‘Stable’ had never really been one of Tony’s settings.
It was something he was proud of, or had been. He was a genius, an innovator, a hero. None of those attributes really lent oneself to gathering moss.
The insomnia and frenetic energy had been a part of him for such a long time that now, in the aftermath of another crisis; battered, scarred, and more sure of his purpose than ever, Tony didn’t really know how to feel. He was… stable.
No more crazy hours in his basement building suit after suit, no more manic obsession with improving a design that was already decades ahead of the closest competition.
He had Pepper and Rhodey and a job to do that wouldn’t demand so much of him that he had nothing left for himself.
It unsettled him in a way he didn’t really know how to express.
He touched the soft, sore place in the middle of his chest where his arc reactor had been. It was a mess of wrinkled tissue over torn muscle now. The doctors had replaced the missing bit of his sternum with metal. It had bothered him, a little; those metal bits. The point of this was to cut all the unnatural parts out and leave just Tony behind.
But, well. Practicality and general health safety had won that one.
The skin graphs were going well but it was still going to be painful for a while.
It would always be an ugly mess of damaged skin, which Tony found perversely satisfying. He knew there were cosmetic surgeries that would be able to smooth the flesh into something less horror-flick chic, but it wasn’t something Tony wanted. He wanted to be able to touch those imperfections and remember what he wasn’t anymore, the same way he had touched the reactor in remembrance of what he hadn’t been before that.
Tony took a long sip of his unpleasantly cool coffee. He was back in New York, back in the tower that he and Pepper were rebuilding, and standing on the balcony. He was looking down at the city.
With the Malibu house destroyed and his own new commitment to put the past behind him, coming to New York had been… something he thought he was ready to do.
Fleeing the west coast had nothing at all to do with the smell of the surf bringing the dirty, salty taste of the Pacific back into his mouth.
Tony didn’t think he’d build another house in California.
New York had done a remarkable job of bouncing back but there were still signs of the battle. Still pieces missing, still buildings taken down by Chitauri warships that hadn’t been built back up yet.
He tipped his head back and stared up at the sky, feeling brave and defiant and foolish because, after all, he was only looking up. It wasn’t something to brag about.
But it still made his hands shake. He still remembered the cold pull of the portal. The long, helpless fall. The sky bothered him here in a way that it hadn’t in California.
Tony heard his breath catch and the sound of it made him jerk back, eyes snapping down.
He braced his hands on the railing and bowed his head.
He snorted bitterly and turned back inside.
The thing was, now that he wasn’t in motion – either building or fighting or drinking himself stupid – he was dwelling.
Part of it was being back in New York and letting the memories of what had happened here surface. The anxiety attacks he’d been suffering from made him bottle the entire experience up – or try to. But now that it wasn’t crippling him in the middle of the street anymore, Tony started feeling… angry.
Bruce had gone off the grid again and Tony was willing to extend plausible deniability to the man. He’d been the first and thus far only member of that supposed ‘team’ to get in contact with him.
And he’d extend that grace to Thor – the dude was off planet. It made Tony’s drama categorically not his problem.
But what about the rest of them? Where the hell had the assassin twins been? Hell, the President of the United States had been threatened. Wasn’t that bone fide Captain America bait?
Even if something had been preventing each of them as individuals from coming to help him, Tony couldn’t get past the tang of betrayal when he thought about SHIELD.
Why hadn’t they stepped in?
Extremis had turned people into literally fire-breathing monsters. It seemed like SHIELD’s jurisdiction.
“What are you thinking about?” Pepper said, stepping up behind him and sliding hands around his waist.
Tony closed his eyes and leaned back into her, resting the back of his head on her shoulder.
“I met a guy who had a tattoo of my face on his arm. I’m awesome.”
Tony could hear the eye roll, the nose wrinkle.
“Or he was incredibly sad and misguided. One of the two.”
“Hey,” Tony protested without any real heat, not opening his eyes, “I’m an excellent role model.”
Pepper kissed his ear and insinuated a hand under his shirt, stroking it across his belly.
Tony stopped thinking about SHIELD for a while.
Tony was thinking about SHIELD.
And how Extremis would be something that SHIELD would probably love to get its grubby hands on.
JARVIS had quarantined the information as much as he was able to but there might still be labs out there, or Extermis-infected people that hadn’t been part of that battle on the oil tanker. The thing had burned and Tony felt reasonably confident that any traces of the nanovirus in the genetic material left behind would be just about as replicatable as the Super Soldier Serum.
“Jarvis,” He said.
Tony fell silent.
He lowered the hand holding his screwdriver. Dum-E was offline at the moment and he’d been working on the arm joints. The bot wasn’t extending it properly and Tony was tracking down what it was catching on.
“Sir?” Jarvis prompted.
“Extremis,” Tony said, bending back to his work and saying the word like he wasn’t haunted by visions of Pepper’s flesh burning from the inside. “I want to know how much SHIELD knows about it. Reach out, babe. Pickpocket protocol.”
“Of course, sir.”
Jarvis fell silent, already, Tony knew, working on slipping over SHIELD’s admirable walls and finding exploitable cracks to sneak through.
He pulled the casing off of Dum-E’s arm and went back to the task at hand.
Bruce was staring at him.
Tony had come down to the common level to get something to eat and had, admittedly, punched the toaster. It might be worth a raised eyebrow but he expected Bruce to know him well enough by now to take a little appliance-mauling in stride.
Bruce sipped his tea and regarded him with patient inquiry from his chair.
“You’re looking a little… green, Stark.” Bruce commented lightly.
Tony huffed and raked a hand through his hair.
He flicked the dented toaster and stomped around the kitchen island, taking the seat next to Bruce.
“I’m fine,” He said.
Bruce nodded placidly.
“Really,” Tony insisted.
“Okay,” Bruce agreed.
Tony clasped his hands together between his knees, leaning forward.
“This… thing that went down with the Mander- I mean, well, with AIM. Well, Killian. I haven’t – that, well, what I’m saying is – wait, do you even know what happened? You were under a rock, right?”
“Pepper filled me in,” Bruce said.
“It’s just,” Tony continued. He inhaled sharply and coughed, the breath sucking spit into his lungs ungracefully.
“We make our own demons,” He said. Bruce would understand that. Bruce would understand that more than most, maybe more perfectly than even Tony did.
Tony felt his shoulders relaxing and he started to speak.
A burden shared was a burden halved, right?
Later, Tony tried again.
“I almost died. A lot. I was overpowered and out of my league and I was… I was going to die. The last time that happened, I had anxiety attacks for months,” Tony said quietly, turning the corners of his mouth upwards to try and make it a joke.
Dum-E whirred at him and handed him an empty coffee cup sympathetically.
Tony combed through the files Jarvis had brought him and felt his forehead crinkling in confusion.
SHIELD’s intel on Extremis was… lacking. It was minimal to the point of apathetic and Tony couldn’t wrap his head around it.
This had been important. It still very much was important.
He tapped to the file on Maya Hansen, then on Killian, on AIM, the Manderin… Pepper.
SHIELD’s files were thorough but… succinct. Abridged, almost.
Tony went through them and read a lack of interest in the to-the-point sentences. Either the bulk of SHIELD’s files were hard-copied only and offline, or they really hadn’t had an interest in the entire Extremis event.
He opened the file they had on him. Stark, Anthony E.
His last four months had been condensed into a page and a half brief.
Tony flicked his fingers angrily and the display closed.
He stared at the blank holomonitor for a long time.
But, fine, whatever. Fuck them. Tony hadn’t even been a proper member of the boy band anyway – his file still listed him as a consultant.
He hadn’t looked into Captain America’s file, or Barton’s or Romanov’s. Benefit of the doubt would break if he knew for sure they were around and had just chosen not to help.
He checked his mail tentatively. Would it be better or worse if he had pending messages from them?
There was a forest of emails from his company, from reporters begging for some of his time and universities and conferences wanting him to speak and the hundreds of other messages that comprised the detritus of his fame.
In amongst them, there was what had to be an auto-generated email from the custom-fabrics place asking him if he was satisfied with his recent purchase of a 15’ tall rabbit.
Tony stared at the message for a long time before deleting it.
There was nothing from his team.
Tony groaned and shuddered and clutched the pillow hard enough to strain the fabric. It was that or pull Pepper’s hair and Tony didn’t want to do that.
“Pepper,” He gasped, leg spasming as she did something particularly wicked with her mouth.
Her hair brushed his thighs and Tony was hyper-aware of the strands of it sticking in the crease where his left leg met his body.
She rolled her tongue and Tony whimpered, feeling blood pounding hot and heavy in every bit of him that Pepper touched.
The skin around his heart ached. It felt stretched too tight and for a wild moment Tony was afraid that the exertion would damage those bones and muscles still weak from the surgery. The vision of it hit his mind obscenely – the hard beating of his heart pulling the seams of the graph apart and turning his chest into a sticky, red mess of blood and pulp.
The happy sex-sweat on his forehead went cold and the shivery feeling in his stomach turned from arousal to nausea.
His cock, stupid thing that it was, didn’t seem to notice. Pepper swallowed him down deeply and that was it, he was gone, the orgasm dragged out of him with yell that wasn’t entirely borne of pleasure.
He gathered Pepper in his arms, panting, holding her tight while he trembled.
She kissed him and he tasted himself on her tongue, the bitter salt of it driving out the last taste of her own sex that lingered in his mouth.
It made him feel startlingly alone.
He squeezed her tighter against him and tried to make the feeling go.
He woke that night pale and sweating and on the verge of panic.
He’d destroyed all of his suits. All of them. Every one of them.
What kind of a fucking idiot was he? God, the vulnerable position he’d put himself in – them all in – hit him like a punch from the Other Guy.
He extricated himself from the bed, vision pinpointed with focus and need but careful, so careful not to wake Pepper.
Silently, he stole down to his lab. He always had a lab. Resolutions or no, Tony Stark couldn’t be Tony Stark without a space to create things.
“Jarvis,” He whispered, voice tight and high.
“Open the backups from mid-December. I want the schematics for the Mark 41.”
Tony had taken out the implants along with the shrapnel; the Mark 42 would be useless without getting them injected again.
But he didn’t need to be able to control the suit with his mind. He just needed armor. The lack of any at all made him feel horribly exposed.
“Sir, the ‘clean slate’ protocol erases all of the suit schematics.”
Tony squeezed his eyes shut. He’d known that, of course.
“Then we have some coding to do, Jay,” He said thinly.
He was a mechanic. He was the mechanic. He made things. He could do this.
His heart fluttered at the magnitude of the task at hand. Building a suit from scratch would take, what, three weeks? If he really pushed it? Probably closer to a month and a half since he didn’t want Pepper to think he was backsliding. He’d have to schedule this very carefully.
A month and a half where any damn thing could happen to them.
His fingers trembled on the keyboard. He took a breath. He took another.
He threw himself out of the chair and backed up against a wall, sliding down and gripping his head in his hands.
“Fuck,” He gasped, “Fuck, fuck.”
“I’m fine!” He barked, lying but terrified that Jarvis would alert Pepper. She didn’t need to see this.
“Get it together, asshole,” He hissed angrily.
His pulse threaded in his throat and Tony shook, waiting for this moment to pass, half-sure that this would be the time that it didn’t. That he was going to lose his mind and that would be it.
Dum-E whirred, powering up, and rolled out of his alcove. Tony tracked the bot’s movements with wide eyes, focusing on something benign and trusted and trying to use that to get his breathing back under control.
Dum-E put his extensor on Tony’s knee comfortingly.
Tony patted the rubber-tipped metal fingers, exhaling hard and finally pulling in a deep breath.
He pushed himself to his feet and walked over to the small kitchenette he kept in the corner of his lab, wavered for a moment between coffee or scotch before opting for the latter and pouring a few fingers of the amber liquid into his mug.
The familiar burn of it down his throat made him relax even more.
“Jarvis,” He said when the cup was empty. “Pull those screens back up. Let’s get to work.”
“Sir, there is a… potentially viable option to consider.”
Tony looked at the closest camera, tentative hope sinking tiny, sharp teeth into him.
“The ‘Blank Slate’ protocol initiated a self-destruct sequence for suits Mark 1 - 42.”
Jarvis fell silent.
“Yeah,” Tony said slowly, “That’s kind of the problem I’m having now.”
“The ‘Blank Slate’ protocol initiated a self-destruct sequence for suits Mark 1- 42 only, sir.” Jarvis corrected himself.
Tony inhaled to make a scathing reply, and then stopped.
“War Machine,” He said, the fact of it making his chest loosen.
“The Iron Patriot, sir,” Jarvis corrected dryly.
The holomonitor brought up the schematics; bulky guns and heavy augmentations making the shape of the suit ugly and overly masculine. But peeling that nonsense away would be easy enough – underneath that, there was still an Iron Man suit; sleek and beautiful and entirely needed.
Tony’s fingers flashed over the design, stripping and pulling and typing up code to make it better in a flurry of concentrated genius.
Tony felt his mouth stretching in a smile.
This was who he was, after all.
He shoulders finally relaxed as he worked.
Tony wasn’t sure how many hours later it was when he surfaced, jolted back to his surroundings by Pepper’s gentle hands on his waist.
He turned, smile fading at the worried look she gave him. She looked past him to the screen displaying what was unmistakably one of the gauntlets.
“Tony?” She asked.
Tony looked at the design then back to her.
“It… I just need one. This isn’t what it was, I promise, it just… I need one. Just one. Just in case,” Tony said, feeling like an asshole. That ‘clean slate’ had lasted for less than a month.
But Pepper only smiled at him.
“Probably for the best,” She said. She slid her hands down his arms and gripped his wrists, pulling him lightly from the chair.
Tony went willingly and without glancing back.
It made something in him unclench when he realized that he could do that.
Pepper was still more important. The most important.
He stopped her in the door way and turned her, kissing her hard and sweet, trying to channel how much she meant to him into that small connection of mouths.
Pepper smiled and it stretched his lips too.
Stark Industries had taking a hit when Tony had been declared dead.
That wasn’t surprising.
In the wake of AIM’s complete shutdown, though, and what had become Tony’s very publicized help in saving the President of the United States with a swarm of autonomous Iron Men suits, Tony had very little doubt they’d exceed the quarterly expectations.
The thing was, the growth was a lot slower than he would have expected.
He’d been expecting SI stock prices to jump after the White House debriefing and then jump more with the Vice President’s indictment. At his treason hearing the man had admitted to a connection with AIM. Had divulged specific, detailed information about AIM’s involvement in the treason conspiracy.
Tony had been pulled in as a witness and had testified.
The courthouse was the first time he’d seen Rhodey since the oil rig and it hit Tony low and strange that weeks had passed without the man coming to see him.
“Stark,” The man had greeted him warmly, rolling his eyes with a nod at the cameras and pulling him into a hug.
Tony had returned it, just as sincere, but after a moment turned to face his audience and raised one arm to flash a peace sign, trademark grin in place.
He already knew that wouldn’t be the picture they’d run.
“What the hell, buddy, you don’t call, you don’t write,” Tony groused, something bitter and too-real slipping into the joking tone.
Rhodey waved at the cameras with him, his own public smile fixed in place. He turned them, dropping his arm and smile both.
“Iron Patriot was compromised. My bosses have had me answering questions for the last month straight and I might end up facing a discharge.”
“The fuck?” Tony barked.
“It might not to come to that, but…” Rhodey shrugged, pretending it didn’t matter. “I was the face of that machine and duty and I failed. I put the President of the United States in danger. The military doesn’t let that kind of thing quietly slide.”
“War Machine is keyed to your DNA,” Tony said angrily. “You’re literally irreplaceable. I personally purged Killian’s bug from that thing.”
Rhodey gave him a look that made Tony’s blood run cold.
Tony laughed humorlessly.
“When did they crack it?” He asked. As soon as he was sure no one was in the radius, he was going to detonate the suit. It was too much of a weapon to leave in the military’s hands. He trusted Rhodey – he didn’t trust them.
“I’m betting not long before they handed me my hearing notice. And whatever you’re thinking of doing, don’t,” Rhodey warned. “This isn’t broken yet.”
Tony ran a hand over his eyes and felt very tired.
“Let’s get this shitshow over with,” Tony said, putting a swagger back in his gait as he approached the security checkpoint.
Rhodey and Bruce got along like a house on fire, which Tony hadn’t anticipated.
When the court released them for the day it had taken a fair amount of wheedling to get Rhodey to agree to come home with him. They’d both known from the outset that Tony would win that one.
Bruce was meditating on the balcony when they came in, because of course he was.
Introductions had been made. Jarvis ordered food from the Greek place a few blocks over. Pepper called to say she’d been delayed by the board and to have fun without her.
They sprawled on the couches, the three of them, eating kolokythoanthoi and mussels with expensive wine from Tony’s collection. Bruce didn’t drink much of it but he’d surprised Tony by drinking at all.
What Tony should have realized that, spikey difference in background aside, the two men had an undeniable common ground in swapping stories about the outlandish things Tony had done in their presence. The hardware jargon went over Bruce’s head and the science jargon went over Rhodey’s, but those were unimportant details, really.
It was lighthearted, and finding a sympathetic, trusted ear to vent some of his Tony Stark experiences on was something Rhodey was clearly enjoying. Likewise, the laughter seemed to take years off of Bruce, whose hair was still too short and grey for Tony’s liking. He knew it was just his own baby-duckling syndrome – this new style bothered him because it didn’t match the picture in Tony’s brain’s file.
Bruce looked older and, while he technically was, it didn’t sit right with Tony.
“Where were you?” He asked, interrupting Rhodey. It wasn’t one of his better stories and the punchline could die unspoken.
Tony didn’t think he’d said the words with any severity but the tone in the room shifted, the humor fading.
Bruce took another sip of his wine before answering.
“Calcutta,” He said. “There were people there who ne-,” Bruce cleared his throat and changed what he’d been about to say, “There was… work there I’d left unfinished. I didn’t even know about the Mandarin until a few days after Christmas.”
Rhodey raised eyebrows at that.
“You really were under a rock, weren’t you? Don’t they have TVs in Calcutta?”
It won a huff of a laugh and the moment broke, the mood shifting back into something softer, comfortable.
Tony took a swallow of wine.
“What was I talking about?” Rhodey asked, pursing his mouth in thought.
“Vancouver, 1994,” Bruce prompted, smile slowly returning.
Tony stared at the column of Pepper’s throat. He remembered how it had looked in that holographic projection, exposed and glowing an angry orange while he’d been chained up and impotent, watching his worst nightmare come to writhing, pained life.
He knew he must have been staring for quite a while when Pepper ducked her head down to meet his eyes, eyebrow raised in question.
Tony blinked and lowered his fork back to the plate. It was raining outside and the Tower felt somewhat claustrophobic today. Nothing quite like being locked in a basement to make you appreciate open windows more.
“You’re beautiful, strong, and I don’t deserve you,” Tony told her, mouth twisting.
“Well,” Pepper mused, considering him with mock severity, “You’re a breadwinner and you’re good at sex. I suppose I’ll keep you.”
“‘Good?’” He huffed indignantly, playing along, letting himself be diverted from his thoughts.
“Adequate,” She corrected herself, looking skywards, musing but not quite able to keep the smile suppressed.
Tony dropped his napkin on the table and slid to his knees under it, fingers finding the hem of Pepper’s business skirt and pushing the fabric up along her legs.
Pepper was wearing teal panties and Tony kissed the soft fabric with a closed mouth, pressing just with his lips against the mound of her sex.
He kissed her again, and again, and Pepper dropped her hand to slide firm fingers in his hair and direct him a little further down.
Tony let himself be led.
Pepper lifted herself and together they wriggled her out of her underwear. Tony cupped the undersides of her thighs and pulled her to the edge of the chair, parting her legs wide and obscenely open, for all that the tablecloth hid most of what they were doing.
He loved the way Pepper smelled.
He’d been with so many sexual partners; bouncy, firm young things with sticky sweet cheap perfumes and business liaisons who’d worn mature fragrances and the odd scientist who’d been too clever and interesting to resist despite lapses in their hygiene.
He sucked on his fingers, getting them sloppy wet before he stroked them into Pepper, and he thought about what sex with Bruce would be like. Did the jolly green doctor even indulge? He must, of course he must.
But maybe he didn’t?
Tony sucked on Pepper’s clit and she gasped, a small kittenish sound and the hand in Tony’s hair tightened. He smiled, knowing his beard tickled the sensitive pink flesh and smiled more because he knew it drove her wild.
Bruce would look ridiculous mid-coitus. He wasn’t beautiful, not in a traditional sense, and the charm that came from his calm humor would be superseded by his body in those moments.
Poor Betty, he thought, but the humor felt rote and he knew this mad mental tangent was a defense against thinking about how hot Pepper was under his tongue.
This was normal, human heat – no lingering, barely-contained inferno courtesy of a nanovirus- and it was his mind playing tricks on him that she was any hotter than she should be. He did the quick math from Fahrenheit to Kelvins to Celsius. Pepper wasn’t going to become a bomb, burning so hot that her body would vanish in the blast. Particles and ash and atoms scattered so far and thin that there would be nothing of her at all left.
Tony was aware, distantly, that he had tear tracks on his face. He ground into Pepper harder, suckling and demanding and not at all thinking about the wild gamble Killian had played injecting her with Extremis, or that even Russian roulette had better odds.
He crooked his fingers inside her, thrusting them a little too hard, a little too firmly and Pepper flinched around him.
“Tony,” Pepper gasped, her voice hitched and uncertain, her hand against his shoulder fluttering.
He pulled back because he couldn’t breathe. He was crying quietly.
He drew a hand over his eyes, hiding from her and unable, at the moment, to lock this down and pretend that everything was okay.
“You almost died,” He said, and it came out sharp, an accusation.
Other people would console him now, or offer him meaningless platitudes or even throw his own flirtations with mortality back in his face.
Pepper wasn’t other people.
“‘Enthusiastic fingering’ never looks good in an obituary, granted, but I think I’m made of sterner stuff than that.”
He snorted a weak laugh.
He felt fragile and it made him angry. This mess was supposed to be behind him.
“But what a way to go,” He joked.
It didn’t really lighten the atmosphere.
They both pretended that it did.
Tony’s resolve broke two days later.
He was surprised by how much digging it took to find out where Natasha has been. She was in Lensk, on a wild goose chase in Russia and had been for the last half a year. It’s more or less what he’d (hoped for) expected.
The knowledge made something inside him unclench a little.
Barton was easier to find. He was being held under observation following his stint as Loki’s mind-slave. That made Tony frown with displeasure but it did at least explain where the archer had been.
He took a breath and opened the file for ‘Rogers, Steven G’ before he could think himself out of it.
He looked at the file for a long time, not really sure how he felt about the contents. Dates and interviews, analysis, leads to be followed up on.
It was mostly speculation.
Steve Rogers had been missing since October.