"What do you mean it's permanent?!"
"Mr. Stark. Tony. Please." Strange lifts his hands in a placating matter. "I meant what I said. All the tests I've performed say that there is nothing wrong with you. No curses, no spells, no magic whatsoever. I don't have anything to work with. As far as your body is concerned, this is the way you're meant to be. Fixing it would involve a spell that ages you, and I really can't express to you how dangerous that kind of magic is. You could end up so old that your body is nothing more than skeletal remains. Frankly, I'm amazed that you were so fortunate in the first place."
"Fortunate?!" Tony shrieks, finally losing his temper. "You call this fortunate?!"
"You're still alive so yes, I do. From what you've described, the spell was not cast correctly and, as a result, may not have had the intended effect. I'm guessing that the original effects were intended to be much more serious than this. Sadly, the caster is dead so we can't ask." Strange frowns a little. "If the spell didn't reverse upon their death or when the book was destroyed in the fight, then please believe me when I tell you that there is nothing I, or anyone else, can do."
Tony is so incensed and panicked that all he can do is stand there and wheeze. Pepper steps in, asking, "You can't... I don't know, create an illusion that makes him look his normal age?"
"I can, but such spells require a lot of effort to keep up long-term. Also, frequent use tends to have unpleasant consequences. I heard about a fellow that used a glamour every day for six months because he was trying to get a date with a woman he was in love with. When he finally removed the glamour, his nose had developed gangrene and had to be removed."
Pepper blanches, her hand flying up to cover her own nose. "That's horrible!"
Strange nods. "Indeed. So you can see why it's not a viable solution. I've also heard of magical artifacts that can create a glamour, but they tend to have similarly nasty effects. When it comes to magic, nothing is without a price, as your caster learned." He glances at Tony. "The good news is, since I can't find any other magical residue on you, there should be no other effects."
"I think that this is quite enough," Tony hisses, gesturing at himself. His hands are trembling, he notices belatedly. He tightens them into fists and shoves them into the pocket of his jeans. Better to look cocky and arrogant than have people realize that he was upset or afraid. He learned that lesson a very long time ago.
"Some people would be jealous, actually," Strange says. "You've found the fountain of youth, such as it was. A pity that caster is dead. I should liked to have asked him a few questions."
"Go fuck yourself," Tony says.
"Tony!" Pepper exclaims.
Tony ignores her, storming out of the room and down the hallway. Knowing that he'll be followed, he heads into the bathroom and slams the door with an unsatisfying thud, flicking the lock. That turns out to be a dumb move, though. He can't avoid the mirror when he turns around, even though he tries. His eyes are automatically drawn to the young - too young! - man, a teenager really, standing there. This kid is short, barely scraping by 5'2 if that, and kind of scrawny. He's got brown hair that badly needs to be cut and not a hint of facial hair. It's wrong. All wrong.
"This is all your fucking fault," Tony says to his reflection, grimacing at the sound of his voice. Rhodey tells him that it doesn't sound any different, but Tony begs to differ. It's definitely a little higher than it should be. Repeated attempts to lower it have just resulted in Pepper biting her lip to keep from laughing in his face.
"Tones? Are you okay?" Rhodey knocks on the door.
"I'm not going anywhere, dork. Let me in."
It's tempting to keep the door locked, but Tony knows better. He's tried that. Rhodey just went and got Vision. There's nothing more annoying than having the android that you had a hand in creating float up through the floor when you just want to be alone. Vision hadn't listened to him, either. He'd unlocked the door for Rhodey and then Tony was treated to a lecture about why you shouldn't push your friends away when you really need them. Tony pretends the lecture fell on deaf ears, but honestly he's just so damn grateful that Rhodey hasn't thrown his hands up in defeat yet.
So he unlocks the door and looks up into Rhodey's eyes. It's not unusual per se - Tony got used to looking up at pretty much everyone in his life a long time ago - but it's a longer distance than usual and it's just one more thing that's different. He has to swallow hard to keep the wobble out of his voice when he says, "So that's that. Science can't fix me. Magic can't fix me. Ready to donate me to the nearest zoo now?"
"It's not that big of a deal," Rhodey tries.
"Rhodey. I'm sixteen years old. That's a big fucking deal." Just saying the words makes Tony shudder. "Everyone is going to have a fucking field day. You thought I had a hard time making people listen to me before? What do you think Ross is gonna do the next time we meet to discuss the Accords? What do you think the media is going to say? What do you think Steve -" His throat closes up, a familiar cold panic crawling into his chest. Steve is so much bigger than he is now, and Tony doesn't even have a suit that will fit him anymore.
"Whoa, hey." Rhodey drags him into a hug, wrapping his arms securely around Tony and embracing him so tightly it hurts. It's exactly what Tony needs. He holds back the tears with everything that he is and hugs his best friend back.
A small hand lands on his upper shoulders, and he smells Pepper's perfume a second before she says, "It's going to be okay, Tony. You're not alone. Rhodey and I have been talking. We think we've worked things out."
Tony drags in a too-shuddery breath. "And?"
"I'm still the CEO of Stark Industries. I can take care of everything until you're of age," Pepper says. Her voice is soft, but wonderfully firm. "You can still produce tech and ideas just like you always do, but you can take a backseat in everything else. Let's face it, you've always wanted to do that." She squeezes his shoulder, all but hugging him from behind. "Rhodey will become your legal guardian. Everything will be under his control: your fortune, your suits, your patents, your shares in the company. He'll take care of them until you turn eighteen, at which point everything will relegate to your control. It's only for a couple of years. We can get through until then."
"They won't let you," Tony points out. "Rhodey's just on leave. They won't let someone in the military adopt me." His knees buckle a little at the realization that he needs a guardian of some kind again, but Rhodey and Pepper just hold onto him that much tighter. At least this time he has them. He doesn't have to deal with Stane telling him that he needs to stop being weak and start standing on his own two feet.
"Shows what you know. I'm getting an honorable discharge."
Tony's head snaps up. "What? Rhodey, you can't -"
"Save it," Rhodey interrupts, mouth twisted in a sad smile. "It's not just because of you. I'm never going to be well enough to go back to work for the military. You know that. The doctors know that. The prosthetics you created are amazing, but if I was on a mission and they were damaged..." He trails off meaningfully. "It's just too much of a risk on their end. I've known that the papers were coming for a while now, but I wasn't ready to accept it."
"Rhodey... I'm so-"
"Don't. Don't apologize. It's not your fault," Rhodey tells him. "It's just my time. It could be worse. I'll be getting a full pension and I might even have the chance to do consulting work on occasion." He ruffles Tony's hair. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do with my life, but as always you're three steps ahead of the rest of us."
"It will be okay," Pepper says. "It's not ideal, but we can make it work."
"The media -"
"I'll deal with them." Her voice drops a little, taking on a dangerous tone. "You're underage now. We'll have a lot more control over what they can and can't say for a little while, at least."
"And Ross?" Tony hates to keep bringing the man up. His stomach curls to think about what Ross will do. It's been a constant game of cat and mouse over the past eight months, with Ross pouncing on any hint of a perceived weakness. He'll eat this up with a spoon. The thought of Ross trying to get control over him, or god forbid the Iron Man armor, is terrifying.
"T'Challa and the rest of the team you've assembled can handle him. They'll still have the full support of Stark Industries. And Tony, you're not out of the game completely. You can still help."
"Yeah right." Tony struggles out of the hug, suddenly feeling suffocated. He looks down at his hands. They're smooth, un-blemished. He earned every burn, every scar, every callous. And all of that has been wiped away in the span of a six hour fight with some kleptomaniac using magic they don't know how to use. He fists his hands again, holding them to his chest. He doesn't have to look to know that those scars are gone too. It's like the arc reactor, like Afghanistan, like Yinsen, never happened.
"Tony," Pepper says, but that's all, like she doesn't know what else to say.
"It's the best option we have," he says without looking at them. "I guess we don't have a choice. I've pursued every other viable option over the past two weeks. No one has a cure." He's asked all of the best scientific minds in the world, even throwing himself on the mercy of Reed Richards. No one had an answer. Strange was a last resort. Unless Thor decides to return to Earth, he's stuck like this - and even then, he knows better than to pin all his hopes on Thor having some kind of miracle cure.
"It'll be okay," Rhodey repeats.
"Yeah, sure it will," Tony mutters. Neither of them have mentioned Steve or the other ex-Avengers. It's like the giant elephant in the room. He can't decide which would be worse: Steve being smug because Tony got himself into this mess, or Steve acting like Tony no longer mattered because of this mess. Knowing Steve, it will probably be a mixture of both. Tony's just that lucky.
There's a long pause behind him. Finally, Pepper sighs. "Did you want me to start getting the paperwork ready?"
"Might as well."
He waits, standing still, until he hears them both leave the room. Strange seemed surprised that Tony still possessed all of his memories. He seemed to think that Tony shouldn't remember anything beyond what he would've known at sixteen the first time around. That's the one way that this situation could have been worse. The original sixteen-year-old Tony Stark was a recently orphaned idiot who wouldn't have known what politics was if it punched him in the eye. That Tony Stark was still half in love with Captain America. That Tony Stark had no idea how to pilot the Iron Man suits, or even knew that he had the potential to be a hero.
Well. To try to be a hero, anyway. Gonna be a hell of a lot harder to even try now that he has this to deal with on top of everything else, but he'll be damned if he's giving up that easily. He heads for the elevator, deciding that he might as well start trying to modify a suit to fit his smaller build while he's waiting for Pepper and Rhodey to pull everything together. As the elevator descends, he grimly thinks to himself that the one silver lining to this whole mess is that at least now he doesn't have to worry about his body being too old for this shit.