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Draining Life

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Stark Mansion hadn’t ever been a home-sweet-home sort of place, even though Tony had lived there for most of his childhood. Sure, his parents had been there when they weren’t off running around the world to attend some gala or working to get Stark International better press, but when it had really counted there had never really been anyone at home to make it feel like a home. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Jarvis had been around, and he had always made Tony feel welcome when no one else had bothered to try, but somehow Jarvis’ Jarvis-ness, for lack of a better word, hadn’t quite sunk into the building the way Tony had hoped it might.

Of course coming back to the Mansion almost twenty years after his parent’s untimely demise probably hadn’t helped the whole melancholic gloom hovering around the place; Tony didn’t want to be here, and the mansion likely didn’t want to see his ugly mug again either but there wasn’t anything he could do about it now that the boxes were packed and delivered.

He could have found somewhere else to live after Pepper had left him. He had thought about it on the drive over with Dummy sitting on the floor of the flatbed truck behind him, musing on his misfortunes while sipping a bitter cup of Americano. He could have stayed in the tower. Hell, he could have bought himself some other place and built everything up from scratch again like he had with the Malibu house, but his heart hadn’t been in it. He was tired of watching the things he created turning to dust.

Instead, he had retreated to the last place something nice had happened to him – aside from all the places he had been with Pepper, Happy and Rhodey of course. Well, truth be told, the Avengers had made his life a lot easier too, so it wasn’t like the mansion was the only place left he had lived in that held good memories.

Maybe that had been part of the problem.

It had been too easy to throw away his work to run after his new teammates, too easy to spend nights building new equipment while listening to Steve prattle on about battle tactics and upcoming missions as they settled into their new Stark Tower accommodations. The others had so many interesting stories, and he had been starved for attention – or so Pepper had said to him as she was packing her life away into the bags she had brought with her the first time around. She had claimed that he hadn’t been happy with her; he hadn’t been so sure about that, because if he hadn’t been happy with her, why had it hurt so damned much when she had walked out of his life and into Happy’s arms?

Maybe he had stared at Steve a bit too much.

Maybe he hadn’t stared at Pepper enough.

He knew one thing for certain. She sure as hell hadn’t wanted to be an Avenger; he hadn’t meant to push it on her so hard, but he had. He had updated the version Extremis in her, but he had made a big, crucial mistake while doing it. He had tried to give her a controllable version of Extremis’ heat powers to help her feel like she could be one of the team. He had even made her a suit of her very own.

She hadn’t liked that part so much.

He had taken everything out once she screamed in his face about not wanting to be a monster – a weapon in human skin – but it hadn’t been enough. She had been furious with him for putting the code in without permission, so angry she had been beyond words, glaring at him so fiercely he had worried for a few seconds that she was going to melt his face off somehow despite the fail-safes he had put into Extremis.

She hadn’t left his lab until he had put things right.

He hadn’t taken everything out, although looking back on it now it might have been just as big a mistake as putting them in her code in the first place. He had left her with shielding powers. It was for her protection, he had reasoned; hers and Happy’s, seeing as how when she had moved out of the tower, they had moved in together.

The armor he had built for her, tentatively nicknamed Rescue, now sat in one of Tony’s many armor vaults in Stark Tower, forgotten and locked away. He hadn’t been able to get rid of it – hadn’t been able to look at it either for that matter. Maybe Natasha could use it someday if she needed it; then it might not go to waste.

Pepper may have left him, but thankfully she hadn’t left her job as CEO. Tony was grateful for that. She had worked her way up from the secretarial pool, suffered through the insults and crude comments when people had seen her working with a drunken manwhore like him, and she deserved every second of praise she had received and then some; she deserved a life of her own, without him dragging her down. He had told her that too, and she had smiled softly at him the way she used to when they had first become friends.

As it stood now, they were talking but they hadn’t seen each other face to face since the night she had left. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, although to be fair he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle seeing her without a few drinks in him first anyway.

The tower simply hadn’t felt the same after she had left. The Avengers had been nice about it, but Tony hadn’t been able to stay around them; as time had gone by, their smiles had become too much to handle, their jokes and stories dragging him down into the dark even when they had only ever meant to use those moments to cheer him up.

The nightmares had come back.

The panic attacks hadn’t ever really truly left.

His fake smiles hadn’t been enough to keep his melancholy safely hidden this time; the others had noticed and so he had left before they could corner him to try and rattle the broken words out of him. The last thing he wanted now was to talk about it – about any of it.

The mansion had remained the last place left in the city where he couldn’t see that god-awful chunk of sky where the wormhole had opened up. It was empty, massive and free of every last bit of Pepper he had managed to collect over the years. The only problem was that it was filled with memories he would have rather forgotten.

 

 

Tony hadn’t set foot in the mansion since the day he had left for his parent’s funeral. Jarvis had suffered a stroke a few days after they had been interred; Tony had sat by his bed day and night until he had passed, shelling out more than a few thousand dollars’ worth of bribes to have the privilege of keeping his old friend company one last time.

Jarvis had been driving them to the airport when it had happened. The bystanders Tony had talked to while the fire department had been hosing down the road to wash away the blood had said that the Stark car hadn’t had a chance; the tractor trailer had come out of nowhere, the driver too sleep deprived to handle the icy turn. Tony had spent the days after living in hotel suits, drinking his sorrows away with cheap whiskey while sloppily scribbling out code that would later become the base for his first version of Jarvis-the-AI. He had sobered up for Jarvis’ funeral, but he hadn’t ever had the strength to step back into the mansion again knowing that Jarvis wasn’t going to be there to greet him. He had debated on selling the mansion, or giving it away to some foundation so that they could do with it what they liked, but he hadn’t been able to let it go for some reason.

Still, even if the place had its share of crappy memories, it wasn’t all bad. There were more than a few secret treasures buried away here, hidden away from prying eyes. Sure, there was a good three inches of dust on everything, but that wouldn’t be around for long.

 

Tony hired a cleaning crew and then vigilantly watched them through the security cameras as he put them up, keeping an eye on things while the cleaners worked. Steve would have called him paranoid, but Tony was used to sleeping with one eye open. The Tower always had something running, some small, inconspicuous camera lurking in the corners to keep the naughty things out; he supposed it was easy to forget that if you weren’t the one doing the maintenance.

A solid security system kept people from walking off with dangerous stuff – not that he thought there was anything dangerous in the mansion. He had had the place stripped of armaments and weaponry years before, and even if there was anything there now it was probably outdated and not of much value unless a specific collector somehow managed to wander through.

This wasn’t the only security system Tony was spying on. Jarvis had his digital eyes locked on everyone in the Tower too, not that Tony expected anything bad to happen to them. It just made him a little itchy if he didn’t know what was going on – that was all. Nothing to worry about.

 

Tony worked at re-wiring parts of Howard’s old laboratory, flipping through video feeds on his Stark Pad as he went about his work. He pulled the last bit of faulty wire out and leaned back on his heels, wiping the sweat from his brow on the back of his hand. It hadn’t taken as long as he had expected to get things up and running. Twenty some odd years of abandonment hadn’t done the old girl any real harm it seemed, although he had fought off more than his fair share of spiders to get the work done. Thank god for vacuum cleaners.

There was still a small pile of scraps lying in the corner of his workshop amidst the new crates of technology waiting to be installed. Tony had always suspected that Howard had been nesting down here in the basement, but he hadn’t realized just how close to true that had been; his mother had always laughed it off when they had talked about it. Usually the conversations ended with her trying instead to trick him into going to bed, or to just plain leave her alone because her ‘headache’ was back. She had been a real peach when she wasn’t busy planning galas, but she had apparently had quite the blind eye when it came to Howard’s compulsive scrap hoarding.

They had been lucky the place hadn’t been crawling with metal shavings and stripped wires back when he was younger, because Howard – genius that he was – had little to no organizational skills unless said organization was forced upon him.

The many boxes Tony had brought with him from the tower were now lining the walls of the workshop; there hadn’t been any space for them when he had hauled them in on a dolly, at least not until he had picked his way through the debris of Howard’s final experiment. Tony supposed that he should have been more emotional about it. This was his father’s space – the litter in his hands the last remaining detritus of a man who had helped end World War II and founded a company known worldwide. And yet, when he had been throwing things out, he hadn’t felt a thing.

 

Tony sighed aloud. He took off his work gloves and set them down on his knee. “Hey, Jarvis?”

“Sir?” Jarvis’ voice was a little tinny and muffled as it came in through the speaker sitting half installed on the counter a few feet away, but it was still the most beautiful sound Tony had heard in a long time.

“How’s it going in the tower?” Tony asked, twisting together yet another chunk of seemingly unending copper wire. He was old hand at wiring things up, but damn did it take forever. He must have been getting old, because his knees were starting to lock up, and he hadn’t been down here all that long.

“Things are going well sir. Captain Rogers has informed me that you haven’t been in contact with him for over forty seven hours,” Jarvis said, sounding a little miffed.

Tony stretched out, trying not to let the stiffness in his back deter him from his work. “Forty seven hours?”

“Indeed, sir,” Jarvis said. “It has been three and a half hours since you started working this morning. The cleaning staff is leaving for lunch. May I advise that you do the same?”

Breakfast did sound like a good idea. Tony hefted his Stark Pad up, tucking it under his arm as he threw his gloves onto the nearest crate. It wasn’t like he was on a deadline or anything. He could take a break whenever he wanted.

He stretched again and winced as he inadvertently pulled his stitches; the hole in his sternum where his arc reactor had once been was filled in again and covered with a circular patch of skin they had taken from his inner thigh. He was still unbearably sore even weeks after the operation had taken place, although the doctors had said that it wasn’t anything to be concerned about considering the amount of physical labor he had been doing – outside their advisement, of course.

To make matters worse, the bone grafts the surgeons had put in weren’t doing as well as he had hoped. He could feel the disc of molded bone and steel shifting every time he touched it. It was an unpleasant sensation to say the least. Even with surgical tape keeping the bandages pressed flat, the damned thing still got all revolting looking even though he was careful about keeping it clean.

Some days he wished that he hadn’t taken the damned arc reactor out in the first place. Sure, it was nice to be shrapnel free, breathing easily for the first time in years (and oh god, getting real gulps of air was so orgasmic he wasn’t sure it should be legal) but he missed waking up with the light of the reactor painting the ceiling a soft blue; he had always found it calming and now it was gone.

The near constant nightmares weren’t making the healing process any easier. He woke up struggling to see if the reactor was still there nightly, panicking and clawing at his chest every time he couldn’t find it in the dark. If Jarvis wasn’t there to talk him through those muddled moments he might have torn the bandages clean off in his frenzied state; god knows what he would have done to the new skin if he had gotten at it.

Still, it wouldn’t be long now. Even if things weren’t healing the way they should, Extremis would push things along for him. He had been feverishly coding the last few weeks before the move, getting everything in place for the perfect install; the only reason he hadn’t thought about putting it in before was because Pepper hadn’t been so keen on the idea. With Pepper gone, however, there was nothing stopping him from fiddling to his heart’s content. He had everything he needed ready to go – once he had it unpacked and set up.

He had the base code saved and backed up in the Tower’s private server room, ready for access. A few more days of nit-picking and debugging wasn’t going to hurt it any, although he was already itching to see what it could do. He had built in things he had once only dreamed of – internal access of computerized systems, the ability to access anything and everything technological he needed at will. He would be able to heal all those pesky injuries he got while out on missions without spending weeks in the hospital and better yet, he would be able to react faster, think faster – pilot the Iron Man with a thought. It would be the best thing to happen to him; he could feel it in his very bones.

 

 

His workshop was set up; the very thought made him want to cackle with glee like some crazed madman ready to revive the dead. Tony sat down with a grunt at the counter beside the butcher block, idly scanning news sites on his Stark Pad. He yawned, scratching at his greasy hair.

It had only taken four days to get the workshop and house set up the way he wanted it, even though he had been hampered by the cleaners every few hours; they hadn’t seemed to know how do anything without someone walking them through things step by step and Tony hadn’t been able to sit around watching them fumble over every little detail. Eventually Jarvis had ended up taking over so that he could work in peace, but by then Tony had managed to irritate the living shit out of everyone he had come into contact with at least three times over. He had tipped them all well to make up for it, but he was pretty sure none of them were going to willingly walk through his door again.

Jarvis’ system was running at peak efficiency; hell, Tony was pretty sure he had outdone himself this time, because Jarvis seemed to be spending a suspicious amount of time lurking in the Mansion’s databases now that everything was quiet again. Aside from Jarvis’ direct line though, there was very little connecting the Tower and the Mansion. It had seemed easier that way – less distractions and all that sweet brassy jazz. Not that he had stopped asking about Steve of course.

“I was thinking about heading down to the workshop,” Tony said, skimming through an article on particle accelerators and their links with terrorism. Everyone seemed to be blowing smoke out of their asses these days. Half of the article had probably been written in colourful crayon by the looks of it. He was debating on giving the editor of Viastone Corporation a piece of his mind when he scrolled upon a picture of Pepper and Happy standing hand in hand.

He nearly dropped the tablet when he read the headline up above the image.

Stark is a confirmed bachelor again - What did he do wrong this time?

Tony stared at the screen, barely seeing the words. The picture of Pepper was good; he could give them that much. They had captured the sweetness in her and there was no doubt about her being in charge either. Happy looked like he was going to swoon, and if Pepper had been looking at him like that, he probably would have too.

Tony pushed the tablet away. He put his hand over his eyes letting out a shaky not-sob, trying to keep himself together. Damn it Stark, he cursed himself, you were over this – you were doing so good!

“Sir? Your breakfast bagel is burning,” Jarvis said.

Tony wiped his eyes and gave the tablet a tap, turning it off without looking at it. He could still see Pepper’s smiling face even though the picture had faded from sight; he grimaced, clearing his throat. “I guess I was lucky this time, huh? Took them a month to catch on.”

“Ms. Potts tried to call and warn you sir,” Jarvis said, “but you were busy with reconstructing your Extremis Apparatus. I did inform you of her message.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tony flapped a hand, slinking towards the toaster oven to pull out his now extra-crispy bagel. “No one’s fault but my own.” He slathered the bagel with cream cheese to make up for the black bits lurking around the edges and choked it down with a cup of overly sweet coffee. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Sir, Captain Rogers is calling again,” Jarvis said as Tony made his way down the stairs.

“Let him leave a message,” Tony grunted, shoving the door out of his way. “I don’t need Captain Perfect checking up on me. Jesus, he’s not lurking out on the porch, is he?”

“No sir, Captain Rogers is currently working out in the gym –”

“Good. Keep him out. You know what? Keep everyone out. I don’t want to talk to them – I don’t need them breathing down my neck,” Tony snapped, storming down the stairs. He kicked the crate nearest him and swore, his eyes watering as his big toe started throbbing. “Fucking hell!”

“Sir? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine! Just let me work!”

 

 

Tony crawled into his bedroom, barely able to keep his eyes open. He wasn’t sure how long he had been working, but it felt like it had been forever since he had seen a bed. The bedding was still done up perfectly, as if the cleaners had only just left; he collapsed onto the duvet, rubbing his face against it as he tried to get his legs up onto the bed with the rest of him.

This had been his parent’s bedroom once – not that they had spent much time in it. It had been their bedroom in name only; Maria had reigned here, and while all the furniture she had used was now gone, condemned to a storage facility somewhere in New York awaiting transfer to the Howard Stark Museum, he could still feel her presence. Maybe it was just the wallpaper. Apparently they hadn’t managed to scrape that off the walls even though he had asked them to sand everything down.

He managed to toe off his grubby socks, grumbling to himself as he wormed his way under the covers. He was close to finishing Extremis now – close to perfecting the one good thing waiting for him. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

Tony woke from a nightmare, thrashing against the covers. He sat bolt upright, panting is if he had been running and clawed at the bandages on his chest, desperate to see the arc reactor. Minutes passed; he heard Jarvis’ voice murmuring softly to him and allowed himself to drop back down onto the mattress, resting his head on his sweat soaked pillow. It was fine. He was fine. He was in his own bed, not out in the garden. It was fine.

 

When he woke up again it felt a little like night hadn’t really left. Tony stared out the window, surprised to see that there was fog outside. It was the thick soupy kind, the kind he liked the least. He sighed to himself and checked the clock, finding that it was already three in the afternoon. He debated on dragging himself out of bed to grab something to eat, but his stomach didn’t feel all that concerned and the bed seemed far too comfortable to leave. He closed his eyes, rolling over.

“Sir?” Jarvis asked, sounding concerned.

“What?” Tony grumbled through his pillow. His mouth tasted a little like he had eaten cotton, but he didn’t really mind. He had tasted far worse things in the past few years.

“Sir, Captain Rogers has called five times today. I have informed him that you were sleeping and he seems to have accepted that, but I would suggest that you call him back at some point. He threatened to break down the door if you don’t call him back,” Jarvis said.

“He threatened you?” Tony chuckled, forcing himself to sit up. “That’s a first. Wait till the press finds out.” He winced at his own words, giving his head a shake to try and drive away the memories of Pepper and Happy and that goddamned picture. “Tell him that I’m fine. He doesn’t need to break down the door. I’m going to go work.”

“May I suggest eating first, sir?”

“Why not,” Tony grumbled, forcing himself to get out of bed. He gave himself a cursory sniff, figuring that his bandages could wait a few more hours and stalked out the room. He needed to work. He had things to do. Important things.

He collapsed in bed again sometime around midnight after eating a handful of crackers and a piece of squashy banana. His body felt pleasantly heavy, his thoughts blessedly dull and slow. He mumbled to Jarvis to hold his calls and fell asleep, praying for the nightmares to stay away.

 

 

There was something in the garden.

He couldn’t see it, but it was there burrowing underneath the petunias. He could hear it as it scratched about under the soil with its sharp claws, working to try and free itself from its earthy prison. It reeked like something that had died years ago and had just been pulled out again; he didn’t know how it was possible to smell the thing, considering it was buried.

Tony knew he was dreaming.

Logically he had to be dreaming because he was standing barefoot under the stars, and he hadn’t been out here from what he could remember. His bed had been his last destination, not the darkened garden with its damp grass and lumpy flowerbeds freshly turned over for new spring growth.

He felt cold all over.

He turned away from the stars and stared at the rectangular flower bed in front of him, mesmerized by the way the petunias were dancing, swaying and bobbing as the soil bumped up around them.

“Hello?” Tony called out, but the only response was that of the soil pausing in its dance just the once and then it went back to its business; the creature underneath continued to scratch away.

 

Tony woke with a start. He sat up gasping, twisting his body to get a good look out the window; he could swear that something was outside watching him – but that was impossible. He stood up, hurling the sweat-damp blankets away and threw open the curtains, looking around to try and catch the spy.

There was nothing outside aside from a few bats searching for breakfast amidst the trees, snatching flies from the air with practiced ease. He clutched at the window frame, trembling as a cold draft went over his knuckles.

It was just a dream – nothing to be worried about.

“Sir?”

Tony swallowed hard; he glimpsed a swirl of colour in the night sky as Jarvis turned on the lights and felt his chest tighten as the air was seemingly sucked from his lungs. He dropped to the floor, narrowly avoiding the window frame.

He couldn’t breathe – oh god he couldn’t breathe – why couldn’t he breathe?

He clawed at his throat, leaving red scrapes across his skin and then curled up into a ball on the floor, squeezing his eyes shut as his hands started to shake. There was nothing there – no rope, no water – he was fine.

It was fine.

It was just a panic attack.

He could do this.

He had done this before so many times.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

The shaking went away slowly as he mumbled nonsensical words to himself. He lifted his head, taking in deep breaths and propped himself up against the wall. Jarvis had left the lights on, thank god, or else he might have started panicking all over again. He ran his fingers through his sweaty hair and came up with a leaf. He stared at it, turning it over and over again until it fell from his hands.

It was brown and crispy, a pathetic husk of a thing. It had probably come in through the window when the cleaners had come by earlier in the week. It was nothing to be worried about.

“Jarvis,” Tony murmured, dropping the leaf to the floor beside him, “call Rhodey, will you?”

“Calling now, Sir.”

Tony wiped his forehead on the back of his arm. He wrinkled his nose, catching a whiff of stale body odor and then gagged, remembering the smell from his dream. No. It was fine, he mumbled aloud as he staggered upright. He caught himself on the wall and felt his way to the bathroom, keeping his eyes on the carpet.

“Colonel Rhodes is unavailable sir. He had been deployed and is currently on a mission requiring radio silence,” Jarvis said, turning the lights on in the bathroom before Tony could accidentally stab himself in the palm with the light switch.

“Shit,” Tony grumbled, leaning against the marble counter. He tugged his slimy shirt over his head and threw it into the corner beside the cupboard, stripping himself of his filthy clothing with shaking hands; the bandages around his chest were greying and a little pink from where he had scratched at the stitches. He peeled them free and wiped the pale skin underneath clean with one of the medicated wipes the doctors had given him. He made sure to tape the plastic covering over top before he stepped into the shower. “Is Steve up?” Tony asked, turning the shower head to mist so that he wouldn’t get a face full of lukewarm water.

“Captain Rogers is currently in an emergency meeting with Director Fury. Shall I leave a message sir?”

Tony grabbed for the mint and pineapple shampoo, scrubbing at his damp hair as quickly as he dared; the soap smelled boring by comparison, but at least it didn’t smell like that carbolic shit they had forced him to use in the cave. He shuddered at the thought and pressed his forehead against the wet tiles, hoping that he had the strength to keep it together; the last thing he needed now was for Steve to call back and find out from Jarvis that he had smacked himself on the head and blacked out in the shower like some senile old man.

“No,” Tony croaked when he got a hold of his voice again, “no, just end the call. I’ll try again later. It’s no big deal.”

“Sir,”

“Just hang up Jarvis. He’s busy.”

“Captain Rogers says that he will call you back in a few minutes.”

“Jarvis – I told you to hang up!” Tony snapped, slapping his hand against the tiles. He scrubbed at his hair so viciously that it stung, wanting to leap out of the shower clean or not. Why couldn’t people just do what he told them? Couldn’t they just listen? Even his own AI was a goddamned traitor!

“Tony?” Steve’s voice was warm and fuzzy, like he had just woken up.

Tony sighed aloud, turning the water up higher so that he could wash the suds from his forehead. “Hi Steve.”

“Hey! I was wondering when you were going to call me back,” Steve said. “I was pretty sure you were avoiding me.”

“I wasn’t avoiding you,” Tony grumbled, wiping soap from his beard. “I was working.”

“I hope you’re taking it easy,” Steve said. “Ow!”

Tony tensed. “Steve?”

“Sorry – I walked into the vending machine on the fifth floor. Serves me right, too. Should have been looking where I was going,” Steve chuckled.

Tony smiled. “I hope the machine’s ok,” he joked, closing his eyes as water dribbled down over his face. He tensed, ready to panic, but Steve’s voice was back to chase the fear away as easily as he might open a door for someone holding a heavy bag. He had to hand it to Steve; he always knew what to say even when he didn’t know he was saying it.

“If it isn’t, you’ll help an old man out, right?” Steve yawned. “Oh jeeze, it’s late. Am I keeping you up?”

“No,” Tony said, turning the shower off. “I’m alright.”

“That’s good. How’s the new place doing? I asked Jarvis about it but he was kind of vague – said it was for security purposes and all that.”

“It’s alright. I wouldn’t say it’s great or anything, but it’s home. I’ve got the workshop all set up and all the important stuff’s where it should be at any rate. Lots of spare rooms too,” Tony said. He slapped himself in the head.

What the hell was he doing?

Was he inviting Steve over?

He was losing his mind – no. Obviously he had already lost it. He should have put up posters for it – Lost: Tony Stark’s sanity. If found, please return – cash reward.

“Oh yeah?” Steve sounded hopeful, but that couldn’t be right.

Tony scowled. Maybe he really had hit his head on the windowsill. He was probably concussed right now; he was going to have to ask Jarvis to do a scan to make sure. The last thing he needed now was brain damage.

“That an offer, Stark?”

“Sure,” Tony said, grabbing for his towel. “Whenever you want – I mean, obviously if you have time. I’m not trying to twist your arm or anything. I mean, the Tower’s probably better – I don’t have a functioning gym here, but there’s space for one if I plan things right. You don’t need to come.”

“I’d love to come over,” Steve said. “When’s a good time for you?”

“Whenever you want,” Tony sighed in relief, scrubbing at himself with renewed vigor. “Jarvis’ll let you in.”

“Sounds like a plan. You want me to bring something to eat?”

“Sure.” Tony hoped that the offer wasn’t because his stomach had rumbled loud enough to be heard over the microphone. He grabbed for the first aid kit on the counter and cracked it open, fishing out the surgical tape and gauze he needed; peeling the plastic wrapper off his skin wasn’t all that pleasant, but it was better than getting his stitches full of soap. He had tried that once and only once – it had felt like he had stabbed himself with a hot needle over and over again. It had given himself a panic attack so bad it had taken almost an hour to recover from it.

“How’s the chest feeling?” Steve asked, very obviously trying to be casual about it.

Tony threw his soggy towel over the shower curtain rod and headed into his bedroom, forgoing clothing entirely when he couldn’t find his robe. Food was a good idea now that he thought about it. He had missed breakfast, lunch and dinner the night before; realistically that handful of crackers hadn’t meant squat, and his body was ready to start threatening mutiny if he didn’t eat something soon. “The chest’s doing fine Steve.”

“Yeah? It’s not bothering you?”

“It’s as good as can be expected considering some guy had his hand in there. It’s not going to explode, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Tony – that’s not even remotely funny.”

“Can’t please everyone,” Tony chuckled, rubbing his hands together. “What are you up to? Having talky-time with Fury? Is he telling you scary bed-time stories? Do you need a hug?”

“I was being debriefed on some private stuff,” Steve sighed. “Believe me, it was no bed-time story. I’d rather it had been – then maybe I could go to sleep.”

“Private?” Tony asked, stalking down the hall and down the stairs towards the kitchen. He paused in front of the living room window, frowning when he caught a glimpse of the stars. Everything seemed still outside; the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he brushed at them, trying to push away the thought that something was looking at him. “There’s no one outside, right Jarvis?” Tony murmured softly, just loud enough for Jarvis to pick his voice up.

“No sir. There is no human activity in the yard or surrounding area for three blocks, although there is a cat currently attempting to dig in the flowerbed.”

“Tony?” Steve said, sounding annoyed. “Are you there?”

“Yeah? Sorry – I thought I saw something in the yard. I guess I’m just tired,” Tony said, rolling his shoulders. He sauntered past the back window, not caring that he was buck naked; it was his house after all. What was the point in having a house if you couldn’t walk around naked in it?

“So you were having private time with daddy Fury.”

“Yes Tony,” Steve yawned, “private. As in, I can’t say anything about it.”

“Right.”

“I’d tell you if I could.”

“Sure.”

“Tony…”

“What? I’m being good! Don’t give me that!” Tony protested, standing on the tips of his toes so that he could snatch a brand new box of Lucky Charms off the top of the fridge. He tore open the packaging, digging out a handful of marshmallows and cereal. Whoever had done his shopping that week had gotten one thing right; they were going to get a raise. Nightmares always required sugary snacks.

“I’m not giving you anything,” Steve grumbled, “I’m not hiding anything either. I honestly don’t know anything about what they were talking about! Half of the files are in Russian. I can’t even read most of it without Jarvis’ help.”

“Well don’t strain yourself,” Tony said through a mouthful of cereal.

“Are you eating?”

“No,” Tony lied, swallowing painfully. “Why would I be eating? It’s… four in the morning.”

“Speaking of that… I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, alright? I’m going to head home now,” Steve yawned. “I’ll swing by later, alright?”

“Sure. See you tomorrow,” Tony said, stuffing his mouth with marshmallows.

“See you later.”

 

He forced himself out of bed early, but Steve hadn’t stopped by for breakfast – or lunch – or dinner for that matter. Steve didn’t call to say he was running late; he hadn’t even turned his phone on, and every time Tony tried to call him it went straight to voicemail. Tony tried not to take it personally. Steve was busy guy, and it wasn’t like they had set a time to meet. He retreated to his workshop and had Jarvis keep an eye on the front door so that if Steve did get a chance to swing by, he would be the first to know.

Steve didn’t come that night.

 

Tony worked on Extremis until five in the morning and then crashed as he crawled his way up the stairs to get to bed. He woke on the landing after battling his way through a nightmare where he was being repeatedly drowned to death and barely made it to the bathroom in time to throw up what little he had eaten the night before. The panic attack he went through as he was heaving left him twitchy and nervous as hell; it was lucky he wasn’t expected to be anywhere, because he was fairly certain he would have been a quivering mess.

He spent the day on the couch in the living room reading magazines someone had thoughtfully left for him when they had delivered his mail; he hadn’t had much energy to do much of anything after that.

His eyelids grew heavy around lunch time and despite his best efforts he drifted off to sleep.

 

He was standing in the garden, only this time it was daytime, and the birds were singing. Tony walked forwards and snatched a leaf off the maple tree, staring at it in wonder as it disintegrated in his hand. He looked around and saw that the light was fading in the sky above. The sun looked like it was being covered up by something black and smooth, like someone had thrown a blanket over it.

The darkness was colder than it had been at night.

He shivered; he was utterly alone here, and the darkness was everywhere he looked.

He started walking, but not matter how far he walked he couldn’t leave the flowerbed. He was tethered to it, returning after every few steps.

The ground began to bubble around him, the grass lifting and splitting as something moved towards him. Tony ran, trying to get away but there was nowhere to go – no place was safe. The soil beneath his feet burst open and a rotting hand seized him by the ankles.

 

Tony screamed himself awake. This wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it was the first time he had ever woken with a red handprint shaped mark on his ankle. He swore it off as a figment of his imagination and stumbled towards the bathroom, dry heaving until his body was merely shuddering in time with his gasps for air.

“Sir? Are you alright?” Jarvis asked.

Tony rested against the toilet, shaking uncontrollably as he fought to keep his stomach where it belonged.

God, he wanted a drink; several drinks would do, now that he thought about it. An entire bottle of scotch was part of a nutritious breakfast, right?

“Sir?”

“I’m… fine…” Tony panted, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. He rose from his crouched position, still shaking, and gave the toilet a courtesy flush even though nothing had come up. Better safe than sorry after all. No one would appreciate walking into a bathroom someone had just thrown up in. Not that Steve was here to be disturbed by the smell.

“Would you like me to try and call Captain Rogers again sir?” Jarvis asked, as if reading Tony’s mind.

“Sure, why not? I don’t think he’s going to answer, but go ahead,” Tony grumbled, leaning against the wall to keep from sliding to the floor. He closed his eyes, massaging his jaw with the palm of his hand. “What do we have in the fridge that’s easy to eat?”

“I believe we have some leftover wonton soup that was brought in while you were working.”

“Oh? Who brought it?” Tony asked, stumbling towards the door. Soup sounded good, although he wasn’t going to enjoy the whole heating it up thing.

“Ms. Potts brought it in, sir,” Jarvis said after a pause.

Suddenly soup didn’t sound so great. Tony paused, nearly falling down the stairs as he started to turn around to head back to his bedroom.

“If I may point out sir, she didn’t bring it with her. I was the one who ordered it; she merely carried it inside when the delivery driver arrived.”

“Oh.” Tony sighed, catching himself on the banister at the last second. “Alright. I guess that’s alright then.”

“There are also two boxes of rice noodles with black bean sauce that may still be acceptable if they are heated up within the next few hours.”

“Excellent,” Tony murmured, making his way to the kitchen. “You always say the sweetest things.”

“I try, sir.”

 

 

Tony didn’t see Steve the next day. To be fair, though, he didn’t see much of anyone the next day – including himself. He spent most of the morning drunk and then went on to spend the afternoon lying on the living room carpet, lounging in the patch of sunlight streaming in through the glass doors like a very manly cat. It was pleasant enough, but when the sun went down he found himself shivering as if he had been out in the snow for hours.

He wasn’t sure if he made it to the kitchen again or for that matter if he actually ate or drank anything other than whiskey. All he could remember was falling asleep with the feeling that something was watching him.

 

Tony was standing in the garden; it was his garden, really, but it didn’t feel like it was enjoying his company. He looked around, frustrated to find that he was standing in the mushy flowerbed in his bare feet amongst the petunias yet again. The petunias didn’t look all that healthy anymore; their pink petals were curling unpleasantly around the edges, rot touching the fragile flowers even though they had seemed infallible earlier. He scowled down at his mud-slick shins and toes, kicking a bit of rotting wood out of his way.

The mansion was dark when he turned to look at it, illuminated only by the moonlight; the back door was open, a tempting portal out of this nightmare-in-the-making. He started walking towards it, determined to get the hell out of dodge before the action started, but as in most of his dreams he couldn’t seem to leave the flowerbed. Sighing aloud, he kicked at the petunias, annoyed when they wouldn’t break no matter how much force he used.

The earth beneath his feet began to boil and pulse again, bulging upwards, tossing the petunias left and right; the flowers sailed free, landing like bodies might if they were dropped from an overpass. They looked like they were bleeding in the moonlight, their petals leaking fat splotchy tears of water as they flattened against the grass.

Tony gagged; he looked back to the now empty flowerbed.

Fingers emerged one at a time, poking through the murky soil like blackened sprouts; the nails were snagged and bloody, torn to the quick. Whatever it was, it must have had a hard time digging itself free.

Tony bolted, his toes sinking into the dirt as he tried to drag himself to freedom; it was no use. He couldn’t move no matter how hard he tried.

He could hear the thing breathing as it dug itself free from the filth, the sound dull and raspy in the once soundless void of his dreamscape. The sucking noise the soil made as the creature slithered up above the earth made Tony’s stomach churn; he tasted bile in the back of his throat and wrapped an arm around his middle as if to force his body to behave. He turned to look against his better judgement and –

 

 

Tony woke up screaming. He screamed again for good measure when his toe hit an open magazine lying on the ground beside him and flailed about until it was halfway across the room from the force of his kicks. He panted, pressing his hands to his sweaty face to try and block out the cursed moonlight.

What the hell was going on?

Where had these goddamned dreams come from?

It wasn’t like he had been up all night watching a monster movie marathon; he hadn’t turned the television on in weeks, too afraid to see Pepper’s face amidst wave after wave of Stark International commercials.

Tony forced himself up onto his knees.

This was Aldrich Killian’s fault; he just knew it. That rat bastard was a pile of ashes in a box somewhere in SHIELD’s care and yet he was still causing problems from beyond the grave. Tony pulled himself up onto the couch and squashed himself against the cushions, shivering as goose bumps worked their way up the back of his neck. He wiggled, trying to get comfortable amidst the decorative cushions, accidentally dislodging an empty whiskey bottle which hit the floor with a sullen clunk.

“Jarvis? Call Steve, will you?”

It was stupid. Tony knew that, but he couldn’t help himself. He wanted to hear Steve’s voice now more than ever.

“Captain Rogers is not answering his phone, sir. It remains turned off. I have spoken with Agent Coulson, and he has told me to inform you that Captain Rogers is not in any harm, merely away on an undercover mission that requires complete radio silence,” Jarvis said. “Would you like me to try Colonel Rhodes sir? Or maybe Ms. Potts?”

“No!” Tony yelped, jerking further away from the cushions. “God no. Don’t bring Pepper into this – it’s bad enough I’m almost wetting myself from nightmares like some three year old. I don’t need her in here watching me doing it.”

“May I suggest sleeping in your bed sir? You seemed most distressed when you were asleep on the floor,” Jarvis said, turning the lights in the living room on; they weren’t bright, but the dim glow made it easier to see the stairs off in the distance.

Tony thought about dragging himself upstairs again; his bed was awfully nice, even if it was all the way upstairs. He rolled over, rubbing at his eyes to try and clear his bleary vision.

No.

He would work. He needed to work.

Working was better than sleeping; at least when he was working he wasn’t dreaming about things lurking under his petunias. He really fucking hated petunias.

 

 

Tony fell asleep sometime during the day and blessedly there were no dreams. He woke late in the evening and padded his way upstairs all too aware that his body needed food; the break he had taken to eat a granola bar before passing out on his keyboard hadn’t been nearly enough. He felt exhausted, weary to the bone, and while his head was still throbbing dully from his hangover, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.

He made himself a bowl of chicken soup, using a can he found buried in his cupboard, and sat down at the kitchen table to devour his meal; the soup was nice, but it didn’t get rid of the achy feeling in his joints. He nibbled at an errant noodle, wiping at his face where it had slapped him in the chin.

Even he could tell that he needed sleep. Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion, and while he appreciated the way his mind was slowly shutting off one sluggish neuron at a time, he didn’t like the way the exhaustion was stealing away his basic motor skills. It was so much easier to eat soup when you could actually operate a spoon.

Maybe he would be able to finally get some decent sleep on the couch in the library. He had tried pretty much every room in the joint at this point, and if there was one room that would let him sleep in peace, he would have bet good money on it being the library; it was a the only room of his father’s private spaces that he had kept mostly the way it was, but that didn’t make it a bad space. When he had been younger, he had liked to sneak in and sit amidst the papers and collectable books his father had stored there, and it had been heaven for a nerdy little thing like him. It had been the one place screaming had never followed him; it had been peaceful to fall asleep on the carpet there and sometimes his father would even carry him up to bed if he found Tony sleeping and Jarvis wasn’t around.

Tony snatched a blanket off the back of the couch in the living room before hiding himself away amidst the collectables and books; all of it was vintage Captain America merchandise of course, although there were a few first editions of Asimov’s work in amongst his other rescued treasures from Malibu.

He curled up on the leather couch, tucking the blankets around him and closed his eyes. “Wake me up if something happens, aright Jarvis?” he said with a yawn. He didn’t stay awake long enough to hear Jarvis’ response.

 

 

Tony was in the garden. Again.

He cursed loudly and then clamped his hand over his mouth, looking around as the silence of night ate up his voice; usually it would have taken someone else to clap a hand over his mouth to shut him up, but here it felt like if he didn’t quiet down, something might hear him and come running.

It was night again, but that wasn’t exactly new. It was always night here in his dreams, but very rarely was it raining quite this hard.

Tony shivered, wrapping his arms around his middle as he suffered through the storm; his thin cotton shirt was soaked through already even though he hadn’t been standing here long – although, he thought to himself with a weak chuckle, he wasn’t really sure what time was like around here. This was a dream after all. For all he knew he had been here for years.

That thought alone was sobering enough to get him looking around again.

The petunias wilted as plump raindrops peppered down on them; they were soggy and pathetic looking now, far from the hearty looking things he had seen in his other dreams. The soil beneath them had turned into a pea-soup-like mash; he lifted his feet free and tried to find a good patch of grass to dry them off on, but there was nothing but brittle yellow grass around and it was anything but pleasant on his soles.

He heard the sound of digging and cringed, turning slowly to see where it was coming from this time.

Sure enough, a few inches away from his feet, fingers started poking up through the sloppy soil. Tony stared at them, mesmerized by the way they seemed to be working all by themselves. They paused, tapping at the mush as if to get their bearings and then pushed up again as they wiggled to get free.

Soon enough a pair of grubby, dried out looking hands followed the fingers; Tony wasn’t all that surprised really. He would have been more surprised if the fingers had been traveling on their own – and wasn’t that a pleasant thought?

Tony took a step back, bumping against the invisible edge of the garden that never seemed to want to move. “For fuck’s sake!” He smashed his heels against the mushy soil to try and get some traction.

The hands stilled; the fingers started tap-tap-tapping the ground.

Tony froze. His breath caught in his throat as he got his first whiff of rotting flesh. He gagged, leaning backwards into the invisible wall, and covered his nose and mouth to try and block out the scent.

The hands dug deeper into the dirt, straining and thrashing to break apart the softening soil. Tony watched in horror as the top of the creature’s head started to push up through the hole it had made like some kind of hideous mole. The skin that appeared was blackened and worn like an old glove. Veins bulged across its leathery dome as the creature’s head finally pushed free; mud rolled down its face, pooling into its empty eye sockets.

Tony whirled around and started punching at the invisible wall, kicking at the soil.

No –

No – no – no – no!

He could hear that awful sloshing noise as it started pulling its entire body above ground.

No –

Tony kicked at the wall again one last time in frustration.

“Alright you bastard – come and get me then!” Tony snarled. He turned and lifted his arms to defend himself, willing himself to conjure up some kind of weapon. This was a dream after all, wasn’t it? He could do whatever he wanted in a dream –

The Iron Man armor wouldn’t come to him; the creature, however, did. It might have once been human, but there was little left that was recognizable now that time and death had taken their fill. Its shoulders were hunched and crooked where its shoulder blades had started poking through the remains of its tattered hide. Its body was twisted and emaciated, its skin barely clinging to its bones.

It took Tony by the face, its fingernails digging into his cheeks, and opened its mouth –

 

 

Tony screamed himself awake. He fought free from his blankets, rolling off the side of the couch with a squeal as his sweat-soaked skin slid over the leather cushions. The carpet was rough against his face, but despite the sharp pain it brought on contact, it’s touch was comforting enough to draw him from the dream. He rose, his body trembling uncontrollably, and gritted his teeth as his knees threatened to buckle, forcing himself to stand despite a sudden flare of vertigo.

No more fucking dreams – no more!

He ignored Jarvis’ concerned questions and stormed out of the library, throwing the back door open so hard he cracked the glass paneling.

It had rained outside sometime while he slept; darkness clung to the sky like a wet blanket, chased away only by the light of the moon. Tony hadn’t been out here since the landscapers had come in to rework the abandoned grounds, but it was all hellishly familiar even in the dark. The walls around the yard were at least fifteen feet tall, made of thick white granite speckled with flecks of black mica; they were topped with black spikes of wrought iron, custom made for the Stark family from some blacksmith in god-knows-where. Tony’s mother had picked everything out when they had first moved to the mansion, claiming that the wall would keep out burglars and riff-raff. Tony hadn’t seen the point, considering they had security guards posted everywhere, but she had been adamant about putting them up. Howard had called her crazy; she had called him a jackass for not valuing their safety, so here they had come to live.

Despite the walls there was very little in the mansion grounds worth protecting aside from the polished white marble fountain near the back patio. There were stone walkways zigzagging through the manicured grass, circling the fountain and leading back to the house; all of it was tastefully lit by miniature copper coloured lanterns, or rather it would have been had he told Jarvis to turn the lights on. He ignored the path as he charged towards the flowerbeds he knew had to be near the back wall, slipping and sliding in the mushy grass in his rush.

“Fuck you!” He snarled at the petunias, dropping to his knees so he could rip at them. He sprayed himself with muck as he tore the nearest petunia free, tearing it apart. His hands were stained a deep green by the time he was done eviscerating the garden; he sobbed hysterically amidst a pile of shredded petunias, trying desperately to catch his breath. “You’re not real,” Tony wheezed, throwing a handful of the mangled flowers towards the wall. “You’re just a stupid dream!”

The petunias thumped pitifully against a dark shape kneeling beside the stone wall; Tony hadn’t noticed it before, but he sure as hell noticed it now. From what he could see it seemed vaguely human shaped, although most of it was hidden in shadow so he couldn’t be sure.

What was someone doing here on his private property? And for that matter, how had they gotten in?

Tony stood up, slapping the mud from his knees. “You can’t be here,” he growled, taking a step towards the intruder. “Hey – did you hear me buddy? You’re not supposed to be in here – this is private property!”

The dark shape didn’t turn around, but it did move; it twitched, its arm dropping from its lap.

It began to rain, and the creature paused, lifting a hand up to catch the droplets, seemingly admiring them as they landed in the palm of its hand.

The light seemed to vanish the longer Tony stared at his unwanted visitor; his vision grew fuzzy around the edges. He rubbed at his eyes, wiping the rain from his face. “Did you hear me? I said you’re not supposed to be here.”

The shape lowered its hand back to the ground beside it, digging its fingers into the grass.

Tony froze. He recognized those fingers.

“You – you’re not – you’re not real! You’re just some fucked up figment of my imagination!” Tony murmured, walking backwards. He maneuvered through the dark, not taking his eyes off the figure until he bumped into the fountain, toppling over.

When he righted himself, dripping wet from his impromptu bath, he saw that the shadow was gone. He perched on the edge of the fountain for a moment, steadying himself, breathing raggedly.

It had been a hallucination – there was no other explanation for it. Jarvis would have said something if it wasn’t, he reasoned, wringing his shirt out. Clearly, he was far more sleep deprived than he had thought.

He cast another glance at the flowerbed but saw nothing in the darkness. He turned around, sighing wearily to himself when he saw the cracks in the glass door.

He flinched at a sudden sharp pain in his neck; he raised his hand and touched gingerly at the skin below his left ear.

His fingers came back red with blood –

 

 

Tony came awake with a grunt. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment, trying to get his bearings, aware that his hands were trembling. Well, this definitely wasn’t the library; he highly doubted that his couch had morphed into a bed while he was sleeping. He prodded the mattress underneath him, grumbling to himself when his finger came back sticky and damp.

Great.

Now he had a soggy mattress. Hopefully he hadn’t wet himself in abject fear.

He sat up slowly, scrubbing a hand through his greasy hair. “When did I end up here Jarvis?”

“Sir?”

“Never mind,” Tony sighed, crawling out of bed. He threw open the curtain, wincing when he got an eyeful of bright mid-morning sun. “Well, at least I got some sleep last night.”

There were still faint traces of the previous night’s rain on the ground and in the trees when he stumbled outside, scratching idly at the side of his neck. He made his way down the stone path to the flowerbed at the back and frowned at the perfect looking petunias he found there; the soil in the flowerbed looked a little tousled, but there wasn’t much out of place from what he could see.

Had he been outside?

He glanced at his feet and saw that his toes were still clean as ever.

“That was one freaky dream,” he sighed, rubbing at his neck again. He stalked back inside and went to fix himself breakfast.

 

 

Tony stared at the cup in front of him, determined to finish his drink. His stomach churned as he tried to swallow the mouthful he had taken; he gagged on the now lukewarm coffee, almost inhaling the liquid. He coughed until he could breathe again, wiping his nose and mouth on the back of his hand.

“Sir? Do you require assistance?” Jarvis asked in concern.

Tony waved a hand in the air, gasping as he sucked in a precious lungful of air. He wiped at his lips, his hand coming away sticky with sugary coffee. He shoved the coffee cup away, resting his forehead on the table. “No, no,” he croaked, “it’s fine. It just went down the wrong tube.”

He stood up once he could breathe again and grabbed a box of day-old pizza, slinging it onto the counter. He nearly ripped the cardboard in half trying to get at the cheesy goodness inside; his stomach felt a little like it was going to rip itself to pieces. He lifted up a piece, saluted Jarvis with the slice and took a bite.

He chewed slowly, swallowed and then doubled over, gagging. After a few horrifying seconds he managed to choke the food down, but by then he was dreading going for the next bite. He wiped his runny nose, reaching for his coffee and took a sip before he remembered that it hadn’t ended well the last time.

He hacked and wheezed as the coffee caught in his throat, knocking the cup off the table in his haste to grab onto the counter.

“Sir?”

“m…m…f…m’fine,” Tony huffed out, clinging to the counter. He rested his head against the tabletop again, trying to focus on breathing before his panic attacks could start acting up. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” he chanted. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Sir? Shall I call for help?”

“I’m fine,” Tony coughed, throwing up a mouthful of greenish phlegm. He stared at it in horror, repulsed by the sight of it. “I’m fine,” he croaked, getting to his feet. He grabbed a paper towel from the rack and swabbed up the mess. “I’m going to the lab,” he said, pitching the paper towel and the pizza in to the garbage can in disgust.

“Are you sure that’s wise sir? You haven’t eaten in seventy three hours by my last count –”

“I need to work,” Tony said, shaking his head. “I’ll be fine. I’ve got some crackers down there still, right?”

“Yes sir. The cupboard beside your drawing board still contains three bags of Ritz crackers and one box of saltines.”

“Saltines sound pretty good right about now,” Tony sighed. He shuffled his way to his workshop, rubbing at his forehead as he went. His head was pounding worse than it usually did when he was coming off a bender. “Do I have any Advil left?” he asked. He nearly smashed the back of his head against the doorframe when the lights came on. It felt like someone had turned a spotlight on right in front of him. He staggered, blinking back stars and raised an arm to cover his eyes. “Jesus, Jarvis – turn the goddamned light down!”

“This is the lowest setting sir,” Jarvis said, sounding confused. “I am incapable of lowering it any more without turning the light off entirely.”

“Then turn it off,” Tony growled, squeezing his eyes shut.

His headache flared up, roaring to life all at once; his skull felt like it was being squeezed tighter and tighter.

Jarvis turned the lights off.

Tony staggered along the wall, feeling his way towards the cupboard. “There’s Advil, right?” He asked with a croak, his voice breaking. It felt like he had a mouthful of sandy cotton; his face felt like it was on fire.

“Sir? Are you alright? You appear to be feverish.”

“Advil, Jarvis – Where’s the Advil?” Tony fumbled about and found the nearest handle, yanking the cupboard open. He squinted in the darkness of the lab, trying to guess if what he was looking at was food or tools.

“There should be an ample supply of Advil in the third drawer to your left sir,” Jarvis said soothingly. “I’ve sent Dummy to get you a glass of water. Please sit down before you fall.”

“Water?” Tony yanked the right drawer open, seizing the plastic Advil bottle like it was a rattlesnake trying to jump out at him. He fought with the lid, forcing it open. The pills scattered everywhere, hitting the floor with a clatter. He cursed and dropped to his knees, feeling along the cement for the round pills. He snatched two up, shoving the rest out of the way and sat down on the floor.

Dummy rolled up with a beep, waving his arm up and down slowly as to not dump the water out of the glass clasped in his hand; Tony was mildly impressed. Dummy beeped and cooed until Tony got his hands around the glass, whirring warily when Tony popped the pills into his mouth as if concerned that Tony was trying to eat nuts and bolts.

Tony took a slug of water and managed to choke the water and pills down despite the fact that it burned the entire way down. His stomach began to rumble unhappily as the water settled. He prayed that he could keep everything down.

“Sir?”

“I’m just going to sit here for a few minutes,” Tony rasped, wiping tears of pain from his stinging eyes. He leaned back against the cupboard, staring up into the inky darkness of his workshop. “Is Extremis ready for production yet?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like me to initiate the final building sequence?”

“Yes,” Tony murmured, bumping the back of his head against the cupboard, “build it. I want this over and done with. Fuck this headache, and fuck the dreams.”

“Would you like me to try and contact Captain Rogers again sir?” Jarvis asked.

“Sure,” Tony snorted, trying not to sound as bitter as he felt. He struggled upright, feeling around to find the edge of the cupboard so he wouldn’t scrape himself. “Why not? He’s not going to answer, but go ahead. I’m going to go take a nap.”

 

 

Tony woke up on the living room couch with no memory of how he had managed to drag himself there. He groaned, rubbing at his eyes and sat up, looking around the room. His headache had vanished while he was sleeping, becoming nothing more than a distant memory.

“Jarvis?”

“Sir? Do you require light?”

“No, let’s leave it off for now. What time is it? Any sign of Steve?” Tony asked, creeping towards the kitchen. He stumbled around, half-blind even with his eyes already adjusted to the darkness, nearly taking out a stack of books with his hip as he rounded the corner. He steadied the rickety pile, chuckling to himself as it teetered.

“It is just after one in the afternoon, sir. Captain Rogers has not checked in with SHIELD yet, but he has left a message stating that he is sorry that he was away for so long. He has asked for information when you are available and says that he will likely be trapped on the Helicarrier for at approximately two more days. He says that he will bring dinner and dessert as he owes you one,” Jarvis said.

“Damn right!” Tony grumbled, throwing open the fridge. The light inside nearly blinded him; he turned away, squinting through the brilliant white haze until his vision cleared again. “Tell him he can drop by whenever he likes. I’m always up for free food.” He scrounged around in the fridge, slipping the milk free when he found that it was the only thing left edible. He opened the carton and gave it a cursory sniff to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him.

“I have delivered your message sir. Captain Rogers says that he will call you back when he gets out of his latest debriefing.”

“Fantastic,” Tony said. He felt giddy, like he had swallowed a bowlful of sugar.

Steve was back!

Finally!

God, he was being stupid. He shouldn’t have been so excited about seeing Steve – it wasn’t like Steve was all that interesting, aside from the whole wholesome sweetie pie thing he had going.

Oh god…

No.

Nope.

He was definitely not thinking about that.

Tony shut the fridge, milk clutched delicately in one hand, and grabbed himself a bowl from the drying rack. He gave the bowl a once over, making sure that it wasn’t covered with caked on filth seeing as how he didn’t remember the last time he had actually done dishes and then grabbed a box of shredded wheat from on top of the fridge; he would have preferred something else, but bending down to forage under the cupboards wasn’t all that appealing a proposition at the moment.

He poured himself a generous helping and sloshed milk on top.

He glared at the cereal. “You’re going down buddy,” he growled, scooping up a tiny chunk of soggy wheat.

“Sir?”

“Just talking to my food,” Tony grumbled.

He ended up eating three bowls of cereal and drinking half the carton of milk; afterward he stumbled into the living room to take a nap on the couch, too tired to trudge down to his workshop to tinker.

 

 

When he woke up next, night had fallen. He blinked awake, yawning into the heel of his hand and struggled upright, leaning against the arm of the couch. “Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Any news from Steve?”

“I am calling him now sir. He requested he be phoned when you woke up.”

Tony lounged against the cushions, yawning to himself. He gathered up the nearest pillow and tucked it against his belly to block the cold draft that was trying to steal away his warmth. He gazed around the room slowly, trying to force himself to wake up.

“Tony?” Steve sounded exhausted.

Guiltily, Tony sat up straighter, clearing his throat so he wouldn’t sound like he had just woken up from a night of debauchery. “Hey Steve. How are things going?”

“It’s… complicated. Look, I know I told Jarvis to call me back whenever, but I’m really tired right now…”

“Oh,” Tony sighed. “Sorry – I’ll uh. Yeah. Jarvis, end the call.”

Tony –”

Steve’s voice died abruptly.

Tony rubbed at his face again, feeling like a fool. What the hell had he been thinking? He shouldn’t have bothered to call Steve. God, what was wrong with him?

“Sir? Captain Rogers is trying to call. I believe he didn’t intend to end the call that way,” Jarvis said.

“It’s fine. Tell him I’ll talk to him later,” Tony sighed, getting up. “It wasn’t that important.”

“Sir? I believe Captain Rogers thinks otherwise.”

“He should get some sleep. He’s been busy.” Tony walked over to the living room door. He traced his finger along the cracks in the glass, scowling at the damage. He never had gotten around to calling the repair people. He made a mental note to tell Jarvis to make an appointment when he was feeling better; having strangers wandering around his house while he was feeling like shit was never fun, even if he hid out of sight and only watched them through the security cameras.

He frowned.

Something was out in the garden. He couldn’t see what it was, but there was no mistaking the dark human-like shape near the flowerbed. “Jarvis?”

“Yes sir?”

“Who’s that out in the garden?”

“The garden, sir? My sensors indicate that there is no one currently in the garden or on the mansion’s grounds at the present time.”

“What? But it’s – can’t you see it?” Tony thumped a finger against the glass in frustration. “It’s right there!”

“Perhaps you should lay down, sir. There isn’t anything in the garden.”

Tony threw open the door. “Like hell there isn’t!” He charged out into the backyard, guided by the light of the living room behind him.

The grass was wet, the ground muddy and slippery beneath his bare feet. He stomped past the fountain and stormed towards the petunias with his fists clenched at his sides. “You’re not supposed to be in here – this is private property buddy!”

The dark figure didn’t move or react to Tony’s words. It was sitting with its back against a tree, casually peering at the granite wall as if impressed with the masonry. As Tony got closer, the light seemed to cut away. The figure was blurry around the edges, its skin peeling and cracked as old leather; its hands were folded in its lap, its body held stiffly at attention.

Tony faltered. He slipped in the mud, going down on one knee.

No.

This couldn’t be happening – this – this wasn’t real! This was a goddamned dream – it couldn’t be real!

He pushed himself up and started backing away.

He hit the fountain and fell backwards into the water; the cold was more startling than the fall and for a split second it felt as if he wouldn’t be able to push himself back to the surface. He clawed at the water, slapping at it and scratched at the sides of the fountain. He gasped as he pushed himself up, sucking in a lungful of air that smelled strongly of chlorine. “Fuck!” He pulled himself upright, shakily looking around, searching the garden for the figure, afraid that it might have moved.

When he spotted it again, he saw that it was still sitting beside the petunias staring at the wall.

Tony relaxed marginally and dragged himself from the water, dimly aware that his hand was bleeding from where he had torn his nails against the slippery marble. He lunged towards the open door, his feet slapping wetly against the smooth concrete.

He flinched; the pain in his neck was unbearable, the sensation so strong it took the air from his lungs and the strength from his knees. He went forwards, his eyes widening and clasped a hand to the side of his slippery neck –

 

 

Tony woke up with a gasp; he was drenched in sweat, lying sprawled on the carpet in his bedroom. He rolled over, curling in on himself. “No, no, no,” he chanted, squeezing his eyes shut. “I’m fine – I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Sir? Are you alright? Your temperature has dropped much lower than normal and you appear to be feverish. Shall I call a doctor?” Jarvis asked. “I can alert Captain Rogers if you would prefer him instead.”

“No,” Tony snapped, shaking his head. “No – I don’t need a doctor, I’m fine. It was just a dream.” He forced himself to get up, wiping his sweaty palms on the carpet. “Steve’s not back yet – he’s not going to be home. Don’t worry about it.”

“Sir? Captain Rogers is home – you spoke with him earlier in the afternoon.”

“What?” Tony snapped, standing up; he made sure to lock his knees when his legs began to shake. His skin felt cold and slimy all over despite the warmth of the room. He pushed the curtains out of the way and stared out the window down into the garden below. It was pitch black outside, but he could still clearly see the strange shape sitting by the back wall. He shuddered, jerking away from the window; he could have sworn he had locked eyes with it for a moment.

“No. It’s not – Jarvis? Lockdown the compound. Nothing in or out,” Tony said, clambering onto his bed. He dragged the blankets up over his head, burying himself amidst his pillows. “The doors are all closed, right? Nothing can get in? It can’t get in?”

“Sir? Is something wrong?” Jarvis asked. “Captain Rogers has called three times since you fell asleep. Shall I put him through?”

“No! Just lock the damned doors! I don’t want it getting in!” Tony said. He curled up in a ball, fighting his way through the panic attack he could feel building in his gut. “Just keep the doors locked. Lock the doors. I don’t want it getting in.”

“Sir, I believe you are hallucinating.”

“Don’t let it in.”

“I won’t let it in, sir – please, go to sleep. I will watch over you. You will be fine.”

“Thanks Jarvis,” Tony murmured, squeezing his eyes shut. “Please don’t let it in.”

 

 

The next morning Tony woke up coughing; his ribs ached every time he breathed in and when he breathed out it felt like had been punched in the gut. He could barely lift his head from his sweat-soaked pillow and when he tried to turn to look at the alarm clock on the side table it felt like he had tried to peel all the skin off the side of his throat with a cheese grater.

The sunlight creeping through the curtains felt like it was made of molten iron when it touched his skin; he was surprised he wasn’t red and blotchy all over considering how long he had likely been lying in the sun’s path. He hid beneath the blankets until it was too hot to stay there and then reluctantly forced himself to get up, wrapping the thinnest blanket he had around his head and body to keep the sun away.

His mouth tasted like someone had dumped an ashtray into it while he was sleeping. He coughed, expecting to cack up a few used cigarette butts and was surprised to find only the same disgusting green phlegm he had found a few days before. He washed his hands in the sink with the lights turned off and then staggered downstairs to try and find something to eat so that his Advil wouldn’t make him ralph all over himself.

It was no use.

No matter how small the bite, no matter how slowly he tried to swallow the water, he couldn’t get anything to go down; it wasn’t that it wouldn’t stay down either – it wouldn’t go down period. He coughed for what seemed like hours after his last sip of water managed to find its way up his nose and then sat down on the floor with his back against the cupboard, wiping his drippy nose on the back of his hand.

“Sir? Would you like me to call for someone to deliver something for you to eat? Some soup perhaps?”

“Can’t eat,” Tony managed to croak out. He started coughing again, doubling over when the force of his hacking became too much to handle.

“Sir? Shall I phone for an ambulance? Your temperature is well above acceptable limits and your breathing appears labored.”

“No ambulance,” Tony said hoarsely when he caught his breath. “Just let me sit for a while. I’ll be fine.” He closed his eyes, sliding slowly to the floor as his strength gave out. “It’s fine.”

The floor was nice at least. It was pleasantly cold against his face, and while it was hard and uncomfortable lying there on cold linoleum, the change in temperature was worth the discomfort. He wasn’t sure how long he lay there on the floor, but when he finally came back to himself he was acutely aware that everything around him was vibrating. It wasn’t a quite hum but it was damned close; he could feel the sound in his head. He could feel it in his teeth.

He raised his head, peering around the kitchen to try and find the source of the sound. It seemed louder in the direction of the fridge, but that couldn’t be right. The fridge was brand-spanking-new! He had checked the thing out himself and it was supposed to be on silent-mode, not destroy-your-ears-loud-mode. “Jarvis?”

“Sir?”

“What’s that noise?” Tony murmured, lying back down. He pulled the blanket up over his head when the humming grew impossibly louder; clasping his hands over his ears did as much as pulling the blanket over his head had, but at least it muffled the sound enough to let him think clearly. “What’s is that? No, scratch that – whatever it is, turn it off!”

“Sir, nothing is turned on. Perhaps you are hearing the electricity?” Jarvis said. “Do you require your migraine medication?”

“Probably can’t swallow it,” Tony grumbled, inchworming his way towards the hallway on his belly to try and put some distance between himself and the fridge. “Can you…”

“Would you like me to call Captain Rogers sir?”

Tony froze in mid-crawl.

Did he want Steve coming in here to find him like this? He was a mess; his clothing was sweat stained in ways he hadn’t even though possible. He hadn’t showered in days. Was this how he wanted Steve to see him? He probably smelled awful. The blurry reflection he had seen of himself in the fridge had been bad enough; he probably looked much, much worse.

“No. Don’t call Steve,” Tony croaked, pushing himself up onto his knees. “I’m going to get some sleep, alright? We can call him when I wake up again.” He managed to pull himself upright and puttered over to the couch in the living room, pulling the blanket up over his head. “And kill the appliances in the living room, will you?”

“I have rerouted power as requested. Do you require anything else?” Jarvis asked.

“That’s good,” Tony said with a cough as he collapsed onto the couch. He dragged a blanket out from underneath the coffee table and built himself a cocoon, pushing all the pillows in front of his face so that they blocked out what little light came in through the curtains. “Thank god for hangover curtains,” he groaned, manoeuvering the pillows so that he had a little gap between them so that he could breathe.

“Indeed, sir. Would you like me to order take out while you sleep?”

“I… I guess some soup would be nice,” Tony conceded with a grimace. His stomach clenched sharply and he choked down a mouthful of bile.

“Sir? I insist that we call a doctor,” Jarvis said.

“I’ll sleep it off,” Tony grunted. “Just let me sleep.” He let out a sigh, pinching the web of skin between his forefinger and thumb to try and make his headache more bearable. “Hey Jarvis?”

“Yes sir?”

“When you call Steve, can you have him bring over doughnuts or something for dessert?”

“Dessert?” Jarvis sounded confused. “Sir, I really think I should call someone.”

“Just tell Steve to bring doughnuts,” Tony murmured as he drifted off. “And tell the man in the garden to stop staring at me. It’s annoying.”

 

 

Tony took a lurching step forwards. He blinked, waking as his foot collided with a copper lantern. He looked around, squinting in the darkness; his head pounded dully as he moved and his stomach gurgled each time he opened his mouth to cough. Everything seemed to hurt, and where it didn’t hurt it felt like it had been soaked in ice water instead. Somewhere along the line during his impromptu sleep-walking trip he had dropped his blanket and stripped off his dirty shirt.

It was dark again. Somehow it always seemed to be dark these days.

The grass wasn’t wet today, but there was still a hint of freshly turned earth in the air. The stones beneath his feet felt cold but he continued to shuffle forward towards the petunias instead of avoiding them.

Tony scratched idly at the side of his neck. He squinted, noticing something sitting off in the distance beside the back wall.

It was looking straight at him.

The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end; he could feel it staring at him through the darkness, and even though he couldn’t quite make out what it looked like, he could see its eyes glowing as it watched him.

He took a step and then started to backtrack, praying that he wasn’t going to trip on anything; he turned to see how far he needed to go and by the time he looked back it was standing in front of him. He hadn’t even heard it move.

Even with the way decay had warped the creature’s body Tony could tell that it had been a man at some point in its life. The man was naked, his shriveled cock and balls hanging like dehydrated fruit between his legs. The cheekbones jutting out against the stranger’s taut blackened skin were sharp, features that would have looked handsome on someone living. He was bald, with little wisps of black hair hanging from his misshapen skull. His eyes were ruby red; they were the only part of him that looked even remotely alive.

Tony couldn’t stop looking at the stranger’s eyes. He opened his mouth to speak but the words wouldn’t come and neither would the screams.

The man placed a finger on Tony’s lower lip. “Hush now,” the man rasped, his voice barely above a whisper. “Hush.” He rubbed a scabby hand over the side of Tony’s face, his fingers lingering on the coarse hairs of Tony’s beard. “You’re a sweet little thing, aren’t you darling? I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been so good.” He took Tony by the face, his ragged nails digging into the meat of Tony’s cheeks. “Now be a good boy and let me feed.”

Tony couldn’t move.

The man turned Tony’s head to the side as easily as he might move a doll. He leaned forward, brushing his lips against Tony’s exposed throat. His breath was cold and stank of old earth. “You smell so good. Did you know that?” He bit down, his sharp teeth piercing Tony’s skin painlessly, and began to feed suckling at Tony’s neck. His hands cradled the back of Tony’s head, tangling his fingers in Tony’s hair.

Tony struggled feebly to break free, but his strength had gone leaving him weak like an exhausted kitten. He drifted forwards as his knees began to give out, bumping against the stranger’s chest. He was surprised to find that the man could hold him up even though he was so thin and boney. The man stroked the back of Tony’s neck as if trying to offer him some kind of comfort; he quickly gave up when Tony tried to shove him away, and instead dug his teeth deeper into the flesh of Tony’s throat.

Tony drifted in and out of consciousness. He felt heavy, as if he was going to drop through the floor. His teeth chattered as the cold night air claimed him.

The man pulled back, licking at Tony’s throat with his leathery tongue. Once he seemed satisfied with his work he sliced himself across the shoulder with his clawed fingernails, pushing Tony’s lips against the wound. “Drink,” he murmured, his words heavy and slurred, “drink.”

Tony couldn’t stop his lips from mashing against the man’s wounded shoulder. The blood was warm, flowing freely from the shredded flesh in a way that didn’t seem natural; it stained Tony’s lips red and tasted stale and coppery. When Tony wouldn’t drink, the man plugged Tony’s nose with one emaciated hand, shoving Tony’s mouth against the wound with the other.

“Drink,” the man ordered.

Tony couldn’t help it. Woozy from blood loss and lack of oxygen, he opened his mouth to drawn in air and instead took in a mouthful of blood. He wanted to gag on it, but for some reason he swallowed and by then there was no stopping him. He drank and drank till the blood grew cold and flowed sluggishly against his lips.

The man pulled Tony away, wiping its grimy thumb over Tony’s lower lip. He seemed pleased when Tony struggled against him. He even smiled when Tony found his legs and stood up. His lips were on Tony’s in an instant, his tongue pushing its way into Tony’s mouth.

Tony retched and pushed the man away, shoving hard enough to trip him on the ornamental lanterns. The man stumbled but didn’t fall; it was enough to give Tony a head start.

Tony ran. He could see the open back doors ahead of him and dove towards them, hitting the frame with his foot as he made it inside. He crashed head first into the carpet and lay there panting, sprawled on top of his lost blanket and shirt.

The stranger was coming –

Tony could sense him in the distance – he could hear the man’s feet lazily hitting stone as it made its way up the path towards the house. The sound was methodical, the footsteps heavy and even. There was no rush after all; it wasn’t like Tony was going to go anywhere. He was already down, spent and exhausted from the short dash into the house. He struggled to sit up, clawing at the carpet to find some kind of handhold and resorted to simply turning to face the man instead. If he had to die, he would do it with his head held high and his eyes locked on his killers. He wasn’t going to look away – not for this.

“You have beautiful eyes,” the man rasped from the doorway. He stood there, framed in the moonlight, a grim creature of nightmares alive at long last. The burnt texture to his skin was fading away, but it wasn’t quite gone. His flesh hadn’t returned to his bones, yet he looked years younger. He peered down at his hands, marveling at them and then looked up, cracking a smile; his teeth were pearl white, tinted with the faint remainder of the blood he had so lovingly gorged upon. “Be a good boy,” the man said, turning to look up at the sun. “I’ll be back later and we’ll sort this mess out together.”

Tony watched as the man walked back towards the petunias, then he laid down and passed out.

 

 

Tony banged his head on the coffee table when he woke up; he barked out a curse and gave his head a slight rub, his hands too weak to do much else. He stared meekly up at the underside of the coffee table for what felt like hours trying to gather his strength before crawling out from his hiding place.

The back doors were still wide open. He sat up slowly, fighting off an unpleasant mixture of vertigo, exhaustion and nausea, and picked his blanket up, wrapping it around his trembling shoulders. That faint cottony feeling was back in his mouth, but now there was a hint of copper and earth with it. He wanted to throw up; even bile would have tasted better, but there seemed to be nothing left in his stomach to use for even that.

Tony stumbled over to close and locked the patio doors, taking care to feel along the cracked glass before sitting down on the couch.

He hunched over, clasping his hands over his ears.

He could still hear the stranger’s voice in his head – his words looping over and over, distorting until they were nothing but a mishmash of broken syllables and consonants.

“Sir? Are you alright?” Jarvis’ voice was like honey to Tony’s ears, so sweet and kind he was afraid for a moment that he was dreaming again. Tony lifted his head sluggishly and blinked blearily up at the television, unable to focus on anything other than the blackened square sitting in front of him.

“There was a man in the garden last night,” Tony grunted, stroking the side of his neck. The skin there felt wet and sticky even though the wound had long since closed up and scabbed over. He pulled his hand back, staring at the flecks of dried blood on his fingers, unable to look away once he knew it was there.

“Sir? I don’t understand. Did something happen when you went out into the garden?” Jarvis asked, sounding puzzled.

“There was a man in the garden last night,” Tony repeated slowly, forcing his heavy tongue to form the words.

“I have no records of anyone being on the property last night, sir,” Jarvis said, “should I call security?”

“S’ no point,” Tony murmured, wiping his hand on the blanket pooling around his shoulders. “I’m going down to the lab.”

“Sir?” Jarvis sounded frightened. “Your temperature isn’t reading properly – I believe I am malfunction. May I call someone to verify my results?”

“No. I’m fine.”

“Sir, according to my sensors you appear to be… dead.”

Tony laughed so hard he started coughing; he wheezed painfully, his body still shaking despite the pain. “Dead. That’s a good one,” he wheezed.

“May I please call Captain Rogers now that you are awake?”

Tony shook his head, wiping spittle from his lower lip. “No. Steve doesn’t need to see this. I’ll be fine.”

“If I can’t call Captain Rogers, may I at the very least call Doctor Banner or Ms. Potts? You are unwell and I am worried about your health,” Jarvis said. “If my sensors are not functioning at one hundred percent, I will not be able to help you.”

Tony stood up, pulling the blanket tight around his shoulders.

The sun would be rising soon.

He could feel its warmth even away from the windows and for the first time in his life the thought of the sunrise scared him. He padded over to the wall, staggering when his vision blurred as something started dripping down his face from his eyes. He began to cough again, spraying the wall with a gummy mixture of reddish phlegm and spittle. He slid down the wall, panicking as his throat began to close up, clawing at the drywall to try and keep from crashing face first into the floor.

No! Not now – not now!

“Sir!”

Tony coughed harder, forcing himself to keep coughing even when his body wanted nothing more than to give up. He spat out another glob of phlegm and suddenly he could breathe again. He gasped, clutching his throat, massaging the lower half of his jaw where it felt like he had gone three rounds with Thor’s hammer.

“I’m fine. All I need is Extremis. It’s ready, right?” Tony said, trying to stand. He doubled over as his gut clenched up, catching himself on the corner of the wall, gouging marks in the paint.

“Sir!”

Extremis – it’s finished, right?” Tony gritted out.

“Yes, sir. It finished production two hours ago. I would advise against using it in your current condition – the consequences could be disastrous if you don’t have immediate medical supervision.”

“It’ll be fine,” Tony hissed, forcing himself to move down the hall. “It’s not like I’m dying. This is just a really bad cold – the flu maybe. It’s nothing. You said it yourself – I was hallucinating. There was nothing in the garden.”

“Sir – your temperature has dropped again. I am calling an ambulance.”

“No!”

“Sir, please! You are severely malnourished and dehydrated!”

“Call Steve,” Tony said, stumbling into his workshop. He was glad that he hadn’t had the energy to put the electronic locks in down here yet, because he was sure that Jarvis would have locked him out by now. He crashed into the corner of the production table, grasping feebly for the small vial of Extremis that sat gleaming amidst the darkness of his workshop. He was relieved that he had had the presence of mind to leave the injector beside the production chamber, or else he was sure he wouldn’t have been able to find it in the gloom.

The room hummed deeply as he locked the Extremis vial in place. The injector felt right in his hand, better than even a glass of scotch. This would fix everything.

“Sir, I must protest – please, at least wait until you’ve spoken with Captain Rogers to use Extremis,” Jarvis pleaded.

“It’s fine, Jarvis,” Tony said, lining the injector up against the side of his neck just below his ear. “It’ll be fine.” He pulled the trigger; the needle pierced his skin and for a split second it felt like he was floating up above his body.

His knees buckled.

He crashed into the floor, hearing the injector hit the ground beside him as he blacked out.

 

Everything hurt all at the same time; there wasn’t an inch of him that wasn’t screaming for mercy.

He could feel every bone in his body shattering and rebuilding; he wanted to wail as every muscle and every ounce of fat broke down and reconstructed itself as Extremis did its work, chugging along at a pace far too slow for Tony’s liking.

Tony hadn’t been prepared for the itchy feeling the rebuild brought with it. He wanted to scratch everywhere, but something had grown around him while he was sleeping and now he was covered in some kind of black carapace; he couldn’t move even if he had wanted to, and so he was forced to lie still and wait for Extremis to finish with him. His eyes were the first organs Extremis regrew. He wasn’t sure why he was thankful for that regrowth in particular; it wasn’t like he could watch what was going on, considering how thick the shell around him had grown. Everything was dark and moist, but it was warm so at least it wasn’t like he was freezing anymore.

He must have shrieked at some point – it was probably when his lungs and internal organs grew back –because Jarvis started talking, and the AI had sounded concerned. Tony wanted to tell Jarvis that everything was fine – that it was all going as planned, but somehow he couldn’t find a way to express the sentiment. Maybe that was because Extremis was busy rebuilding his brain.