The poison is coming out.
It’s a filthy process. Yinsen has to check the bandages every day. Sometimes they are black and Tony’s blood looks curdled. The cave smells like rot, when he’s open, and he is forced to come to terms with the idea that it is him, that it’s his body and that he never woke up from the surgery and he is half-dead. There is gauze in his chest, under the magnet. There is a very old bottle of vodka that Yinsen keeps hidden in one of the spots where the floor is dirty, and he tips it onto a boiled stained rag and daubs it around the housing. Tony screams and all Yinsen can offer is more chloroform.
Please be quiet, Yinsen tells him. Yinsen fears what lies behind the doors.
Tony touches it, even though he isn’t supposed to. He doesn’t want to think about what’s on his hands besides blood. His heartbeat feels pulpy. He lies as still as he can as if the shrapnel might stop its trajectory into his aorta if he does. He thinks about what they’ll do to him tomorrow, he thinks about what will happen to him if he capitulates instead. He wants to. He wonders which way gets him to death faster.
* * *
Tony has always been excellent at burning his own kingdom to the ground.
It’s probably why he feels like he has some measure of control, the first time. Even as his hands are being bound behind him, he still feels like his old self. A titan. Untouchable. It’s not that the situation doesn’t feel dire; there are wires running into his chest cavity. It’s just that he’s watched too many movies about heroes and he’s seen Captain America break fake Hollywood chains with his bare arms and so when they bring him into a dingy little chamber with a bare dirt floor and a tub of water and kick his knees out from under him, he runs his mouth.
“Do you know what’s going to happen to you,” he hears himself say.
In the moment, he really believes that he might be able to alter the trajectory of his fate. That he’ll say the right sequence of words and show the right amount of bluster and they’ll cower and a deal will be struck and Tony will walk out of here all on his own. This will become another unpleasant interlude in his shit show of a life.
Someone holds an automatic weapon to his head and he is yelled at in Slavic.
“I don’t speak terrorist,” he snaps.
Few things are outside the scope of Tony’s experience, but this is. They tie his hands behind his back and hold the picture of the fucking missile in front of his face and they dunk his head into the trough. Tony jerks when the leads get wet and he wants to say no, no you can’t , you’re going to kill me –
They bring him up for air and throw him on the dirt and someone kicks him in the ribs and he pukes up a watery slush all over himself, all over his battery.
It’s not like he imagined. There is no stoicism, there is no dignity. They do it again, and again and again. Every time, he thinks he is going to die. He feels like he will never breathe again, and then there is cold air and his throat is burning and someone is slapping him and the only word he understands is Jericho. There’s no room for him to speak even if he wanted to. He bursts into angry, desperate tears and tries to cough up the shit in his lungs and they push his head under and they do it again.
They dump the bucket of water on him when they’re done. He is stupid enough to think it’s over. They pull the water away and he hears the tictictictictic of the picana before he feels it.
His heart is racing. He feels a fluttering in his neck. He feels like fire is going to burst out of his eyes, his mouth. He can smell the plastic warping around the leads; they must have it hooked up to the battery. It’s making the electromagnet fritz. He wraps his arms around the battery housing and tries to make himself small, but he is open and exposed and there is nothing he can do because they touch the picana to the bottoms of his feet, to his ribs, to his genitals. He is burning, he is freezing. He clutches at someone’s pant leg, tries to beg.
They kick him in the head and pull the bucket back.
* * *
They leave him there overnight. They throw water on him and he shivers and eventually he can see his breath in the air from the battery powered lantern they’ve left in the corner. Maybe they want him to die of exposure.
He wonders if those soldiers in the Humvee laid in the desert and died in the cold, too. He thinks about that kid who wanted his picture. So trusting.
Rhodey introduced Tony to this guy once.
It was after MIT. Rhodey was starting his last year. They were both happy, for once. The wounds of Tony’s childhood were beginning to scab over. The car crash hadn't happened yet. Rhodey was getting his commission and Tony was getting his first Doctorate.
The guy was an airman: tall, blond, eyes the color of glacial meltwater. Exactly Tony’s type and Rhodey knew it. Rhodey has only ever aggressively pursued Tony’s best interests. Rhodey is Tony’s better judgment.
They drifted down the sidewalk, swatting at the mosquitoes. The guy poured him a drink when they got back to Tony’s apartment and then they were kissing on his couch. Kids. Easy laughter, no posturing. He once doled out affection like it was free. Tony wanted to get on top of him and ride him.
Tony thinks they were both a little lonely. They fucked to R.E.M. and they made out, after, messy and slow, with the drapes open so they could see the city. Tony would have asked for his number if they weren’t gonna pack him off to Kuwait.
“Are you nervous,” Tony remembers asking, after. It wasn't the question he wanted to be asking. The guy was a hero and Tony was some scrub who could twist wires together. The guy was nice enough not to point out the chasm between them, but he feels it, even now, years on.
It’s not like there’s a war on, the guy said with a sad, wry smile. A joke, hanging there.
The guy had squared up his shoulders and rubbed at the hickey Tony left on his neck. “Nah,” he'd said. “I’m probably going to North Dakota," with that laugh again. “I’ll get to test those fancy experimental planes of yours,” he'd said, soft enough to sober Tony up a little. “Doesn’t matter where they send me, I just feel better knowing you’re watching our backs,” he'd murmured, and Tony remembers despising everything he was and smiling and giving the guy a peck on the cheek.
Tony lies in his own piss and thinks that guy is probably dead now. That guy never made it to North Dakota and Tony should have just stuck to bomber planes but he was greedy and now he’s dying and there would be something hysterical about all of this if he hadn’t dragged so many good people with him.
After some hours, they come back for him. They ask him the question. It begins again.
* * *
“That was foolish,” Yinsen tells him, when they drag Tony back and his heart is fluttering in his throat and there’s piss all down the side of his leg.
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Tony says, and he’s so cold his teeth are chattering. There’s nothing to do but scrub at his skin with a moldy blanket and wring his stained underwear out in a bucket and put them back on. He puts his hand over the magnet. He strokes down the wires, digs his nails into the insulation. He shivers like he’s never going to be warm again.
“You are an arrogant child,” Yinsen tells him. “Principle is luxury you squandered when you made those missiles.”
He knows. He knows.
Arrogant. It bounces around in his mind. It’s not a word you would use to describe someone worth rescuing. It’s not a descriptor he can dispute.
* * *
Withdrawal hits him hard. He gets the DTs after a few days, but he can’t tell at first because he’s perpetually freezing and his heart sometimes flutters in his throat and occasionally it will skip a beat or two. He knows he hasn’t been kind to his body.
The whole room smells like bile. He drags his battery over to the latrine dug into the ground and he passes out there. He thinks he asks Yinsen for his vodka. He thinks he begs. He knows he’s embarrassing, but what’s a little more of him whittled away? Yinsen bangs on the door and says something in Farsi. Tony drifts in and out, and three cans of Coke labeled in Cyrillic have appeared on the ground next to him.
He drinks one like it’s water and doubles over almost immediately, retching into the hole. He holds the empty can against his forehead. He traces the bottom of it, the perfect circle. He thinks about the color aluminum makes when it burns, the searing blue-white of it. How clean it is.
Yinsen makes them dinner when it subsides. “I’m surprised you haven’t had a heart attack,” he says mildly.
Tony sips on one of his cans of coke. “Me too,” he says.
* * *
There’s no way to mark the passage of time. Tony imagines scratching lines into the rock wall but his hands won’t stop shaking and the weakness has seeped into his muscles. He can’t get it out.
He’s learning that distractions don’t work when the pain lives in you. His body is an alien thing. He shivers at night and plays his fingers along the wires and tries not to move because sometimes he can feel the battery pulling. He imagines a plug taken out; a flood of his own arterial blood, a collapse. His strings cut. The reality is worse, he’s sure. His joints feel stiff. He can’t breathe. He develops a wet cough after a few sessions. You need to stop provoking them , Yinsen tells him. You’re going to get pneumonia. Stark. His hands are so steady, so cold. He is meticulously groomed while Tony can’t recognize himself in his shaving mirror. Sunken eyes, cuts on his face from shrapnel from his weapons.
It goes on; he never knows when the door is going to open and when they’re going to drag him back and strap him to the bed frame and beat his feet with that length of copper pipe or dunk him in the tub and then send thousands of volts through his body.
It’s ok, he tells himself. He’ll get better at sending himself away. It can’t last forever. He’ll run dry. He’ll burn out.
* * *
They take Yinsen, sometimes, at night. It’s nothing like the pageantry of daytime when they bring out their whole contingent armed with Tony’s very best assault weapons. He’ll hear the creak of the door unlatching and bits of whispered Urdu and he’ll shut his eyes and listen to the car battery dying.
Later, they’ll drag him in by his elbows and drop him on his bunk and he’ll whimper in pain: Stark, are you awake ? He makes his breathing as deep as he can with his chest filling up with fluid. Yinsen would have a name for it: bronchitis, pneumonia, pleurisy. Terminal, if he doesn’t get antibiotics and real surgery. Tony doesn’t answer, because Tony is a coward. He lies in bed with his aching chest and wonders if they’re going to hobble him, too.
* * *
They’re not going to be friends. Tony knows this because Yinsen snaps at him, one time, after they’ve beaten the shit out of Tony and they dump him just beyond the door, still biting into his own lip, still vibrating from the current. Tony can’t stand, so he drags himself over to his cot and Yinsen doesn’t even look away from shaving his fucking neck.
Tony sits, usually, after. He rubs at his skin until it’s red and then he rubs at it some more and then he sits and shakes. Sometimes he’ll wash his clothes. Today it’s clear, and unbearable: none of his usual outlets are available to him. He smells like urine. He’s very obviously been crying. They have his guns, there is no one looking for him, he is going to die here. Alone. He wants to break something. He knocks Yinsen’s stupid fucking chessboard off the table. He sends a tin cup skidding off the wall.
Are you angry, Yinsen asks him.
No, Tony tells him. No. I just want to go home.
We all want to go home, Yinsen tells him. We all want that, Stark.
I’m not building it, Tony says.
They want you to stop fighting, Yinsen sighs.
Did you stop fighting, Tony says, and the air turns cold. What do you want, Yinsen?
Yinsen scrapes the razor over his throat.
It’s not up to me, Yinsen tells him.
* * *
Tony’s envisioned dying, a lot. It’s something that happens when you’re orphaned, it’s something that happens when you’re rich. It becomes a fixture. He’s imagined the moment – vividly, in detail. At his lowest, he’s imagined recreating the scene that killed his parents: his own Bugatti, wrapped around a telephone pole. A night of partying, a few bumps of coke too many – that one he banishes fairly quickly. He doesn’t like what goes with it: Rhodey’s horrified face upon finding his body.
Later, after he crawled back to Obie and the politics of it all and the military contracts, he imagined a rope. He walked in the half-built skeleton of his Malibu mansion and he thought about throwing a noose over one of the beams. He thought about the shit show he’d leave Obadiah to clean up.
He’s never planned for a moral death. He didn’t think he’d be huddled in a cave with a chest full of shrapnel and his soul peddled away for the promise of less pain. At least he’s on his way. Death beckons. He tells Yinsen so. He’s soliciting pity and they both know it.
“Then this is a very important week for you, isn’t it?” Yinsen says.
* * *
Tony’s ball and chain is an old Duralast that someone probably pried out of a Honda before everything went to shit. Late 80s. Expired. He asks Yinsen where he salvaged the electromagnet and Yinsen gives him a hollow laugh and tells him he wound it himself.
“It’s crude,” he says, “but it’s iron.”
* * *
Yinsen finds a way to walk on his mangled feet and carry the mold and pour a perfect ring of molten palladium.
Tony watches it cool, coughs into his jacket. He thinks about the arc reactor in the factory, how if you walk past the building at night it glows like you’re looking into a nuclear cooling pool. How it’s gentle. He wonders how this one is gonna look, if it’s gonna burn his retinas out when he turns it on.
“Look at that,” Yinsen says, as Tony plucks the ring out of the baked clay. “You do exquisite work for a man who’s dying.”
“Not bad yourself,” Tony tells him. He clutches the table, lightheaded. Giddy with creation. They’re making a star. Tony collapses and sends the casings for the T-298 series clattering to the floor. Yinsen catches him by the arms and his ribs ache with the force of it.
“Stark,” Yinsen says. “Stark.”
Even now he’s invisible in the shadow of his legacy. He’s a faceless monster. He thinks he’d like to hear someone, anyone, call him Tony, one last time.
* * *
He thinks he’s evolving. He’s not dreaming of his own death anymore. He’s dreaming of those kids in the Humvee, the ones that were smiling just before they hit the IED. He thinks about the noise that boy’s brain made when a bullet went through him. He wakes up clutching at his chest, tear tracks on his grimy face, sweating through his suit pants, his breath fogging in the air.
Yinsen places a hand on his forehead. “You’re burning up,” he says.
“I am become death,” he recites. “Destroyer of worlds.”
Dad would be proud, he thinks, and looks up at the ceiling of his own tomb.
“I built this,” Tony says, delirious. He touches the light set into his chest, watches the projection it makes on the bare rock ceiling.
“Sleep, Stark,” Yinsen says. He almost sounds fond. He almost sounds worried.
* * *
Tony welds when he gets chills and fusses with the programming when he burns, and his workbench accumulates plates - half of a thigh, a bicep plate, a forearm cut right from one of the prototype Jericho casings. He wonders if they’re using the ordnance in those crates outside. He wonders how many people die out there every day he’s locked in here with his own demons. He grabs another missile and starts stripping it for the copper components for the glove controls.
The plan is unlikely to work. They both know it, and still they toil in the dark and the cold. They’re riding on Tony’s reputation, on Tony’s over-hyped genius. The plans blur into senseless lines before his face. He stumbles back and forth from the IBM to the workbench.
You need to slow down , Yinsen tells him. His heartbeat feels wet and once when he puts his soldering iron down his hand won’t unclench. Yinsen’s mouth pulls into a line but there’s no more penicillin in the bottle and Tony aggressively wants to see the sun one more time.
He’d also like to kill everyone in this compound.
Revenge is still murder, he knows that. The difference is scale, maybe, or intention. He’d like a do-over. A timeline where he isn’t a weapons dealer. A war profiteer.
One day they’re kneeling and Raza’s men are yelling at them: they’re not going fast enough. He wants it tomorrow. He wants it done. He leafs through Tony’s suit design page by page and throws it on the ground. He almost puts a burning piece of coal in Yinsen’s mouth and he lowers his eyes and grits his teeth and begs.
Tony decides he’s never going to kneel again.
Tony laughs, lightheaded and dizzy, when Raza finally backs off. Ok , he says. You got it.
Sometimes you don’t get redemption, he decides. Sometimes all you can do is start a fire.
* * *
Tony kills four people and then rounds the corner to find Yinsen dying on a rotting sack of grain.
Hey, Tony says, swaying on his feet. He braces one arm on the cave wall and part of the ceiling falls down. He wants this to be a hallucination.
I want this, Yinsen says, and all Tony can do is watch.
His chest looks like Tony’s did, probably, when they dragged Tony in here. The difference is: Yinsen is no one. There’s no surgeon whose sole purpose is to keep him alive. He’s just another unlucky bastard who died for a crusade Tony didn’t know he was helping to facilitate. He is an innocent bystander and Tony touches his shredded chest and tells him it’s gonna be ok and watches him go. He dies just like his family died, and there’s going to be no one to remember him if Tony doesn’t fix his fucking mess.
Tony’s face is hot, under the faceplate. He doesn’t have long. Better make it count.
* * *
There’s nothing elegant about Tony’s rage.
He stands in a hail of bullets and focuses on that bright star set into his chest, the way he can feel it vibrating if he concentrates. He knows what he looks like, and he also knows he wouldn’t be standing if it weren’t for his skeleton. His armor. His pulse is thready and his breath smells sweet inside the helmet and he waits for it to be over and then he squeezes the triggers with a remarkable amount of effort and watches the plume of flame erupt from his arms and thinks:
There are so many boxes. There are hundreds and hundreds of crates. He can’t hope to smash them all, but he tries a few. His body is wildly out of control, and his breath comes in harsh burning gasps. He torches it, it’s easier. He wants to make sure everyone who was shooting at him is a burning corpse.
He drops to his knees. Someone is still firing, but he needs to catch his breath, just for a minute. He needs to make it out. He needs to make something of this.
The crates start to explode behind him and he thinks he should feel satisfied but all he can see is a camp like this one over in the next valley, and over the next mountain range, and again and again. He has sent poison out and it has come back to him threefold.
He doesn’t know if a concussive blast is going to cave his chest in. He doesn’t know if he’s standing in his own coffin.
No, he thinks, and he pulls the latch on his leg.
It’s their biggest gambit. There’s no way to test propulsion with a 15-foot ceiling, but all of this was a desperate gamble to begin with. He’s further than he thought he’d get.
What the hell, he thinks, and the boot jets start to fire.
For one brief moment, Tony’s body is flooded with euphoria. His heart goes into overdrive again, faster than it should be going. He turns his grim metal face to the sky. His rational mind says adrenaline and the dying romantic in him says Icarus .
It works. He leaves the heat of the flames behind and literally rockets into the air. That ugly little piece of his legacy burns on the ground and he just murdered 20 people and the sun is too bright for his eyes, unaccustomed to the darkness for so long, but he’s flying. He’s going into tachycardia, but he’d do it again. He’d do it forty times over it if meant he could hold on to this fleeting feeling, this lightness of being.
And as the jets conk out, and he starts to fall, he thinks: there’s nothing like it, flying.
This is more how he pictured it.