the other guy, but the other guy just grabs and twists, tells him to stop fighting, and Tony remembers how this works. He goes limp, waits for the butt-stroke of a rifle against his temple, tries to remember the first one, the one that got him here.

He can't. He can't remember anything like this. It shouldn't be happening, not again, not now, not in Savannah. His stomach churns with panic and nausea and he dry-heaves against the body that's shoving him around. It sends searing pain up the left side of his body, and he jerks in response, hissing.

"Christ," the voice says again, but no one hits him, and Tony tries to settle down. Panic doesn't get him anywhere. He knows that, knows that weakness gets him just as far. He tries to get a handle on his breathing, but that's started hurting now, too. Fuck.

"Sit," the voice says, and he's being lowered down, propped up on something cold and hard. He starts to sag forward, but it hurts, and he arches back instead, cracks his head against something as he slides to the ground. Pain explodes in his head, fires its way down his spine, and he gasps, curling into a ball to protect himself.

"You know what?" The voice says. "Fine. Just stay there. Okay? Don't move."

Tony curls up tighter and decides that not moving is definitely a thing he can do. There's some light behind his eyelids, uneven and distant, and he can't stop thinking cave, no matter how insistently he screams the word no in his head. No, no, no, no no no--

He smells water. He smells it before he hears it, slightly stagnant, slightly dirty, a hint of copper, and this is not fucking happening again, but he can feel it clawing its way through his nasal passages, clogging his sinuses and soaking his lungs and drowning him drowning him, "NO," he manages to shout, shredding his vocal cords and tearing his eyes open and launching himself at the body in front of him.

It hurts, his eyes and his breathing and his hands and his head, but Tony soaks it up and spits it out, his fists pounding into the guy in front of him. The guy says, "holy fuck," and goes down, not really fighting, just dodging and moving and squirming and trying to get out of the way. "Tony," he says, "Tony, Tony, TONY," but then Tony's got his hands around the guy's throat and he's not saying anything, not moving, his hands up by his head, palms open.

Tony stops moving, but doesn't let go, doesn't even loosen his grip. His chest is heaving as he straddles the guy's torso and stares into his eyes, not seeing much of anything, listening to the shower running somewhere to the left. The shower? The-- fuck. The guy's face swims into focus, and Tony's staring at Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rhodes.

He lets go of Rhodes' neck, suddenly shaking violently, and topples sideways onto the bathroom floor. He's in his hotel room, in Savannah, and it might be hot but it's no desert, and he thinks he just beat the fuck out of a very superior officer.

"Shit," he says, and closes his eyes. He hears Rhodes sit up.

"Okay," Rhodes says. "Okay. I guess we should talk about that."

*

Tony manages to get himself into the shower, where he sags against the wall and shivers until the water runs clear and freezing cold. He thinks he was still drunk when he got in, but he's sure as hell sober when he gets out. He feels both better and much, much worse.

He's unsteady on his feet, feels weak and uneven, and his head is fucked up in more ways than seven. He's not ready to leave the bathroom and deal with Rhodes, so he wipes some of the fog off the mirror with his hand -- which has clearly been in a fight, the knuckles bruised and bloody and disfigured -- and checks himself out.

The worst damage is a a still-leaking gash above his left eye, which is nearly swollen shut. The left side of his torso is a mass of bruises, and he pokes at his ribs and hisses in pain; one of them is probably broken. The rest of it seems minor and superficial: his other eye blackened, a cut on the bridge of his nose and another on his mouth, swelling his bottom lip. He checks the inside of his mouth with his tongue; no loose teeth. His arms and legs are fine.

So, okay. He got in a fight, probably a bar fight, and maybe he got his ass kicked but he's willing to bet the other guy doesn't look much better. It'd be nice if he could remember, but his scenario sounds pretty plausible. He's not sure where Rhodes enters the picture. He supposes he should go find out.

He dries off, wraps a towel around his waist, and leaves the bathroom.

"Whoa," he says. It comes out low and harsh and a little painful, like there's rust in his vocal cords. "What happened here?" The bed is a rumpled mess, covered with blood and vomit, and Tony counts four empty bottles of bourbon scattered around the room. There's another in the corner, broken into pieces, its jagged edges glinting in the sunlight steaming in through the only window in the room.

"You tell me," Rhodes says, not looking up from where he's sitting, absently dabbing at his cut lip with a piece of tissue as he flips through the pages of Tony's notebook. He's in civvies, sort of: jeans and a faded West Point t-shirt, an Army-issue rucksack propped up by his feet. His eye and jaw are bruised, but he looks mostly okay.

"I don't know, sir," Tony says, wishing Rhodes would stand up so he can sit down. He's not going anywhere near the bed, but Rhodes is in the only chair. He looks around for pants. "Hey, maybe you should take off, go question some suspects or something, you know, I bet there was a femme fatale involved and some unscrupulous cheesemongers, and--"

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

Tony stops, halfway through pulling on a pair of jeans without any visible stains on them. He's out of clean underwear, but the jeans don't have holes, either, so he should be fine. "Sir?" he says.

"Don't." Rhodes has put down the notebook and is standing up, arms crossed. He glances at the reactor shining from Tony's chest, but his eyes don't linger, and Tony feels an absurd rush of relief. "Get your pants on, and then sit down before you fall down."

Tony feels like he should protest, but that sounds like pretty reasonable advice. He drops gratefully into the chair, holding the towel over his still-bleeding eye, and watches blearily as Rhodes digs through his rucksack for a first-aid kit. Tony tries not to whimper as Rhodes wipes down the cut with iodine pads, smears it with antiseptic cream, and then covers what feels like half of Tony's forehead in bandages.

He starts talking as soon as he finishes. "The first thing out of your mouth better be, 'I'm sorry, Colonel Rhodes,'" he says. "Followed by, 'Thank you for driving several hours in a truck with busted air-conditioning to bail my sorry ass out of trouble it shouldn't be in because I should be on base at this very moment, doing my duty as a sworn member of the United States military, but instead I have chosen to be unbelievably irresponsible and--'"

"I get it," Tony says, holding up a hand, hoping to stem the diatribe before that vein in Rhodes' forehead explodes and gets even more blood all over the place. If nothing else, it's giving Tony a bigger headache than he already has. "Is there drinkable water, sir? Maybe aspirin?"

"What did I just say?"

Tony looks down at his feet and considers apologizing. Rhodes has a point, but it's not nice to sneak up on people like that and try to throw them in the shower. He says, "I could take a look at your truck, sir."

"You... what? My truck?"

"Sir?" Tony frowns. "You said the air was broken."

Rhodes opens his mouth again but closes it with a sigh and a shake of his head. "And that was your idea of an apology," he mutters. "Okay. Stop calling me 'sir.'"

"No, sir," Tony says. His chest has gone tight, but he forces himself to look Rhodes square in the eye. "I appreciate... no, sorry, I'm lying, I don't appreciate you showing up here to get me, although I do appreciate that you're trying to help. But we're not friends. Sir."

"Finally, we're getting somewhere," Rhodes says. He crouches and paws through his first-aid kit again, hands Tony a packet of aspirin, and then reaches in his ruck for a bottle of water. "Here. Now, what the hell am I supposed to do with you?"

Tony shrugs with one shoulder, concentrates on drinking his water.

"You going to counseling?"

Tony shakes his head.

"Don't you have orders?"

Nod.

"You think you're getting a discharge out of this?"

"If not, I could start wearing dresses." He smiles as best he can around his fucked-up face. "Sir."

"That won't work, either, Klinger, but that little freak-out you just had was real. You should let someone help you."

Tony stops smiling. "I don't need help," he spits out. "I need a discharge. Sir."

"Probably," Rhodes says, breathing out in a big gust. "But it's never gonna happen. Your disappearing act in Iraq freaked everyone out. Sorry." His apology sounds sincere. "You should take my offer. Go to college. Go be a civilian for a while, let everything blow over. We can talk when you graduate, figure things out."

"Gee, thanks, sir." Tony snorts. "What'll that cost me?"

Rhodes frowns. "Typical deal is we send you to college for four years. Someone like you, you'll have fifteen degrees by then. All expenses paid."

Tony shakes his head. "I didn't mean money, sir. The Army pays for a degree or ten, they're not going to say goodbye with a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the ass. I'm looking for an out, not another in."

Rhodes sighs, clearly frustrated, and then comes at Tony from a different angle. "They're reviewing your security clearance, you know."

"Yeah," Tony lies. He didn't know, but he's not surprised.

"And they're not sending you back to the sandbox."

"Yeah," Tony says again.

"Yeah," Rhodes says, mocking, matching Tony's tone. "You thought about that? Put it together? It means you're going to spend the next two years mopping up oil spills. Being a janitor sound good to you?"

Tony shrugs. "Doesn't sound so bad, sir. I'm handy with a mop. You know, I bet there are whole new ways of mopping, maybe different chemicals, even, stuff that could really bring out the sparkle in those concrete floors."

Rhodes' nostrils flare and he snaps out, "Do you take anything seriously? I know you went through some shit over there, but it doesn't buy you a free pass."

"Does it buy me a mop?" Tony puts on his prettiest smile and Rhodes takes a deep breath, visibly getting himself under control.

"What about that?" Rhodes points at Tony's notebook, laying open on the desk. "You take that seriously. Tell me about it."

Tony reaches out and grabs the notebook, flips through the pages. It's nearly full, although he remembers writing almost none of it. It starts with schematics for a better chest piece, moves on to rough sketches of the Mark I and then a progression of ever-more-complicated upgrades and features. There's a Mark I.5 in the middle somewhere, pages and pages of math, and a Mark II, everything he can imagine doing if he had unlimited time and resources.

"It's nothing," he says, tossing it on the floor. "Ravings of a madman. Sir."

"Uh-huh," Rhodes says. "You should do it."

"With what, sir, the magic mop you're going to give me for all those oil spills?"

"You'll figure it out," Rhodes says, the hint of a smile in his eyes. "How're you feeling?"

"Like death fucked over, sir."

"Good. Maybe you'll learn something. Pack your shit. We're going home."

Rhodes ends up having to pack Tony's shit for him, because Tony still isn't moving very well. He wraps bandages around his torso, trying to stabilize his maybe-broken rib, and lurches around uselessly until Rhodes shoves him back into the chair and takes over. He thinks Rhodes pays his hotel bill, too, but he tries not to think about that. Or, for that matter, why Rhodes is even there. Instead, he spends the drive back to base with the right side of his face pressed against the window of Rhodes' sauna of a truck, sipping at his water and trying not to vomit.

 

***

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Fixing your air-conditioner," Tony says, extricating himself from under the hood of Rhodes' truck. He smiles brightly. "Hey."

Rhodes crosses his arms over his chest. "I got that fixed six months ago, Stark."

"Oops." He opens his hand, dropping a handful of screws to the asphalt.

"What do you want?"

"Come on, Sour Patch, you're not my superior officer anymore, so I just thought--"

"What did you--"

"--you might want to be friends, catch up, you know, it's been a while. Should've been longer, though, right? Like, say, another fourteen years?" Tony crosses his own arms, mimicking Rhodes' posture.

Rhodes sighs and glances around, but they're in the parking lot of a Hardee's at two in the afternoon, and everyone else is going drive-thru. They're as alone as they can be. Not that it matters, because Rhodes says, "I don't know anything about that."

"Yeah? Because Obadiah Stane--"

"Obadiah Stane?" Rhodes, who hadn't been moving in the first place, somehow moves even less. "What about him?"

"First he asked me out on a date," Tony says. "Then he got me kicked out of Wal-Mart. And, you know, I actually liked that Wal-Mart. It was almost convenient and the cute clerk at the McDonald's gives me free fries."

"Stark."

"Rhodes, Rhodey, man, he got me banned for life. I'm a little bitter. I need some time to grieve." He puts his hand over his heart and bows his head, keeping one eye on Rhodes. As soon as Rhodes rolls his eyes and opens his mouth, Tony says, "Stane told me he got me out of Leavenworth."

"No way." Rhodes doesn't even have to think about it.

Tony raises his eyebrows. "I thought you didn't know anything about that."

"I don't know who it was," he says, "but it wasn't Stane. He doesn't have that kind of pull anymore."

"Anymore?"

Rhodes shrugs. "And anyway, he was arrested two days ago."

"Oh, Colonel, you just made me swoon." He puts the back of his hand to his forehead and props himself up against the front bumper of the truck. It's only a slight exaggeration. "Arrested for what?"

Another shrug. "Classified. Weapons dev cut his contract a few months back, and I haven't heard from him since."

"Come on, don't give me that. There have to be rumors, gossip, water-cooler chit-chat, maybe the barber knows something, anything."

"Maybe," Rhodes says, glancing around the parking lot again. He meets Tony's eyes and tells him, "Maybe there's something about a robot suit, maybe not."

Tony springs away from the truck. "Motherfucker! He did take my hard drive, I knew it!" He kicks at a few rocks on the ground, swearing under his breath.

"We done?" Rhodes asks, after watching Tony pace angrily back and forth for a while.

"Yeah," Tony says, and then stops. "Wait, no. No. No. If Stane's in jail, who has my hard drive now? And who got me out of prison? And--"

"I told you already," Rhodes says, exasperated. "I don't know anything about that."

"Bullshit."

"Put my engine back together. I'm late."

"Rhodey, man, come on, I thought we were friends. Your engine's fine." He turns around and drops the hood.

"Uh-huh," Rhodes says. "Might want to check with the guy had Stane arrested. Nick Fury. Four-star. Eye patch. Came to your court-martial. Might've been pulling some strings back then."

"Eye patch," Tony repeats, searching his memory for a four-star pirate in the courtroom. "Sat at the back?"

"That's the one." Rhodes smiles. "Good luck tracking him down."

 

***

Tony was right: He's handy with a mop.

Rhodes was right: Tony's bored out of his goddamn mind in 20 minutes.

 

***

The doorbell jerks Tony awake after maybe four seconds of sleep. He'd closed out the Silver Dollar, and he is not ready to be awake, but he stumbles out of bed anyway, still wearing the clothes he crashed in.

"Yeah?" He blinks at the man standing on the porch, an older black guy whose posture screams Army, despite the ill-fitting khaki shorts and dark green golf shirt. He's wearing an Atlanta Hawks baseball hat pulled down low over his face and the biggest pair of mirrored sunglasses Tony has ever seen.

"Tony Stark?" Tony hears officer in the guy's voice, and wonders what the fuck he did this time. He'd paid to be done with the Army; the least they could do is leave him the hell alone.

"Elton John know you stole his sunglasses?" The guy's outfit reeks of someone who's in disguise.

"Clayton Keenan," he says, sticking his hand out. "I work with Potts." That surprises Tony enough that he takes Keenan's hand instead of slamming the door in his face. "She said you could fix my truck."

Tony finally notices there's a tow truck in the driveway, puling a slightly beat-up Ford F-150. He looks between Keenan and the truck, scratching the back of his neck and trying to ignore the feeling that there's something not right about Keenan. He finally asks, "What's wrong with it?" It's a recent model year, and not that beat up.

"Figure it out," Keenan says. "That's what you're paid for, right?"

"Paid...? Oh! Oh, right. Yeah. Okay. Um, tell the driver to keep going around back, to the barn. I'll meet you out there."

He closes the door as Keenan heads for the tow truck and climbs inside. Four hours later, Tony's $800 richer and Keenan drives his truck away with a rebuilt rear differential. Tony draws up the plans for the next stage of the Mark II, and orders the polyphonic resonator.

 

***

He starts small. He throws the toolbox that used to be his into the bed of his pickup and drives off base. He doesn't bring it back.

"Figure something out," Rhodes had told him, so Tony does. He figures out how supply works, which is: The better-written his letters of justification are, the less people think about how they probably shouldn't sign his completely unauthorized requests for tens of thousands of dollars' worth of materials and equipment. He figures out how to forge signatures, too, in case someone refuses to sign one of his letters, but no one ever does. They are air-fucking-tight.

One of the forklift drivers -- a kid named Larson -- loads a deluxe 100-ton ironworker straight into Tony's truck in exchange for a case of beer. Tony gets it to his makeshift shop and then heads back to base, meets Potts at the club for half-priced wings.

"I love bureaucracy," he tells her with a grin. "Seriously, I can't get enough of it. I totally get why you're into your job."

Potts licks spicy ranch sauce off her fingers and doesn't say a goddamn word.

 

***

Tony is apparently running an auto shop.

It's not busy, maybe one or two customers a week, but they usually have weird problems that regular shops can't fix cheaply or in a matter of hours.

It's very hush-hush, too, and Tony's not sure if he should be creeped out or grateful. The customers all show up at odd times, looking over their shoulders, and they tick off their credentials like they expect him to ask for a secret handshake. These credentials invariably involve Keenan, whose own truck breaks down in some bizarre way once a month. He seems to like hanging out in Tony's shop, though, and he pays well, so Tony keeps on ignoring the feeling that something's wrong.

Depending on the customer, what they drive, what the problem is, whether he has the parts or can build them, and how entertaining they are while he's working -- it's not like he has a waiting room -- he gives them a fair price or they give him a few cases of beer. He's not too picky, and the whole operation seems to bring in enough cash to get him most of the parts he needs to work on the suit.

 

***

The EZ Quick Stop on 196 has the Stars & Stripes painted on the overhang, and the woman who works the counter has big hair and a voice like a bingo caller with a three-pack-a-day habit. She's got a Winston Ultra Light dangling from her lips when Tony walks in, and she greets him by his rank as he heads to the Slurpee machine for breakfast.

He gets about halfway there, and then the headlines on the papers by the door register in his brain. It's him. Front page, above the fold, washed out and blurry, but definitely him. Someone, somehow, snapped a cell phone photo of him in the suit, coming out of that cave, flames emanating from his hands and scorching the earth. The headline, in three-inch letters, reads, "WHO IS IRON MAN?" The other papers don't look much different.

"I'll get it next time," he calls to the cashier, grabbing a stack of papers and racing out the door.

 

*

"Potts," he says, the second she picks up her phone, "Potts Potts Potts Potts--"

"Stark, would you calm down and--"

"The paper," he says, flooring the gas. "The papers, all of them, Potts, the New York Fucking Times, the front page has--"

"I know," she says, and it stops him short. "I saw it. There's video on youtube."

"But--"

"Stark," she says, and he finally picks up on her too-controlled tone of voice. "Just get to a computer. It's big."

Tony calls his NCO and takes the day off, and then he gets his ass to his house, his computer, his internet connection.

'Big' turns out to be something of an understatement. The internet seems to have lost its collective shit over the video, which is described as starring a giant robot who comes out of a cave, kills a bunch of bad guys with flamethrowers, and then flies away using a jet pack and rocket boots. That sounds about right to Tony, but he doesn't watch it; he remembers that day just fucking fine.

The conspiracy theorists and military policy wonks are jerking each other off while they explain what it means for the past, present, and future. The scientists and geeks are jerking themselves off, trying to figure out the technology, how the robot works, what the hell it even is. The Pentagon is issuing orders about never, ever jerking off. When they finally make a statement, it's something about rival terrorist organizations being prone to infighting. Tony goes straight for the bourbon.

*

Holton's Seafood has low ceilings, dim lighting, dark-paneled wood, too many pillars in the middle of the dining room, and fantastic all-you-can-eat crab legs on Mondays. Tony slides into a burgundy booth, its vinyl seats patched with duct tape, and nods across the table at Rhodes.

"Howdy, Colonel," he says. Rhodes looks exhausted. "How's the coffee here? You might want to consider some, sir, or at least something with caffeine. You're looking pretty rough."

"Thanks," Rhodes says, but Tony's pretty sure he doesn't mean it. "How are you?"

"Me? Oh, I'm good, sir, thanks," Tony says, and he doesn't mean it, either. "I'm just peachy."

Rhodes had called the day after the Iron Man story broke and snapped at Tony to meet him for a late dinner. Tony's not nervous, exactly, but his hands are clammy and he really wishes this place had a liquor license, wishes he could order a little something to put him on an even keel. Rhodes' awkward attempts at small-talk certainly aren't doing the job.

"Excuse me, Colonel," he says, and smiles at the hostess who'd shown him to his seat with a grin and a wink. She heads their way and leans over the table as Tony whispers in her ear.

"You know," she drawls, straightening up. "I think I might have just the thing. Y'all stay right there." Rhodes rolls his eyes, and Tony watches as she disappears somewhere into the depths of the restaurant.

"Do I even want to know?" Rhodes asks.

"That's Rachel," Tony says. "She's got a little pick-me-up in the back, sir, just something to take the edge off, you--"

"You are unbelievable."

"What? A little liquor in the coffee's no big deal, sir, it's like an Irish tradition."

"Do I look Irish to you?"

"Well, not exactly, sir, no, but--"

"We are working, Stark."

But Rhodes lets Rachel pour Bailey's into his coffee. Tony raises his mug in a toast as their waitress sets down a basket of hush puppies, and they get down to business.

"Listen," Rhodes says. "Don't worry about it."

"Don't worry about it," Tony repeats. "You couldn't tell me that over the phone, sir? You made me drive all the way out here to tell me not to worry about it? Because, you know--"

"Do you ever stop talking?"

"Well, one of us has to talk, sir, since we're apparently having some kind of top-secret business meeting at Holton's Seafood Shack and your only contribution is that I shouldn't worry about it. No offense, Colonel, but that's not exactly--"

"Sergeant," Rhodes says, enough sharpness in his voice that Tony's mouth snaps shut of its own accord. "First of all, this is not something you can discuss on the phone. With anyone. Understand?" Tony nods. "Okay. One guy came out of that cave alive. They know it's you in the video."

"Yes, sir," Tony says, sitting sullenly as the waitress puts down a giant plate of crab legs. When she leaves, he grabs one and smashes it with his mallet. "Then I can see why you don't think I should worry about it. I'm going to end up in some secret government lab somewhere, aren't I, sir, with some James Bond motherfucker doing experiments--"

"No, and shut up. I don't think you should worry about it because you--" He points with his fork. "--have friends in high places."

Tony has no idea what the fuck Rhodes is talking about. "Again, sir, no offense, but a Lieutenant Colonel isn't exactly--"

Rhodes cuts him off with a derisive laugh. "You think I meant me? This is way above my pay grade, Stark. It goes all the way to the top. And anyway, we're not friends."

"All the way?" Tony isn't so sure he can eat more crab legs. "You mean... What does that mean? Sir."

"You know what it means," Rhodes says, and then starts reciting the Code of Conduct. "'If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape--'"

"'--and to aid others to escape,'" Tony finishes. "I know the damn articles. Sir. But I don't know what that has to do with anything, and anyway, like you said, no one else got out of that cave."

"Because you didn't try?"

"Of course I fucking tried, sir."

"Okay. Did you accept parole or special favors from the enemy?"

"I." Tony thinks about it, and doesn't know what to say. His special favor was supposed to be death. "I don't know, sir. It's complicated. But you know what comes next, and I sure as hell broke faith. They're in the ground, and I'm sitting here eating crab legs." He smashes another one with his mallet, but doesn't eat it. He just wants to hit things.

"Surviving doesn't count as breaking faith, Stark. If it did, the whole damn military would be guilty."

"Maybe it is," Tony says. "Sir."

"Oh, please. Don't tell me--"

"What the hell do you want? You want me to say I'm a good person, and then maybe we can hug and cry? Because you can forget it, sir, it's not going to happen. I am finished." He drops his mallet on the table and shoves his plate of smashed-up crabs to the side.

"No, please, come on, sit back down. I wasn't trying to-- look, I'm saying that I've seen the video. Everyone's seen the video. Everyone knows it was you. And everyone also knows there's no way in hell you did that alone. Those guys agreed to your plan, they helped you out, and here you are. And yeah, some people want to hang you out to dry, but there are other people who believe in you, Stark, who know that whatever happened in that cave wasn't your fault."

Tony lets out a harsh bark of laughter. "Those people are idiots, sir."

"Maybe so, but they are on your side."

"My side? I don't know what the fuck you're even talking about, sir, my side. Go Team Tony. But tell me something, how many sides are there? Who gets to play? When's the draft? Because, frankly, sir, as far as I can tell, I am the only person who has ever been on my side." He thinks for a second. "Maybe Potts."

Rhodes sighs and spears a piece of crab with his fork. "You're not so good with people, are you, Stark?"

Tony sits back in the booth and crosses his arms. "Never had any problems before, sir."

"Right," Rhodes says. "Okay. Let's try this again. There's a power struggle going on, way up high, some four-star in Washington pulling strings to bury everything the media digs up."

"The media isn't digging up shit, sir," Tony says. "It's being leaked."

"Tell me something I don't know. Someone wants you brought up on charges, but I don't know who, and I don't know why."

"Charges, huh," Tony says, because that's pretty much his own plan. "You know--"

"Don't start that with me," Rhodes says, heading him off at the pass. "There's someone else who doesn't want you brought up on charges. That someone else is winning. And you need to keep your head down and let that person win, because we are not talking about the kind of charges that get you walking papers. We're talking about the kind of charges that get you executed."

"So, treason." Tony says. "Super. I can totally see why you don't think I have anything to worry about. Do they still use a firing squad, sir, or do they just--"

"Would you calm down? No one wants you executed."

"But you just said--"

"Aren't you supposed to be some kind of genius? Don't you get it? You're just a pawn, something they're fighting over."

"Huh," Tony says, smashing more crab legs, sending pieces of shell all over the table. "So they think if they try me for treason, I'll cut some kind of deal to save my life. They think I'll do what they want. What the fuck, sir, I mean, first, have they met me? And second, what about what I want?"

"What you want." Rhodes reaches down and then puts a file folder on the table, flips it open and shows Tony copies of the letters of justification he's been writing. "You apparently want half a metric ton of titanium sponge and a vacuum furnace," Rhodes says.

"Um."

"So I think what you want is off the table. What happened to it? Best CID can figure out, it got shipped into thin air."

"CID?"

"What, you thought no one would notice?"

"No, sir, I--"

"You were hoping they would, I know. I get it. They've noticed. Whoever the fuck is pulling the strings in Washington is pulling them here, too."

"So..." Tony sits back in the booth, trying to figure out what the hell Rhodes is trying to tell him. "What the hell are you trying to tell me, sir? Whose side are you on?"

"I'm on your side, Sergeant," Rhodes says. Tony rolls his eyes, but Rhodes keeps right on talking. "I'm guessing a lot of this would go away if you'd take me up on my offer, but since we both know that's not going to happen, I'm telling you not to worry about the Pentagon's bullshit, that they don't want what it might sound like they want. And I'm telling you that titanium sponge is not going to cut it."

Tony nods slowly. "Understood, sir," he says, and wonders if that's even in the neighborhood of true.

 

***

"Potts? Potts, can you come out here a sec? I need you."

From where he's perched on the arm of the sofa, Tony thinks he can hear Potts sighing from her bedroom. But he hears her footsteps, too, padding down the hallway, so sighing is okay. "Yes?" She asks, impatient.

"Potts, this is Jarvis." He places his laptop on the coffee table and angles it slightly, but tries not to give anything away.

Potts looks around the room, and then, when she doesn't see anyone, looks back at Tony. "Okay," she says, her voice a mix of confusion and stubbornness. "Hello, Jarvis."

"Hello, Sergeant Potts."

Potts nearly jumps out of her skin at the sound of Jarvis' tinny, robotic voice coming from Tony's laptop. Her eyes bug out of her head and Tony swears she twitches her arm like she's reaching for the service weapon she hasn't carried since her own deployment, years ago. He bites into his lip hard enough to taste blood, but it's no good. He throws back his head, laughing so hard his stomach starts aching immediately, and then he falls off the couch. He clutches his stomach and tries to breathe, but Potts stalks over, grabs one of the throw pillows, and smacks him in the face.

Tony keeps laughing.

 

***

Things he does not do well: hide the fact that he's stealing equipment and supplies. He writes his letters, he has them signed, it's all right there. The ID he fakes up to get him around doesn't arouse suspicion, but it's not good enough to fool anyone who bothers looking closely. No one does.

Things he does a bit better: hide the fact that he's also stealing weapons. That's harder, anyway, requires him to re-wire security cameras and overwrite access logs and crack 14 different tracking and processing systems. He needs three sets of legitimate IDs and keycards, and there are four manual locks on base that he gets good at picking. No one notices.

Things he does very well: hide what happens to everything once he gets it off base. He rents an old warehouse, run-down and dirt-cheap, under an assumed name, with an ID he actually puts some time into. He pays a year of rent, up front, in cash, and converts it into a shop. He rents a lot of cars under a lot of names, and he's pretty confident in the complete and utter lack of a paper trail. Or any other kind of trail, for that matter. No one looks.

He gets a storage locker, too, fills it with nonsensical papers and used books and crap he buys at yard sales. Some of it's real, and some of it's stolen, but none of it is anything he cares if the Army finds and confiscates. No one comes for any of it.

He tells Potts he's working on something, tells her enough to stop her from worrying about him if he disappears for a few days, but that's the only thing he says to anyone.

The last thing on his list is palladium, lots of it, enough for an upgraded reactor. Tony spends two days going over the options, thinks about Rhodes telling him that stealing titanium sponge isn't going to cut it, takes a deep breath, and has a tac nuke -- a Mk-67 SADM -- diverted to Fort Stewart. They don't want to arrest him, fine; he'll make it so they have no choice.

He gives the forklift driver two cases of beer this time. He extracts what he needs from the SADM, carefully destroys and disposes of most of the rest, and parks the empty casing in front of Rhodes' quarters at high noon. He puts a pink post-it note on it, signs his name with a flourish. Then he tips off the press.

It takes two days, and then there are CID agents kicking in his door at 0427. He runs.

A week passes, then another, and he keeps an eye on the papers, on the Internet, waits for the story. Three weeks of shitty motels and strip-mall dumpster-diving and beer that tastes like piss, and there it is: Army officials bringing charges of grand larceny, desertion, insubordination. Treason's not on the list, so he supposes someone on Team Tony won that particular battle.

He puts on his uniform. He drives to Hinesville and ditches the latest rental car, buys a bottle of bourbon, and walks the two miles to the gate. By the time he gets there, he's wasted, making a scene, and it's not conduct unbecoming because he's not an officer, but he knows he's racking up the charges all the same.

 

***

"I looked into Nick Fury for you," Potts says, her voice barely audible over the clinking of plates and silverware as she empties the dishwasher. Tony pushes himself up off the couch and heads to the kitchen.

"Yeah? Any news?" Tony hadn't been able to find anything; he didn't think Potts would have better luck, but it didn't hurt to ask her to try.

"Yeah," Potts says, but Tony can tell by her voice that he shouldn't get too excited. "My guy said we're not going to find Fury if he doesn't want to be found. He said I could be Fury."

"Are you Fury?"

"Nope."

"Well. I'm not Fury." He opens the fridge. "Want a beer?"

 

***

"Stark, you have a visitor."

Tony pushes his chair back, waiting for a 'ten-HUT' that never comes; instead, a big bald guy in the most expensive suit Tony has ever seen walks into his room. "Obadiah Stane," he says, with a warm smile and a firm handshake. "I've been looking forward to meeting you." He seems friendly enough, but when the handshake should be over, he doesn't let go. Instead, he moves closer, claps his other hand on Tony's shoulder, kind of looks around the room. "Are they treating you all right? You need anything? Ham sandwich? Comic books?"

"No, sir, thank you," Tony says, and nearly bites his tongue. Fucking brainwashing. He tries to move away, and there's a second when he doesn't think Stane is going to let him, but he does. "I'm good. Great. This place is top-notch, really." He sits down at one end of the table and deliberately doesn't ask what this guy wants.

"Glad to hear it," Stane says, smiling. "And please, call me Obadiah." Tony's hoping the guy will take a hint and go sit at the other end of the table, but he doesn't. He leans against the edge, too close to Tony's chair, and crosses his arms over his chest. "In that case, let's get down to business."

Tony smiles and nods like he knows what the hell is going on. "Great." He resists the urge to move his chair away.

"I'm here to offer you a deal, Tony. I understand you know a good deal when you hear one."

Tony stops smiling. One. One is a coincidence.

"Now, you have to understand, I can't give you all the details unless you agree, but I work closely with a certain defense contractor who'd be very interested in hiring you."

"I have a job," Tony says, and grabs the sides of his seat, leans his chair back on two legs.

"Not for long," Stane shoots back, wry amusement in his voice, like Tony's four and has just jumped out of a tree and said he could fly. Tony makes the hardest fists he can around the edges of his seat. "But I may know a few people who might be able to help you out. Really, my boy, there's no need for you to go through this. It must be difficult for you."

Tony feigns ignorance. "What's difficult?"

"A lengthy court martial. A lengthier prison term. I understand they don't really care for deserters in military prisons. Of course, I suppose it could be worse." He pauses, sniffs a little bit, flicks at a piece of lint on one of his sleeves before crossing his arms again, looks Tony dead in the eye. "They probably treat deserters better than traitors."

Two. Two is getting pretty weird. Tony's chest convulses in a way it hasn't since he got out of Iraq, and he slams the chair forward, banging the legs on the tile floor. Stane doesn't even blink. Tony tries for a smile, but knows it's more of a snarl. "I'm not being tried for treason," he says.

"Yet," Stane says.

"Not going to happen," Tony says, sounding more confident of that than he actually feels. "If you could make that happen--"

"Whoa, Tony, hold up," Stane says, his hands in the air, placating. "I can't make anything happen. I'm just trying to help you."

"Okay," Tony says, not buying it for a second. "Okay, so, you're telling me that you're going to make all of this go away if I go build weapons for, who is it, Lockheed? Raytheon? I--"

"Now you're jumping to conclusions, Tony. First of all, I can't make anything go away. I can only talk to some people I know, people who might have some influence, might use it on your behalf. Second, I never said anything about weapons. We think your strengths may lie elsewhere. Clean energy, maybe. Advanced robotics."

Fuck. That's three. Three is this guy talking to the Ten Rings on his own. Three is the guy who leaked the video to the press. Three is blackmail, but Tony's faced down worse. "Advanced robotics? I'm a mechanic."

Stane leans forward, that warm smile still in place. "But you could be so much more, Tony."

"That's what they keep telling me. Do I have a choice?"

Stane frowns, leans back, cocks his head to the right, looks genuinely confused. "A choice? Of course you have a choice. Why wouldn't you?"

"Oh, no reason, really, it's just on TV, that's usually how this works. You know, someone comes in with a deal, and it's kind of a take-it-or-else thing. I just wanted to make sure I didn't step onto the set of Law & Order or something."

"No," Stane says, chuckling. "No, Tony, there's no 'or else,' but it's a good deal."

Tony slides his chair back and stands up, doesn't bother even pretending to smile. "Not interested."

Stane pushes off the table the second Tony's out of his chair, and he's again too close, his hand too warm on Tony's shoulder. "I really urge you to reconsider."

"Sorry, sir," Tony says, with as much disrespect as he can muster. "Not interested. But thanks for stopping by."

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that." Stane says. "I'll leave my contact information with your friend, in case you change your mind. I really hope you do."

Tony knows he shouldn't ask, but: "My friend?"

Stane stops at the door, looks over his shoulder, eyebrows slightly raised. "Sergeant Potts. Take care of yourself, Tony."

He knocks on the door, smile firmly in place, and the MP lets him out. Tony waits for the footsteps to recede down the hallway, and then he kicks his chair across the room.

 

***

"Hey, you busy tonight?"

Potts looks like she might be, actually, has come out of her room in jeans and heels and some kind of tight strappy shirt thing. She's wearing more makeup than she usually does, she's done something to her hair more complicated than a pony tail, and she's clearly not going running. "Why?"

He holds up the DVD anyway, grinning. "I rented a movie. The latest Die Hard monstrosity, something about living free and dying hard. Big guns, big explosions, big muscles. You know, the usual."

"Oh," she says, blinking, obviously surprised. "Um. When's it due? Can we watch it tomorrow?"

"I guess, but what's wrong with tonight? Got a hot date?"

A wry smile. "Not sure how hot it's going to be, but yes, as a matter of fact, I do."

Tony tries not to frown. Potts should be dating. Potts should be getting laid. Potts should do something other than hang out with him. Potts should be happy.

"What?" she asks, and Tony grimaces. Apparently he'd frowned.

"Nothing," he says, shrugging. "Just, you know, I hope it's worth it, missing this magical Die Hard moment for some date. Who is it? Where'd you meet him? Anyone I know?"

She rolls her eyes, a small smile quirking one corner of her mouth. "None of your business," she tells him. "But I checked, and he doesn't drive a Toyota. I know how you feel about Toyotas."

"Hey, Toyota makes a perfectly respectable truck, it's just those assholes in sedans you have to look out for." He tries to be casual. "So... what's he drive?"

Potts grins, picks up her purse. "A Hyundai."

"Oh, Jesus." He groans and throws himself on the couch, one hand on his forehead. "A Hyundai?"

"Bye, Stark," she says, laughing. "Don't wait up."

 

***

"Stark. Stark, you awake?" There's light rapping at his door and then the sound of a key. It swings open, a blinding rectangle of light spilling into Tony's room from the hallway, washing out the softer blue glow of his reactor.

"What?" Tony sits up in bed, a hand over his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I'm awake, what's up -- Rhodes? What the hell are you doing here?"

He starts to scramble out of bed, officer on the floor, but Rhodes waves his hand and shuts the door and says, "Sit down and shut up and listen." Given that it's 0327 and there's a light colonel in Tony's room in the pre-trial confinement barracks, that's probably a good idea. Tony nods, and Rhodes says, "They're not going to convict you."

Tony squints at Rhodes. "Am I dreaming?" he asks, tilting his head. "You do have an eerie blue glow about you."

"Stark."

"I stole a tactical nuclear weapon." Tony's voice sounds flat, barely recognizable.

"Yeah, and then you went and handled it responsibly. You remember the secret underground lab where they run experiments?"

"Are you fucking kidding me? There's a lab? Seriously, I'm dreaming. Here, pinch me." He holds out his arm.

"Do I look like I'm fucking kidding you?"

He doesn't. Tony plants his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. "What about Team Tony?" he mumbles. "I just want out. Why is that so fucking difficult for you people to understand?"

Rhodes ignores the second question. "Team Tony kept the Iron Man suit out of this. Team Tony kept treason off the table. Team Tony is now trying to keep you out of a secret underground lab. Team Tony--"

"Okay, stop." Tony holds up a hand. "I know it's my fault, and I'm really sorry I brought it up, but can we stop talking about Team Tony now? It's weird." Rhodes obligingly stops talking. "Why are you here?"

There's a sigh from where Rhodes is standing. "There might be a chance. The judge doesn't have orders to acquit, just a very strong recommendation. If he does, then you go to the lab. If he doesn't, you go to the Castle, and the lab guys lose their chance at you. More importantly, they lose their chance at that thing." He points at Tony's reactor.

"Okay," Tony says. He lifts his head and looks at the shape that's Rhodes. He hasn't moved from where he's standing, his back to the door. "You here to bust me out, then, sir?"

"Now you're the one who's fucking kidding me," Rhodes says. "I came to say good luck tomorrow, Stark."

 

***

"Jarvis," Tony says, cracking open the laptop and a beer, in that order. The screen flickers. "Jarvis, wake up. What's on my to-do list?"

The screen flickers again, and then Jarvis' Britishized robot voice comes out of the speakers. "I don't understand, sir."

Tony sighs. Jarvis' speech-recognition is pretty good -- at least when it comes to Tony's voice, and Jarvis can recognize Potts easily enough -- but there are problems translating casual speech into executables. "To-do list," he says, louder, slower, more clearly.

"Of course, sir," Jarvis says. A text file appears on the screen, and Jarvis starts to read. "Television. Roof. Water heater."

"I did that one," Tony says. "Water heater done. Totally fixed. No more of those horror-movie showers with the shrinkage and the ice water and you scream and run down the hallway and get axe-murdered by that psychopath in the stupid mask."

"I don't understand, sir," Jarvis says.

"Yeah, Jarvis," Tony says, sighing. "I know. Water heater done."

"Water heater done," Jarvis repeats, and it disappears off the screen. "Very good, sir."

Tony stares at the screen and doesn't bother to have Jarvis keep going. He can read it well enough, and he can talk to Jarvis, but he can't talk to Jarvis, and it frustrates him. Unfortunately, he's pretty much out of home-improvement projects that he can tackle in a few hours. After fixing the water heater, he'd found, repaired, and installed a dishwasher; he'd upped the output on the a/c; he'd replaced the windows in Potts' bedroom; and he'd almost completely renovated the bathroom, if you could call a scrapyard toilet and smashed pieces of mismatched tile tastefully arranged into an abstract mosaic a "renovation." The house is still a shithole, but it's a slightly less shitty shithole.

The roof should be next -- the attic's got a lot of water damage, and he can't fix that until he fixes the leaks -- but he needs another job or two before he can think about it. There's also the small fact that he doesn't know the first damn thing about fixing a tin roof. He'll have to look online, which requires illegally running a few miles of cable and stealing some broadband, because their neck of the woods doesn't have it and they can't afford satellite. Or he could go to the library, maybe, but he thinks he needs a library card for that, and to get one of those, there's paperwork, and basically, it's a pain in his ass and it's not like he can do anything about it tonight.

He could work on Jarvis, but that's another really long list, and right now he's inclined to make Jarvis say something like, "install the goddamn resonator," except more polite. The polyphonic resonator arrived more than a week ago, and it's sitting in its box, in the middle of his bedroom floor. He keeps forgetting it's there and tripping over it in the middle of the night.

"Okay," he tells Jarvis. "Fine. You win. I'll install the goddamn resonator. That'll be that."

"I don't understand, sir," Jarvis says. Tony closes the laptop and grabs the box from his room. He throws it in the bed of his truck, already filling up with two weeks' worth of pawn shop and scrapyard junk, and drives around to the shop.

 

***

"All rise."

The sergeant-at-arms calls the room to order, and the judge comes in, a middle-aged captain who Tony thinks looks like James Earl Jones. He even has three names.

"Captain Michael Reynolds Raycroft presiding. God save the United States of America."

Raycroft bangs his gavel and starts. "Would the defense like to--"

"Oh, hey," Tony says, standing up. "Sorry, Judge? Your Honor? What do I call you, anyway?"

Raycroft stares down at Tony, not blinking. "You don't call me anything, Sergeant. You leave that to defense counsel."

"Well, sure, of course," Tony says, "but the thing is, Judge, the thing is, uh, I'm firing defense counsel."

*

"Your Honor, the Government would have you believe that I stole $2.3 million worth of tools, supplies, equipment, and weaponry, but by the end of this trial, I will have you believe that that's utter bullshit. I mean, really, if I'd taken that much stuff, wouldn't I have done something with it? Maybe built a jet pack? I think I would've built a jet pack, sir, and by the end of this trial, so will you."

*

"Would you read what it says on the piece of paper, please, Colonel Rhodes?" Lieutenant Robert Simons, the Army Judge Advocate appointed to the case, is a tall guy, blond-haired and blue-eyed and square-jawed, maybe 30 years old, probably went to Harvard. He hates Tony -- not that Tony blames him -- and is in the process of calling all of Tony's friends and almost-friends to the stand as revenge.

Rhodes takes the pink post-it note. "It says, 'Dear Rhodey, Thanks for the advice. Please enjoy this tac nuke with my compliments. xoxo, Sgt. Anthony Edward Stark, United States Army.'"

"And would you tell the Court where you found this piece of paper, please."

"It was affixed to the shell of a Mk-67 SADM that I found outside my quarters on the afternoon of 17 July."

"OBJECTION!" Tony launches himself to his feet with a shout.

Raycroft heaves a long-suffering sigh. "What now, Sergeant?"

"Mk-67 SADMs don't have 'shells,' Judge, they have these backpack-casing things, which makes it pretty clear that Colonel Rhodes doesn't know what he's talking about. I move to have his testimony stricken from the record."

"Overruled."

"Okay." Tony sits back down and gestures at Simons. "Sorry, man, go ahead."

"What advice is the post-it note referring to, Colonel?"

"I'm not sure, Lieutenant. The only advice I ever gave Sergeant Stark was that he should get his mind right. He should keep his head down, stay out of trouble."

"Objection! He also told me I should go to college. I move he be arrested for lying." He turns around and looks at Potts, who's sitting behind him, stone-faced and silent. He drops his voice to a stage-whisper. "That's bad, right, lying under oath? That's a thing we arrest people for in the military?"

Potts nods, and Tony looks back at the judge, his face hopeful.

"Overruled."

"Okay."

"You know what, Your Honor? No further questions."

*

"Please the Court, the Government calls Staff Sergeant Virginia Potts."

"Objection! This witness wasn't on the list, Your Honor." Tony points at his blank piece of paper.

"Yes, she was. Overruled."

"Oh," Tony says. "Okay, never mind. Sorry, Potts."

When it's Tony's turn, he stands up and leans against the edge of his table. "You said we've known one another for how long, Sergeant Potts? Six years?"

"Yes," she says.

"Tell me, Sergeant. How do I feel about jet packs?"

"Objection!"

*

"Please the Court, the Government calls Sergeant Anthony Edward Stark."

"Objection," Tony says. "How am I going to object to my own questions? I mean, I don't have multiple personalities or anything, and even if I did it's not like I have another body for one of me to live in while you grill the other me, so I really don't think--"

"Overruled."

"Objection! Your Honor, what about cross-examination?"

"Overruled, Sergeant. You should have thought about this before dismissing defense counsel."

"Yeah, okay," Tony says, takes the oath, sits down. "What's up?"

*

"Your Honor, I'd like to request a ten-minute recess to confer with my client."

"You are your client, Stark."

"...and? I can't confer with myself? What, are you a communist?"

*

"Hey, thanks for coming," Tony says. "Do you remember me?"

"Of course."

"Of course! Of course, of course. Can you tell the Court where we met? Oh, wait, no, I'm supposed to tell you to state your name, rank, and current billet. So do that, I guess. Please. Doctor. Sir."

"Dr. John Anton Altman, Chief of Psychiatric Services, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center."

"So, Doc, you see a lot of crazy people come through there? You must, right, chief of psychiatry?"

"I prefer not to--"

"Objection," Simons calls out, not even bothering to stand up.

"Sustained."

"That's where you met me, right, Doctor?"

"Correct."

"Am I crazy?"

"Objection." Simons stands up this time, his chair scraping against the hardwood floor. "Your Honor--"

"Your Honor." Tony cuts Simons off. He actually wants this one. "Judge, I apologize, I don't know the correct terminology, but I think that if I'm crazy, you should know about it. You know, in case that has some bearing on whether or not I stole a tac nuke. Or, I guess, why I stole a tac nuke, if indeed I did, which I did not."

Raycroft sighs heavily. "Stark--"

"It's okay, Judge," Altman says. "I'll answer the question. No."

Tony frowns and looks over his shoulder at the shrink. "No? I'm not crazy?"

"Not remotely."

"Oh," Tony says, disappointment in his voice. "Shit."

*

"Sergeant, approach the bench."

"Only if you tell me why they call it a bench. I mean, you've got a chair back there, right? I bet it's comfy. Is it comfy?"

*

"Objection. Objection. Objection. Your Honor, is this relevant?"

Raycroft pinches the bridge of his nose. "Sergeant Stark, where are you going with this?"

"It's totally relevant," Tony says, waving the New York Times at the judge. "This is a picture of a robot with a jet pack. More to the point, it is a picture of me, as a robot, with a jet pack. And this--" He holds up a stack of paper. "--is everything I allegedly stole, which is obviously the equipment for making jet packs. And so I think it is completely and totally relevant to ask you, Major, did you find a jet pack?"

Major Lee, the CID agent who'd been running his case, doesn't blink. "No," he says.

"Did you find any of this stuff?" He points at the list again.

"No."

"I rest my case," Tony says, triumphant. "I would totally have a jet pack if I'd stolen all this stuff. Therefore, I didn't steal it."

"You rest your case?" Raycroft asks, perking up and looking interested for the first time in two weeks. "As in, the defense rests? You're done?"

"Yeah," Tony says.

"Thank god."

 

***

It takes him all of an hour to install the polyphonic resonator, and another one to figure out how to strap, screw, and staple the boots on. Two more to get all the cables and wires connected and attached to his body, to each other, to the chest piece. Everything gets hooked into the receiver strapped to the small of his back.

"Jarvis," he says. "I need minions. This is a pain in the ass."

There's no answer, and he remembers he needs to turn Jarvis on. Probably a good first step.

Once he's finished, he stands under the hole in the roof and stares at the sky, moonless but littered with stars. He breathes in, out, in, and flicks the switch to turn the boots on.

 

*

"Stark, what is it? I am on--"

"I can fly," he says, breathless.

"--a date. Wait, what? Really?"

"Really."

She laughs, then, clear and joyful, and Tony smiles into the phone, just listening. "Show me sometime?" She's smiling, too, he can tell.

"Hey, you could've been here tonight, but you ditched me for Mr. Hyundai."

"Oh, be quiet. I will talk to you later."

Still smiling, he climbs into the bed of his pickup and stretches out, laces his fingers behind his head, watches the stars, listens to the rhythmic chatter of the crickets. He's too pleased about flying to worry much about the next steps -- the suit itself, the armored exoskeleton he's pretty sure he's never going to have the materials to make. It feels both impossible and within reach.

His phone rings twenty minutes later. It's Potts. "Where are you? I'm done here."

He grins into the phone and doesn't say anything smart about her date, just tells her he's at home, stares at the sky, and waits.

 

***

It takes three days, and with each second that ticks by, Tony knows his chances of a conviction are dwindling down to nothing. He wonders what they'll do to him in that lab.

But Raycroft says "guilty," says Tony's guilty of everything anyone's ever said he did and probably more besides, and the noise that claws its way out of Tony's throat can't decide if it's protest or relief. It might be what he wanted, might be better than the alternatives, but that doesn't mean it doesn't suck. Still, he gets his discharge, dishonorable but "discharge," Raycroft says, "discharge," and Tony's trying hard to keep the smile off his face when Raycroft says, "United States Disciplinary Barracks" and Tony hears Leavenworth Leavenworth Leavenworth. Then he hears "fifteen years," hears Potts suck in her breath behind him, and then he hears nothing at all, just the rattle of the cuffs on his wrists and the echo of his Oxfords against the hardwood floor of the courthouse as he's escorted out.

 

 


"Stark," Potts whispers, holding one hand in the air. Tony freezes. "The door is unlocked."

He nods, points to himself, points to where his truck is parked. He's got a pistol in the glove compartment. He shouldn't have it, but right this second, he's glad he does.

"That won't be necessary," a vaguely familiar voice calls from inside the house. "I'm just here to talk to you."

Potts nods, and Tony pushes the door open slowly. He peeks inside. It's Keenan, he of the always-broken truck; he's standing by the back window, his hands clasped behind his back. This version of Keenan, though, has ditched the baseball hat and giant sunglasses and is instead wearing a black leather trench coat and an eye patch.

"Nick Fury," Tony says. "Your truck broken?"

"General Nick Fury," he says, emphasis on the rank. "Director of SHIELD."

"Ah," Tony says. "Was your truck ever broken? What do you want?"

"I'm here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative."

*

"You should go," Potts says, picking at the label on her long-empty bottle of beer.

Tony swallows, stares out into the darkness at the fireflies, listens to the chirping of the crickets and the shrieking of the porch swing. "I need to oil this thing," he says, twisting around to try and get a look at the hinges. "Who'll do that if I go to New York?"

"I can oil my own porch swing," she says.

"I don't want to be in their superhero boy band."

Potts sighs. "Tony," she says, and that's how he knows she's serious. Tony. "It's the right time. They've got money, resources. Take it, take your time, finish the Mark II. Save the world on your own terms. It's everything you've always wanted."

Tony kicks a pebble off the porch. "Not everything," he says.

They sit in silence for another ten minutes, until Potts places a gentle hand on his shoulder and pushes him off the swing. "Go," she says, and he goes.

Inside, Fury's made himself at home, sitting at the kitchen table and flipping through a week-old paper. He looks up at Tony, the one eyebrow raised in question.

"I work with you, right?" Tony crosses his arms, and then uncrosses them immediately. He shoves his hands in his back pockets. "Not for you?"

The eyebrow climbs a little higher. "You ever worked for anyone in your life? I know what I'm getting into."

"Okay." Tony says it under his breath, mostly to himself. He looks down at his feet, takes a deep breath, and then looks back up at Fury. "Okay. I'm in."

 

 

FIN.