Here's how it works: you're a kid and then you're not a kid, you were always a kid and never a kid. You wake up one day in a cave, and you think, Someone has to be better than this.
And then you meet the person who's better than that.
Make all the homophobic jokes about Arthur and Lancelot you want; the fact is that Tony spent his life thinking he was wed to the country, the company, the bottle, the design, and then comes this upstart in star-spangled mail—
Is he Arthur, or Lancelot? Is Steve both, or neither? Tony's just the interloper, this has always been Steve's kingdom, but there's also a fairly convincing argument waiting to be made that Tony's in a long-term relationship with his own appetite for destruction. That's his lady love, his Guinevere; anything else is functional distraction.
He has yet to engineer the perfect metaphor. Luckily for the genius industrialists of the world, all arguments are made up and the means don't matter, not when the end is this:
Tony wakes up.
"Morning," says Steve.
Tony yawns and rolls over. "Hey, soldier," he says, and then he catches the time on the wall panel over Steve's shoulder and grins. "Little late for a relic like you to still be in bed. Afraid you'll miss the early-bird special down at the waffle house?"
"And here I thought you said that thirty was over the hill."
"Would the American public believe me if I told them what a smartass Captain America is?"
"Only to folks I like," Steve says, and Tony enjoys the sound of that so much that he plants one on his blue-eyed boy, morning breath and all.
"Maybe I oughta be a smartass more often, that's the kind of treatment I get," Steve adds. His hand is on the side of Tony's neck, his thumb on Tony's jawline; it feels nice, very nice.
"Good thing I like you back," Tony says. "Even if you do make discouraging remarks about my youthful virility. That's slander, I could sue."
"I've got a rich partner to spring me."
"You're a trophy husband, huh? I suspected, but it seemed rude to ask."
Steve heaves a sigh. "Always knew you only wanted me for my body, Stark."
"Golddigger," Tony accuses affectionately.
It's perfect. It's the perfect image, the perfect morning, as refined over the course of a decade by a man skilled at playing What If. He tweaks it sometimes—Steve wakes up grumpy, or Tony does; their bickering has more edge before it softens; instead of talking, Steve rouses him with slow, soft kisses, first on his neck and then, once Tony starts to stir, on his mouth. In that perfect morning, Tony is secure enough in Steve's love to tease him about money. In that perfect morning, Tony's adoration is not a burden. In that perfect morning, constructed and refined after years of fabrication and testing, failure hovers somewhere between the realms of abstract concept and fairy tale.
Tony plays What If the way some people play chess: to sharpen his instincts, inure him to his flaws, and develop his ability to value strategy over sentiment. It works. On some level, his plans always work.
"Hi, Tony. Sleep well?" Steve asks, because unlike the What-If Steve who shared Tony's bed, he has no other way of knowing if Tony is working through a bout of insomnia that could jeopardize the whole team.
Tony grunts. Pours himself a cup of coffee. Makes some crack about how they aren't all geriatric earlybirds. And leaves. In his head, before he leaves, he calls Steve 'sweetheart,' and then he has to stop and touch his fingers to his lips to make sure the word didn't actually escape. Horrified, he spends the next two hours pouring over Extremis, checking the coding, checking himself. He isn't going through a bout of insomnia; he fixed that. It's been written out. Tony Stark (v2.2.11) was rolled out last month. He sleeps exactly four hours a night and wakes without an alarm.
In the next patch, he hopes to remove the need for sleep entirely. 2.3 is underway, a high-priority project. He likes to joke about it. "Imagine how much I could get done if I didn't need to sleep," he'll say, and Pepper will sigh and smile.
Steve is not Tony's first or only love. His most enduring, maybe, or his most painful, the one most deeply rooted, the one he could never quite shake. There's his own ego—Tony Stark's in love with himself, goes the joke—there's his own ideas, there's the things he builds with his hands.
There's Pepper and Happy and Rhodey; there's his company, his legacy, and his image. There's his armor. God in heaven, there's his armor. It's the best thing he's ever done, the best and the biggest, the most beautiful by far, sleek and hard and fast, and Tony loves it in a way he's never loved another piece of himself.
There was, once, Rumiko.
Steve Rogers is not his first love, not his only love. Tony Stark exists outside of Steve Rogers, independent of him; he made value calls before Steve came out of the ice and in Steve's absence he continues to function. That Steve occasionally eats up Tony's whole field of vision is a flaw in Tony himself. Tony is flawed. It's fine. It's a function of being Tony Stark. He'll have a patch for it soon.
Extremis is an entire other topic of conversation. It's not a What If; it's a What Is, maybe the most glorious What Is to come from Tony's brain other than the Iron Man itself. It's programmable, versatile, incredible. Extremis allows you to rewrite yourself. Bleed too much? Extremis. Not strong enough? Extremis. Need a direct neural interface to your superhero suit? Extremis.
He gives a lecture at Cal-Poly—big symposium, he's the featured speaker because of course he is, and they want him to talk about micromunitions but Tony wants to talk about Extremis because he loves Extremis. He doesn't provide details; the last thing he needs is some infant genius getting enough information to craft an approximate replication.
KEYNOTE SPEAKER: TONY STARK
"C'mon, guys, knock it off. You don't have to laugh at every dumb joke I make, although I have to say, it's great for my ego. You know how often Captain America laughs at my jokes? Not often enough, that's for sure.
"So! You nerds—I can say that, I'm a nerd myself, don't let the suit fool you—you're all here today for one reason. It's not because you're required to be here, or because you had nothing better to do on a Thursday afternoon. It's probably not because you all think I hid a car under your seat—this guy in the front row's not taking my word for it. Hey! Car Guy! Yeah, you, who do I look like I'm pointing at? Nothing under there, I promise. You can pull your head out from between your legs now.
"Why are you here? You're here because you're futurists. You're here because you think that the human condition can be bettered. You're here because you think that the mountains of debt, the years spent toiling for a scrap of paper, all those nasty things you do to each other for just a little more lab time, you're here because you think the end goal makes all that suffering worth it. You think that with innovation, with an open flow of ideas, that with rigorous testing, skepticism, and clear eyes, we can build tomorrow.
"And that's great. I hear you. I'm with you all the way. The problem is that you are going to face adversity. You are going to face detractors. You are going to face your own fear. Because what future-proofing the human race means is radical, irreversible change, and that scares people. It should scare you. I'm not just talking about discovering the cure for cancer or building a safer car, I'm talking about improving on the baseline human in ways that make those cures unnecessary.
"What was that?
"Cybernetics? Sure. Cybernetics. Advanced prosthetics—Stark Industries has a vested interest in both prosthetics and neural interfaces. Go bigger with it, though. Go radical. Go dangerous. I'm not talking about gene therapy, although let me tell you, if I had a nickel for every time I had to fight some bad guy hopped up on the idea that he can activate his own latent mutant genes, I would have a very tall stack of nickels.
"Okay, let's reframe this conversation. What do you do with your computer when it won't do what you want it to do? Let's say you're trying to crunch some numbers on the viability of doubling the thrust of your jet-powered roller skates, but the crappy little notebook with the pre-installed software that you bought from one of Stark Industries' competitors can't keep up. What do you do?"
Go ahead, Car Guy.
"What do you do?
"Speak up, buttercup, I can't hear you up here.
"There you go! Car Guy gets it. What do you do? You build a better system.
"What I'm suggesting today—actually, that's a fallacy. What I'm here to demonstrate is that it is possible, that it is desirable, to do the same thing to the rest of us. Flaw in the human code? Fix it. Patch it. Reprogram it. Make it better.
"It sounds like science fiction, believe me, I know. I'm aware that I sound like the next L. Ron Hubbard—although hey, if anyone wants to buy their way into having their soul saved… oh, c'mon, stop flattering me. I'm serious, though. You think it's science fiction? I'm telling you that it's already been done.
"We've seen it before in very narrow, specific applications. Super Soldier Serum, that's one—what else is that but reprogramming the body to be stronger? That's not the only instance, but it's the first one, it's the one everybody wants to recreate, which is in my opinion shortsighted idiocy. Think bigger. Think about having a serum that you can tailor to give you whatever results you want. Make you stronger? Sure, okay. Get rid of asthma? Okay. What about cancer? What about your unfortunate ability to forget your mom's birthday? What about pain? What about fear?
"Me, personally—I know, you're all thinking, 'He's Tony Stark, he's already perfect,' thank you all, you really are great for my ego—personally, I'm more interested in the ways I could tailor a serum like that to act as an interface between my big, giant brain and my big, cutting-edge tech. I say 'serum,' we all know that's a euphemism; what we're discussing is a nano-machine swarm that hacks the body's repair center delivered directly to the bloodstream via… let's just say that the delivery technique could use some refinement and leave it at that."
This delivery technique could use a little refinement.
"And that, ladies and gentlemen and nerds, that is the future. Your body as hardware and software, capable of being hacked and upgraded as necessary. I'm in favor, obviously. I've done it to myself. It doesn't have to be that radical, but the possibility is there, and the possibility should be nurtured.
"I told you that you'd face detractors. It's true. People out there, the people who don't understand predictive analytics, who don't understand innovation, who don't understand that we have to be ready, those people like to tell me on a daily basis that this enhancile—I call it 'Extremis,' by the way, and it's a baby of collaboration—those people like to tell me that I am ruining myself. That I am an abomination. They're not wrong, although that has nothing to do with Extremis or my armor, right? Go on, Car Guy, it's okay to laugh.
"I believe that not to thrive but to merely survive, we have to be willing to transcend our limitations. Does it scare me? Sure. But since when has that stopped any of us? We do what we do because we recognize fear, we look it in the eye and say: so what. We're creators. We're engineers and scientists. We're the architects of the future."
Transcript provided by Cal-Poly Technical Institute, courtesy of Stark Industries.
STARK: Yeah, you on the side, go ahead.
STARK: Can we get a mike on her? Thanks. What's your name?
HO: Toni Ho. Mr. Stark, if the Extremis enhancile is truly capable of curing diseases like cancer, how soon will it be made available to the public?
STARK: Regrettably, that's probably at least a few years away. I might have jumped the gun a little bit. Not something I'm known for, I know. We need more testing before we're sure that it's safe for use on humans, and like I said, the delivery method needs to be tweaked.
HO: And the delay isn't because Stark Industries is trying to control access?
STARK: Absolutely not. Yes, you in the fetching blue sweatshirt.
RIDLEY: Daniel Ridley. Doctor Stark—
STARK: Ooh, I like you.
RIDLEY: Does the enhancile really let you wirelessly interface with computers?
STARK: Absolutely. My intention, obviously, was—I don't know if you know this, but I'm also a superhero called Iron Man—my intention was to integrate with the suit, but there were some, ah, side-effects. The upshot is that if I get bored in a board meeting, I can stream Netflix to my brain. Total technopathy, by design and on purpose. Effectively: I am the armor. Yeah, kid in the back.
POLASTRI: My name's Jane Polastri, and my question is… I'm sorry, I can't resist… who's your favorite Avenger? [Audience laughter.]
STARK: Favorite Avenger? It's cheating if I say Iron Man, isn't it? Then I'll go with Captain America. Nobody can get mad at you for picking Cap—he's everyone's favorite. Don't tell War Machine I said that. Yep, go ahead.
CHABON: Chabon, uh, Jayden Chabon. How exactly does the enhancile work? I mean, it's—what you're talking about, it has to be restructuring the subject from a cellular level…?
STARK: Bingo. Extremis… well, more or less, it instructs a body to treat itself as a wound and rebuild itself from scratch, in whatever way we require. The objective is programmed into the enhancile prior to administration, and then after a couple of days of blinding agony, your end result is a human with accelerated regeneration, or the lung capacity of an Olympic athlete, or an innate resistance to dementia. Anyone else? Oh, hi. Yeah, go ahead.
ROSENTHAL: Amelia Rosenthal. Mr. Stark, what do you think of the proposed bill that would require extra-legal peacekeepers to disclose their identities to the government?
STARK: I'm not here to talk politics. Next question.
"My contacts in Congress have been assuring me that the whole deal is dead in the water. They're wrong. One way or another, registration is happening."
There's nothing in the garage that can help with this. It's a good garage, a great garage, a garage that takes up the lowest three levels of the Tower's basement. He'd like a little sunlight, had considered installing this iteration of the garage on the top three levels instead, but there's a lot to be said for the added security of being buried seventy feet underground. Function over form, safety over inspiration—which is a joke, Tony's never needed sunlight for inspiration, he built his greatest work of art in a cave. Sometimes he had to hold a flashlight between his teeth while he worked on the finer points of the Model I.
If he allowed himself the luxury of missing things, though, he'd miss the Mansion; and he'd miss the West Coast; and he'd miss the simplicity of what his life had once been, the clarity of it, the sweep of desire that had let him sublimate himself instead of the agonizing, intent need to account for all factors at all times. Maybe he's kidding himself. Even at the height of his amoral debauchery, he was always able to care about the design, the company, the pursuit. Maybe he's kidding himself; he is a kidder.
Everyone likes to focus on the neural interface that Extremis wrote into him, but that's not the only perk. The virus restructured his thought patterns, too; not all of it's conscious, but he can problem-solve at teraflop speeds now, at petaflop speeds, more parallel processes than most people can comprehend. He can think about the garage while he misses the Mansion while he tracks the progression of the Registration Movement while he gripes to Carol while he tweaks the cloaking shield on the Model 29.
"It's a volatile time," Carol says. "People are angry. The public's finally starting to question whether we defend against threats or create them."
He grunts. "You mean Ultron."
"Not only Ultron."
"Explain to me how unmasking is supposed to counter that, though," Tony says. "You want to come after the Avengers, fine. We're the big guns. We've got a target painted on our back and everyone knows it. How many of us maintain a private identity? Almost none. Registration hurts the little guys—the people who go out and stop robbers or pushers or street gangs."
"Unless unmasking is only the first step."
Good old Danvers, putting voice to all his fears. They have the kind of understanding and mutual sympathy only possible between two fuck-ups who realize that they don't deserve sympathy. Rhodey's always going to be his number one, and Steve is on a whole other level, but Carol Danvers is the kind of friend who intuitively grasps all the ways Tony is weak.
"Regulation," Tony says. "It'll come as an offer of resources at first—better equipment, faster response from support teams, social services, health care."
"The trade-off is Big Brother, looking over our shoulder," Tony says. This is the best, the clearest kind of What If: the What's Coming. He can see the foundation of it, can draft the dozen different blueprints that could lead to its construction. "First they monitor us. Then… then they dictate to us. Then they start calling for internment. Any of us step out of line, we go to the Raft. We question the law, we go to the Raft."
Her voice low and very tight, Carol says, "Senator Boynton's name is attached to the bill."
And that's how it goes. Boynton or some other jackal with an agenda starts pushing, and then it's Peter on a lab table, it's Steve being required to give blood samples, it's Carol having to spill all the details about the Kree that are locked in her head and her genes.
"But Tony—" This, what's coming, is how he and Carol are different, because he knows what she's going to say. "That's a worst-case scenario. The government has tried to regulate mutants before, and you know how well that went."
"The federal government, all those big boys in big suits with their big balls—they can't regulate us for who we are," Tony says. "They try, and they fail. But regulating us for what we choose to do? Chair Force, that's what governments are for."
At this point, to Carol, the argument is abstract. She feels threats in her gut; that's not a slight against Danvers, who is a great tactician, a great leader, great to have on your side in a fight. But she feels threats in her gut. Tony constructs the future. He knows where this is going, knows that the last straw is coming, knows that on that last-straw day the good old U.S. of A. will be going on a witchhunt that calls not for blood but for blame. And—pay attention, Shellhead—who's to say they're wrong? What you've done, what haven't you done in the dark—
He jerks. Shakes his head. Retracts his attention to the confines of his physical body. Ignores the glitch.
"You've been spending too much time around Rhodes," Carol says, scowling.
Tony smirks. "Jealous?" he says, aware that Rhodey will hang on every last
EXECUTE PROGRAM? [Y/N]
TRAGEDY OVER FRANCE
73 DEAD IN AIRSPACE DISASTER
United France Airliner 39 crashed in a field twelve miles outside of Dijon, France at 8:30 Tuesday evening. 70 passengers and three crew, including the pilot and co-pilot, died on impact. Nine survive, six in critical care.
Authorities have yet to publicly announce the cause of the collision, but an unnamed American source says the physical evidence points to deliberate sabotage. The same source claims that a high-ranking member of the Ten Rings terrorist organization was traveling on the flight under an assumed identity.
Ambre Morel, a resident of Dijon and former airline captain, saw the wreck happen from the backyard of her home.
"The plane was losing altitude and speed quickly when it hit the ground," said Morel. "There was a large hole torn in the side of the fuselage, as though someone had peeled it open."
The only official statement comes from the office of President Yann Pujol. The press release expressed condolences for the families of the deceased and confirmed that the Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage, and Logistics Directorate was heading an investigation.
He's at the edge of exhaustion where even sleep won't help. An hour and a half on his cot in the workshop after Carol left had done nothing but make him wired, jittery, unable to focus or to let go enough to relax. Friday knew better than to let him work when he hit a wall like that, though, and she had insulted and coaxed him by turns until he finally fell into the elevator and retreated to the residential floors.
It's after midnight when the elevator regurgitates him into the common living area. There's a low murmur of voices that he takes first for a conversation and then, when he catches the signal with Extremis, recognizes as the TV. Steve is there, on the couch, one bare foot propped up on the coffee table and an open sketch pad on his knee, although he isn't drawing. He has the glazed, directionless stare of a man wholly absorbed in late-night television.
"I can't tell if that's an informercial or pornography, by the way," Tony says.
Cap blinks a couple of times and then looks back over his shoulder at Tony. "I'm not all that sure, either," he says. "You look tired."
"All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy," Tony says. "What's up with the night owl routine? Still on Madripoor time?"
"I oughta wait it out, but…" Steve shrugs; his massive shoulders imbue the gesture with something more, something monumental and titanic. Or maybe that's just Tony, who has reached the stage of self-actualization where he can admit to a fascination but who will never reach the stage of self-actualization where he can admit to that fascination out loud. 'Fascination' is the wrong term, but language is tricky like that, imprecise. "You off to bed?" Steve says.
Tony shrugs a shoulder and comes around to the other side of the couch. "Too tired to sleep," he admits. It's maybe more than he would have given anyone else, a nod to the laundry list of defects he has yet to solve.
Iron Man has always been about atonement. Not only atonement; Tony built the suit out of necessity and rebuilt it out of love, he puts it on because that's who he is and who he wants to be, he improves it because of what he wants to become and he uses it because Iron Man is the best part of himself; but the suit and the name and the idea behind both are about atonement, a reckoning for all his sins, the wrongs he's committed and the wrongs that are yet to come.
He wonders what Steve knows about sin. Steve grew up Irish Catholic, twenty-five thousand days ago.
The singularity of Tony's life is that he can finally make that atonement absolute. The thought isn't one he lets sit on the surface of his consciousness, but it's there and it drives him—that for the sin of being human, Extremis lets him make reparations. Test-pilot for the future. Someday he'll test-pilot them right into a world without sin.
"Sit," Steve says.
Tony sits. He sits exactly this far from Steve: close enough to steal Steve's warmth, but not close enough that any part of Tony is touching any part of Steve. "How was Madripoor?"
Steve sighs, folds his sketchpad, and tosses it on the coffee table. There was a city-scape half-finished on the opened page, the same one-hundred and eighty degree view that Tony can see right now if he glances past the TV. Steve had been on a diplomatic envoy, some favor to SHIELD that Hill called due, and now he's here, drawing, in Tony's living room. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.
"Fine," Steve says. "Didn't amount to much. I was only there to play bodyguard."
"Well." The corner of Steve's mouth quirks; Tony can read the expression just from the tone of Steve's voice, but he glances over anyway. "The assignment might have included some covert intelligence gathering."
"Uh-huh. And how is Madame Hydra?"
"I wouldn't know," Steve says. "But Natasha would."
Tony laughs. The dry rasp of it surprises him. "She's okay, then?"
"Good," Steve says, with none of the hesitance Tony would have anticipated. That's Steve—he manages to be a surprise, even when Tony has access to the most accurate predictive software in the world backed by his own intuitive gift for extrapolation. "Gearing up for a big deep-cover op. She was angry that Hill pulled her away from her preparations to run a milk errand."
Tony stimulates his nervous system in a way that imitates the effects of a jolt of adrenaline, but it doesn't stop his eyes from falling half-shut.
"I stopped in D.C. on the way back," Steve adds.
"Right. That Smithsonian appearance?"
"They were dedicating a new display to Dr. Erskine," Steve says.
"Good for them." Steve wasn't big on public appearances that focused on him, but he'd only ever sung the praises of Erskine, who was by all accounts not only a talented biochemist but a good man, which is more than Tony can claim on his bad days. Biochemistry's never been one of his pet interests.
"The Daily Globe was there."
Tony jerks back. "Explain."
Steve frowns. "I don't like the Globe."
"I know. They shouldn't have been there."
"The publicity director pulled me aside to apologize—"
"I don't care. The Foundation PR team is supposed to vet news sources and then communicate a list of approvals to whoever's hosting one of our appearances. I'll have someone's head on a block if they aren't doing their job. What did they hit you with?"
"Springfield," Steve admits, and Tony winces.
Springfield was… in the grand scheme of a frustratingly disordered universe, it wasn't anything, certainly it wasn't big enough to merit attention from the Avengers, but that hasn't stopped the mass media from pinning the tragedy to his team. Some kids with an agenda had walked into a grocery store in Connecticut and taken the place hostage for six hours. The standoff had ended with three dead, including the one of the shooters.
At the time, the Avengers had been offworld, providing an assist to NASA by installing monitoring equipment on Mars. Most of the equipment had been proprietary technology of Stark Industries. Tony knows how that looks. He knows that it's been a slow news cycle. He knows that people who are caught up in grief and fear want a convenient target to blame. He knows that part of the reason the story's still getting attention is because it happened so close to the city the Avengers call home. None of that stops him from wanting to ruin the reporter who tried to suggest that any of the blame is Steve's to shoulder.
They all have their sore spots; Tony's got half a dozen of them right under his surface, but he's practiced at playing the game, and he's aware that he deserves whatever the papers want to dish out. Steve, though—it's hard to drag Captain America through the mud, but it can be done, even if it's usually inadvertent rather than deliberately malicious. The media's two favorite tactics are treating Steve like a museum exhibit rather than a soldier who really lived through the Battle of the Bulge and treating Steve like an unfailing beacon of morality and patriotism rather than a human being. Steve is a good man. He's not infallible.
Tony says none of that. What Tony says is, "Steve. I'm sorry."
"It's fine. Not your fault. I've had worse."
Tony slumps back into his nice groove in the couch and discreetly activates certain subroutines in the secure computer network most closely slaved to his brain. He'll have a name by morning.
"It's not your fault either, Cap. Don't beat yourself up about it."
Steve turns his head, looks at Tony, raises an eyebrow. Cap's eyelashes are a very fine wheat blond that makes them almost invisible in certain lighting. What Tony feels in that moment is strong enough to choke him.
"I'm not sure what you're implying with that eyebrow," Tony says.
"You know exactly what I'm implying, Shellhead." Steve lifts his hand and pretends to knock his knuckles against Tony's forehead. "No echo. You've still got something in there."
"Ha ha," says Tony, and then he bats Steve's hand away. He has trouble with this sometimes, when he's not ready for it, when his defenses are low: Steve's regard undoes him. To distract both of them, he flips the TV over to CNBC. He can pull a live feed of the stock index, but watching the tickers scroll across the screen is ritual. Almost nothing bores Steve more quickly than being forced to think about business finance. Steve has the head for it, understands why it's important, can even fathom a measure of enthusiasm if it's required for something Avengers-related, but on the whole he is deeply and aggressively disinterested in market equilibrium and margin buying.
In another subversion of expectations, Steve doesn't huff, doesn't glance at the TV, doesn't look skyward for the strength to withstand Stark business rituals. He keeps looking at Tony. Tony refrains from squirming, even if there's something terrible about being looked at by Steve, something he can only just barely stand.
"You're tired," Steve says. "Been getting enough rest?"
"Inventing jag. I'll be fine in the morning," Tony says, because it's better than saying that he's well on his way to never needing sleep again. Steve would worry. Tony has yet to quantify why Steve would worry, but the evidence is persistent; Steve tends to disapprove of situations that lead to Tony modifying himself, although amending a little code would probably be more favorable than surgery. They each give of themselves according to ability, and this is what Tony is able to do: he can make himself better to make them all better, he can plan for a hundred thousand scenarios, he can watch Cap's back, he can future-proof the Avengers. Eventually, Tony thinks of everything.
In the current microcosm, though, he's still a work-in-progress—"art is never finished, only abandoned" is a motto Tony lives by, and if his art is a weapon, at least he's in good company. He'll never make anything else as gorgeous as the Iron Man, and he'll do what he has to do to make sure the flesh and blood inside the suit are able to keep pace. In the meantime, though, he's still a work-in-progress. He still needs to sleep. He slips off while he's thinking of things to tell Steve, between one breath and the next, and for the first time in days, his dreams are safe and untroubled. It might be luck that all's right with the world. Tony prefers to think that it's good engineering.
Here's one dream: "Go to sleep, Tony," Steve says. "I'll be here when you wake up."
Look: this is classified information, nothing that Tony would ever admit, nothing he would so much as hint at. He might joke about it, but never in a way that would make you suspect he was joking to cover up sincerity. It's so tightly bound inside of him that he wouldn't spill it even when drunk.
That's how he operates. It isn't learned, he wasn't taught how to scrub the insides of his skin raw and then pack the bleeding cavity so tightly no one would suspect that he's empty; it's innate. He was born with a pit inside of him. Sometimes the pit makes him hungry. Sometimes it just makes him hollow. Small wonder that he tried to replace all the missing pieces with clockwork replicas.
Nobody suspects. He doesn't hint around it. You'd have to be an expert on the subject of Tony Stark—you'd have to have made a study of him, you'd have to have watched him, you'd have to have loved him absolutely to understand the subtle, intricate pattern of behavior that sketched the shape of all the things he hid. You would have to love him deeply, even when loving him hurt; and like all worthwhile endeavors, loving Tony would hurt very much. You would have to love him willfully and faithfully; and maybe, if you loved him long enough, if you made a study of it, you would begin to understand that nobody hated Tony Stark more than Tony Stark. It would be a long, thankless task, loving him like that; you'd have to love him broken heart and all.
Excerpt from The Last Polymath: Reflections on Dr. Ho Yinsen by Marjorie Zircher, first published in NOW magazine.
Stark, uncharacteristically reticent about his time as a civilian prisoner-of-war, was nonetheless effusive in his praise for Dr. Yinsen in the years following his escape from the terrorist camp where he and Yinsen were held. The two men spent three months in captivity together and shared meals, a workshop, and even living quarters. War correspondent Aisha Summers toured the camp less than a year after Stark's escape.
"They were holed up in a cave, really," she says. "The mountains there are riddled with them, and the organization that held Stark had enlarged the natural structure to make a fortified base. Stark and Yinsen were held near the back of the base behind a steel door."
And behind that door?
"Not much was left. The base was abandoned by the time Stark was back on U.S. soil, and shortly after that someone cleared out everything interesting—weapons, schematics, that kind of thing." I ask her if she believes Ten Rings was hiding their tracks. "No. It's more likely that Stark was cleaning up after himself." Tony Stark is famously possessive of his proprietary technology.
That Dr. Yinsen was able to survive for three months in such mean conditions is a testament not only to his strength of character but also to his resourcefulness. He was carrying out humanitarian work in a small village when it came under attack from Ten Rings; a local informant identified him to the leaders of the terrorist cell, and he was taken captive to serve his jailers in whatever way they deemed necessary. Shortly thereafter, Stark was captured from the convoy carrying him from a U.S. Army forward operating base to the testing ground for one of his more recent weapons contracts. Details about what happened next are hard to come by; most of the reports on Stark's captivity remain top-secret.
"Yinsen saved my life half a dozen times," Stark says. "That isn't exaggeration. He was one of the most brilliant men I've ever met, and coming from me, that's saying something. Medicine, biomechanical engineering, physics—he was straight out of the Renaissance. He was a damn good chess player, too. Like to start with black." Stark chuckles and flashes the warm but practiced smile of a businessman. "I used to think he wanted the handicap."
The specifics of Dr. Yinsen's death are likewise shrouded in secrecy. "No comment," Stark says when I ask about the rumor that Yinsen sacrificed himself to save his companion. Our interview ends shortly after; Stark claims he has another meeting. One of his personal assistants hurries him out the door. Another leaves me with a gift basket branded with the SI logo. I wonder what Yinsen, notedly outspoken against the greed of capitalism, would have thought of Stark's persistent approach to marketing.
Before Stark leaves, I manage to fit in one last question. For years, rumors persisted that Stark reached out to Dr. Yinsen's wife and children to offer monetary support and was rebuffed. Instead, he funds a dossier of scholarships in Dr. Yinsen's name to sponsor underprivileged students.
I ask Stark about his efforts to reach out to Yinsen's family. He smiles again. "They don't want to talk to me," he says. "I can't say I blame them."
Tony's heart has been perfect for years. No more bum ticker throbbing away in a jagged tattoo; his heartbeat now is strong, steady, an even drumbeat stretching from the present into the future. Sometimes at night he presses his palm over his ear and listens to the regimented tempo of it. Maybe he isn't as broken as he thought. Maybe he can function not as a great man but as a good man, someone whose selfishness is balanced by moments of grace. Maybe the harm he does will be outweighed by his kindnesses.
Here's one of them: Rhodey swings by at the end of a long day and brings his niece, Lila, with him. Tony has a vested interest in Lila.
"Can I hire her yet?" Tony asks. They're trailing Lila through the Stark Industries exhibition hall. This is where he brings potential partners when he wines and dines them. Nice place, but a little flashy, what with all the history of his father's company packed into one grand viewing gallery. Lila's eating it up. Hell, so did Tony at her age.
"No," Rhodey says. "She's a baby."
"Do you know how many patents I had by the age of twelve? Neither do I, but it was a lot. C'mon, let me give her that chance."
"She's got enough on her hands with high school," says Rhodey. "She doesn't need you recruiting her to your R&D department for at least another decade. Give her a chance to be a kid, Tone."
How can he argue with that? He can't. Lila isn't really one of his kindnesses. He doesn't care about her only out of altruism, because she's Rhodey's niece, or out of mutual interest, because he sees himself in her. He cares about her because he can construct a What If with her as the foundation, a What If that puts the future of his company in her hands.
He builds a What If with Lila at the center. In this What If, Tony recognizes the hereditary defects he'd rather not pass to a child (alcoholism, depression, megalomania, an exciting but ultimately dangerous tendency to install jets in places they shouldn't be), he refuses to turn to gene engineering to eradicate those defects from progeny, he admits that the last thing he wants is to emulate his own example of fatherhood. He shuts down production on the Stark line. Faulty model, out with the rest of the trash.
He invests in Lila Rhodes, mathematics prodigy and engineering wunderkind. She graduates from MIT with degrees in—doesn't matter. EE, mechanical, comp-sci, whatever she thinks will serve her. She's like a sponge, she can always pick up a couple of extra doctorates later on if that buoys her ship. By twenty, she's a VP at Stark Industries, the darling of Research & Development, Pepper's pupil, and Tony's protégé. And here's the great thing about Lila—she's already as fascinated with the armor as her uncle. Tony builds her a suit, and then he watches her build her own suit. By twenty-five she's head of the company, an active-duty Avenger, and a boardmember of the Maria Stark Foundation. They call her Shellshock.
Tony hangs around to pester her. He and Steve supervise the next generation of Avengers. Howard Stark rolls over in his grave and nobody cares. It's a good What If. It's one of his favorites. All the best people are there.
Rhodey's right. It isn't fair to put that on her. She's a kid. He'll give her a couple of new supercomputers instead—she always gets a kick out of that, likes seeing if she can reverse-engineer the hardware.
"Sure thing," he says. "You'll let me pay for her college, though, right? Give me that at least."
"We'll talk about it," Rhodey says.
"Square deal. Hey! Shortstack! Where to next?"
Lila trots over from the display on programmable matter. "What're my options?"
"Options? Does she get options?" He squints at Rhodey. "Is she old enough to have options?"
"Man, she's not even old enough to drive," says Rhodey. "I'm not sure we should give her options."
"I'm on vacation, that's worth at least four birthdays," Lila argues.
"Unassailable logic," Tony says. "I was thinking we could go down to my garage, but if you'd rather meet the Avengers..."
There's about half a second of hesitation on her face before she answers, "Garage."
"Good call," Tony says. They return to the elevator, Lila running ahead, Tony and Rhodey in lockstep behind. "How long's she staying?"
"Two weeks," Rhodey says. "She and Dad came up from Georgia. Dad said he was tired of me spending all my leave bumming around his house."
"Tell me about it. Friday, take us to the sub-basement."
He winks at Lila. "Thou seekest Merlin."
"Password accepted." The elevator glides into action, so smooth that if you weren't anticipating it you wouldn't know you were moving at all, but Tony's attuned to forward motion.
"Why doesn't SI sell artificial general intelligences?" Lila wants to know. That's another thing he likes about her—not just that she never cuts him a break, which is a quality shared by all his favorite people, but that there's no end to her questions.
"Because they're sentient," Tony says. "Because it's hard to program limits into AGI so they won't abuse or be abused by the system. Because we're one immoral competitor away from Ultron."
"If someone manages to create a superintelligence?"
"By forcing edits on the AI's ethical core, sure. Or by convincing it to make its own edits."
She chews on that as they drop below the ground levels. "Huh. What about Friday? She like working for you?"
Friday's hologram promptly flickers into existence in the center of the elevator. Today she's wearing Data from Star Trek. "Aiding Mr. Stark is my primary directive," she responds. "My… 'day job.' I have other interests."
Lila brightens. She's a thing to behold, making connections at speeds that must leave her classmates in the dust; Tony wonders if she's noticed how lonely it is at the front of the pack. "Yeah? What kind of interests?"
"My current pursuits include playing the stock market and finding rare recordings of early jazz musicians. I am looking into global domination as a side-project."
"Ha ha," Rhodey says dryly. He, like Tony, is used to Friday's sense of humor; she's a little more pert than some of his other AIs, and a little sharper for it. Tony, improved beyond human limits, interfaces directly with his suit, without the lag time of translating reflex into body movement into armor response. He thinks; the armor moves; it's a superior solution. Rhodey still requires a software intermediary. For the past few years, Friday has served that purpose.
Tony yawns. It isn't planned.
"Why does SI make consumer products?" Lila wants to know. "It is… or was... a defense contractor, and now you guys are all about talking up clean energy."
"An engineer and an entrepreneur, huh? Dangerous combination." If he times this right, the effect on someone who thinks like Lila thinks is going to be spectacular.
"Better watch out, or she might sell your company secrets to Fortune 500—"
"Uncle Jim!" Lila protests.
"If I can't trust a Rhodes, who can I trust?" Tony levels a finger at Rhodey. "Don't answer that." The elevator drops below the employee-access basements and deep into the secure levels of sub-basements that only a handful of people can access without Tony's express permission. Rhodey's one of those people and always has been, despite their occasional differences in opinion.
"Consumer products," Lila says.
"Right. So you're correct in extrapolating that I want clean energy to be one of our major areas of focus as we move into the next decade, but that's only part of what I'd like to be a complete overhaul. We're a tech company right now. That's what people think when they see the SI logo: technological applications, whether it's a laptop for personal use or a software package for the private sector or a set of body armor for the military." Tony pauses. "What I'd like us to become is not a tech company but an idea company. Engineer the future."
"Sounds an awful lot like you want to stop taking military contracts completely," Rhodey says, reliably non-judgmental. Rhodey's one of his favorite people, not only because he refuses to catch Tony a break but also because he's supportive of Tony doing what he thinks is right, even if Rhodey himself has reservations. He's a good guy. A great guy. One of the best guys Tony knows.
"That's the five-year plan," Tony says. "We're going the distance, haven't you heard? And what sets SI apart from competitors is innovation."
"I thought what sets SI apart is a living wage and decent employee insurance," Rhodey inserts.
"So what you're saying—" Lila waits to make sure he's done bickering with Rhodey, as if he could ever be done bickering with Rhodey. "You're saying that you make consumer electronics to pay for your research guys to develop weird stuff."
Tony shoves his hands in his pockets and displays his best, his smarmiest, his cockiest grin, the grin he reserves purely for investors or moments of great personal triumph, the grin that declares he'd eat shit and enjoy it. "That," he says, "and I have to fund my hobbies."
Behind his back, the elevator doors roll open to reveal one of the most advanced, certainly one of the most fun, and undoubtedly one of the most impressive personal workshops in the world. The showcase, of course, is the half-circle of cases around the perimeter of the shop housing every intact and retired iteration of the Iron Man. He's got a couple of his favorites pulled out for display; on the landing just outside of the elevator is the old Model 16, posed with one palm facing out in his signature stance.
Little Lila Rhodes looks like her eyes are going to swallow the rest of her face. The press likes to paint Tony as a showman, but what he really enjoys more than performing for a crowd is performing for that one person in the audience who not only appreciates but understands. Lila understands. Rhodey understands. Even Steve, for all that his mechanical ability is limited to basic motorcycle maintenance, understands. There's passion in what Tony builds, a fine symphony of design aesthetic and functional beauty, attention to detail and creativity and sheer dash. The press also likes to joke that the armor is Tony Stark's religion; if the armor is his religion, then his workshop is his cathedral.
"This is…" Lila starts to say.
"Good?" Tony prompts.
"Better," says Lila.
"Go ahead," he says. "Take a look around."
"And don't touch anything you don't recognize," Rhodey adds. "Wait, scratch that—"
"She's probably going to recognize a lot," Tony says.
"Don't touch anything at all!" Rhodey calls after her.
She skitters back and forth for a while, like she can't decide what to look at first, but ultimately she's drawn to the armor. The Model 7 catches her eye first; Tony can't blame her. It's less flashy than some of his other suits, but it's also undeniably badass.
"This is a stealth armor?" she asks.
Tony skirts the edge of one of his fabricating units and comes up behind her. "My first attempt," he says. "It's pretty much defenseless—almost no weaponry. That was a problem."
"How'd you fix it?"
"I found workarounds for the massive energy consumption, for one thing." Tony reaches up and lays his palm flat against the glass case. "All of the newer suits have stealth features. What's the point of an outfit you can only wear one place? Emissions-absorbent coating, dampening, visible-spectrum cloaking—"
Lila perks up. "You can do that? With cameras, right? I read about it in Popular Mechanics—"
"Please. Optical camouflage is so five years ago. Unfortunately, the latest processes are still classified under SHIELD protocols, but trust me when I say that what I can do now is very, very impressive."
"Classified… that means it's alien?"
Tony winks. "I can neither confirm nor deny."
Her face is both skeptical and transcendent. It's a good combination. He wishes he'd hung on to a little more of the latter and a little less of the former.
Lila darts off to study the blueprints laid across one of his drafting tables; he usually works with CAD now, or his own version of it, the sophisticated holographic modelling that Pepper keeps telling him would make millions on the open market, but the blueprints are for a community center being funded by the Maria Stark Foundation, and they aren't Tony's. The design had come from the architecture firm donating their time to the project. Tony could draft a high-rise if he had to, but occasionally people like to force him to delegate.
"You know she's not gonna stop talking about this for the next month," Rhodey says. "If you needed someone to hero-worship you, though, couldn't you have hijacked a different guy's niece?"
"Aw, Rhodey, you know I get all the hero-worship I need from you."
"Yeah, yeah." Rhodey shoves against him. Tony shoves back. It's all very comfortable, maybe more comfortable than he deserves, but his friendship with Rhodey has always been characterized by a wildly inappropriate lack of boundaries.
He swallows another yawn.
"You look tired, man," Rhodey says.
"I'm fine," Tony says.
"Are you sure? I can take the kid and go, if you want a nap—"
"I'm fine," Tony repeats, although the idea of a nap on the cot he keeps in a corner isn't as immediately
> EXECUTE PROGRAM? [Y/N]
ARMS DEALER ASSASSINATED
ONE OF FBI'S MOST WANTED FOUND DEAD
Yasin Renada, a multinational arms dealer and number eight on the FBI's most wanted list, was discovered dead in a private Swiss chalet on Wednesday afternoon. Swiss authorities have confirmed that Renada was murdered. According to the autopsy report, the cause of death was a friction burn consistent with a high-energy weapon.
Said lead detective Selina Galli: "This kind of exotic weaponry is unusual, but it makes identifying the suspect much easier. Renada collected a number of enemies thanks to his line of work… We're investigating every possibility."
Renada had been linked to multiple terrorist groups through Europe and the Middle East. The FBI believes his extensive organization is responsible for redistributing arms stolen from the United States military to groups including Advanced Idea Mechanics and the Sons of the Serpent.
He's late to the meeting. He knows because Carol tells him. Cause and effect in a nice little chain—why can't everything be so efficient?
"We almost started without you," she says. There's an empty chair between her and Steve, who sits at the foot of the table. Jan's at the head. Clint, Monica, Jessica, Luke, and Adam take up the rest of the seats. Natasha and Peter are absent.
This is a new iteration of the team. After… what happened last fall, letting the team fall apart had been more an inevitability than a choice. Steve had been the one to come to him, to tell him that the world needed the Avengers, and Tony had agreed, because the secret is that Tony will always need the Avengers just as much as the world, has always needed the Avengers more than the Avengers need him. Any effort he makes to keep his distance is marked to fail before it starts.
When he slides into his chair, Steve knocks his foot against Tony's, and something liquid and ashamed slides down Tony's spine.
"Ready to start?" Steve says. "Good. We don't have a lot to cover today—"
"That's a first." Clint. Of course.
They try to have meetings like this at least twice a week; most of the active-duty roster live in Avengers Tower, but tripping over each other in the laundry room doesn't necessarily equate to everyone having the most up-to-date information. The burden of leadership falls primarily to Steve and Tony, who both shoulder the day-to-day operations, although Tony does a little more with communications and funding and Steve comes down harder on field work. Jan pitches in with the organizational side every now and then, but one of her conditions for returning had been not having to chair the team "no matter how much either of you beg."
"Action item," Tony suggests. "Barton, keep your phone on."
Clint's expression turns a little mulish. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone, and tosses it across the table to Tony. It's cracked. It's also dripping wet.
"...Huh," Tony says. He picks it up. It's just an object; about three ounces, four-point-two inch display, the best resolution and hardware on the market for the price. Killer battery life. That's why people buy StarkPhones—the design is sick, sleek, sexy, durable all at once, but what people are really paying for is the battery life. Tony's all about building a better battery.
He spends the rest of the meeting redesigning the phone in his head. See, that's the thing: what Tony builds is not, generally speaking, for consumer use. It's too much, too big or too small, too flashy or too utilitarian, too expensive or too complicated. Over the years, he and Pepper have worked out a system. Tony invents, and Pepper sweeps in behind him, picks over his workshop, picks out what's new, what's marketable, and what's going to be relegated to the toy pile. Tony understands this system; he goes in the toy pile himself, being too much, too flashy, too utilitarian, too expensive, and too complicated for general consumption.
It's a good system. Pepper understands, and when she doesn't understand, she calls in one of the hundred brilliant innovators Stark Industries retains on payroll to help her understand. Resource management, that's Pepper's specialty. For all his sins and despite all his excesses, Tony is little more than one more resource. He's the best resource. Sometimes, he's the only resource.
He's out of the weapons game and now he designs phones. There's value there beyond the monetary. Miniaturization, that's fun, pressing the limits of processing power, making something good on a budget—Tony likes that. He misses the other thing, though, the destructive thing, and that's something he'll never share, although anyone who watches him closely enough would probably suspect. When you're gifted like Tony Stark—when you're brilliant and limitless and ruined inside—there's a value in being challenged, in being stretched. Building a better phone doesn't cut it.
He's out of the weapons game but he's not out of weapons. He's surrounded by a dozen of them, perfect soldiers and women with stars for hearts. He lives in a weapon; he makes his home there, in the armor, and when he couldn't carry it close enough he learned to carry it inside himself.
Anyway. Clint's good at breaking stuff. This is the third phone in two years. Tony can do better.
He jolts. "Cap?" The room is empty. Everyone else must have vamoosed.
"Tony…" Steve says. He's on his feet, leaning against the edge of the table so he faces Tony. "We need to talk."
"Good wording," Tony shoots off. "That wording always leads somewhere good. What is it? Graviton's parole? Registration bill? Foundation gala?" They'd covered all of those in the meeting, he knows, he was there, Extremis was there, making up for Tony's wandering attention, making him better.
"You," Steve says.
"Wonderful, you know that's my favorite topic. Hit me, Cap." He'd beg for it, if Steve asked him to beg.
"You were late today—"
"Having a nap." Tony waves a hand in a polished crescendo of nimiety. "I'm thinking of making afternoon naps a company policy."
"You were late last week, too. After we got the distress call from the Port Authority." Steve's eyes narrow, hone in on Tony. It's too much.
"Your reaction times are down," Steve continues, relentless like only Captain America can be. "You're distracted. Tired. If something is wrong—"
Nothing is wrong except for all the things that are always wrong. Tony calls those operational conditions; it's like flying under visual flight rules. You can't do anything about the weather, but you can make better instruments. "Nope," he says. "Five-by-five, Cap. Just busy with work." Steve can't complain about that, can he? He's a workaholic. Too. Also.
Steve looks at him hard, right in the face; it's too much, but Tony doesn't flinch. There's something behind the hot blue of Cap's eyes, but it's inscrutable and buried, nothing Tony can reach without revealing too much of himself. He's good at this game, which is its own kind of arms race.
"Fix it," Steve says. "Or I'm benching you."
Tony shoves back from the table, sends his chair wheeling across from the room until he's far, far, far away enough to shoot to his feet without standing chest-to-chest with Steve. He runs his hands through his hair, over his beard, and ends up with them in his pockets. High pockets, he'd used to call Hank that.
"Dad tried to cut me off once, you know," he says. "Not many people know that, but he got tired of… well. Of all the usual things." Tony smiles. It's a confiding sort of smile. "I was… god, who knows, already in college, but this was before Howard and Mom died. You know what I did?"
Steve looks wary, but Tony doesn't wait for him to answer. "I fabricated an identity, contacted the Miami branch, and started selling patents to Stark Industries. Small stuff at first. Better circuitry for coffeemakers, that kind of thing. Dad didn't figure it out until I sold him the design for an ECCM subsystem to go in his latest surface-to-air missile. He was angry, but in retrospect, I think he was also impressed at how brazen I was."
Sometimes he talks, sometimes he thinks, just to avoid the growing terrible suspicions that take root in his head. He gets a thought in his mind and he just—can't—let—go—
New tack. Keep up, Cap. "Do you ever think about what would happen?" Tony says. "If one of us turned rogue, got brainwashed… we've built quite the cabal."
"The Avengers are a response team. A community," Steve corrects.
"An engine," Tony counters. "For war."
Here's where it all starts to fall apart.
"What are you so afraid of?" Steve says. That's the rub with Steve—he always sees too much of Tony, and never quite enough. It's Tony's fault, but there's no way to translate the hundred-thousand intricate processes in his head to speech.
"Me?" Tony says. "I'm not afraid. When you can futureproof the world, Cap, there's not much to fear." He winks. Like he did earlier at Lila. "I'm overclocking myself. That's all."
Steve, uncharacteristically, hesitates. Maybe there's too much going on inside his head for him to express, too.
And then he says again, "Fix it, Tony."
"You got it, Cap," says Tony.
ITEM. Eleanor Bishop, wife of publishing mogul Derek Bishop, was killed in a skiing accident last month. How soon will her hubby be on the market? We're betting on 'soon'—Bishop was spotted in a romantic restaurant with a new squeeze two days ago. That's some cold comfort!
ITEM. Trouble in the ranks? The matriarch of America's first family of superheroes, New York's very own Susan Storm, is (apparently!) spending some time abroad. "She's in Atlantis," our inside source reports. Catching up with an old friend or visiting a new lover? "No comment!"
ITEM. Maya Hansen, sighted more than once on the arm of industrialist playboy and reader-favorite Tony Stark, has been denied an appeal for parole. That's right, ladies—Tony's old flame is now a jailbird! We're betting that arm of his won't stay empty for long.
ITEM. Alison Blaire's upcoming album has had its release pushed back to December. Cash grab, or personal problems? Rumor says Blaire is in the middle of an extended stay at a rehab facility. No telling whether that album will be out in time to ring in the new year!
He sits in front of his liquor cabinet, and he builds a What If.
The cabinet's empty—he's not a complete idiot, whatever other parties like to imply. He's not completely useless. He can do this: he can empty out the cabinet, throw all the bottles away, leave it hollow and spotless. He thought about putting something else in there, something sentimental or harsh enough to serve as a reminder. Old helmets, maybe. His mom's Arthuriana journals. Pictures. In the end, he left it as it was, without worth, filled with nothing, all hollow on the inside.
He sits in front of his liquor cabinet, and he builds a What If.
The cabinet's empty, but it wouldn't be hard to find libations if he wanted to find libations. The tower is full of temptation; there's whiskey, wine, vodka, he knows a couple of his VPs keep their offices stocked with beer and cocktail mixers, he could find, he could manufacture, he could buy or steal—
He goes with scotch, neat, in a rocks glass although he neglects to add the ice. Why water down good scotch? Dad drank it straight. Tony drinks it straight. Mom was always more into bourbon or gin. He opens the bottle of scotch and pours it into a crystal rocks glass; the crystal is clear, sharp, beautiful, the scotch is gold, sharp, smooth. It's the smell that gets to him. Talisker 18, from the Isle of Skye—he had his first glass of it on his fifteenth birthday, and the smell takes him smack back to that age, when he never slept and ran on fumes and ideas for bettering the world. The truth is that it doesn't matter that he's drinking decent scotch. He'd drink boxed wine. He'd drink Everclear. He wouldn't water it down. Stark men don't.
In the What If, Tony opens the liquor cabinet. He takes out the bottle. He pours. He lifts the glass. He drinks. It goes down soft and then with bite. He downs it neat and pours another glass, and his blood lights up with gold and his thoughts take on a warm glow. It's that contradiction he likes best—burning out all the messy organic material and the cold remoteness of his reasoning at the same time. If you take that away, what's left? Maybe nothing. Maybe that's the most aesthetically pleasing state of existence: a warm, golden void.
"Boss?" Friday says.
"Yeah, Friday?" says Tony.
"Why are you staring at the cabinet?"
It's a good question. She's asking a good question. Friday likes to stick her nose into things; Tony encourages it as much as he can, because he still thinks curiosity is one of the better personality traits out there even if on a local level it usually ends up being one of his great moral failings. Friday's curiosity, though, that's good—he didn't build that into her, or at least not to the degree of intensity she displays. Someday that curiosity might conclude with her nose getting bitten off, but if there's a better teacher than pain, Tony has yet to invent it.
How do you explain addiction to a synthetic being? Maybe she can understand the psychological dependency, but there's no way for her to comprehend the way addiction gnaws at you and swallows you. Listen: Tony's an expert at obsessive thinking. He's a natural. He gets an idea in his head and it's like a worm, burrowing into his brain, eating the gray matter until it grows fat and entire, but addiction, addiction took a natural talent and turned it into a calling, until even when he had a drink in his hand he was worrying about the next drink. That's addiction.
And even the psychological dependency might be beyond her. On a basic level, Friday's needs are simple. She needs a purpose, she needs engagement and stimulation, and she needs better hardware. Tony has the last point covered and does his best to keep a handle on the first two; even he isn't quite so heartless as to birth a new sentience and then leave to rot on its own. That's what makes it beyond her. She doesn't understand black and white, all or nothing, she doesn't understand that the only way to cope with needing to control everything is embracing the nihilism of being out-of-control, she doesn't understand that you have to fill up the constant cavity in your chest with something. What Friday doesn't understand is the sheer astonishing juxtaposition of being a worthless piece of crap while sober and knowing with complete assurance that the world revolves around you when intoxicated. She doesn't understand that.
"I can't tell if you're punishing or rewarding yourself, boss."
Or maybe she does.
"Anyone ever tell you that you're too clever for your own good?"
"Constantly," she says. "It's one of the curses of bein' me."
Tony smiles. "I'll make a mental note to flatter you less, if you'd prefer."
She sighs dramatically. He hadn't built that into her, either. "I suppose I can tolerate it from you," she says. "What's on your mind?"
Because she's his, he can be honest with her; she'd take his secrets to the grave. "The registration bill," he says. "Pensions. Putting together a landmine disposal organization. Exploiting van der Waals' forces. What the hell Dario Agger is doing to Roxxon. Steve. Improving my operating efficiency. The Negative Zone. How I get a little weak in the knees every time I remember I'm on a team with Doctor Adam Brashear."
He says, "Sleep."
He says, more quietly, "Coding flaws."
He says, quieter still, "Whatever's making me lose time."
A pause, and then Friday says, "That's quite a list, boss. Shall we get started?"
What If is a game he plays with himself. It's art and it's science; it's his art, the consequence of imagination and intuition and a gift for creating mathematical models that only a computer can imitate. It's a futurist's game. He plays it with the best.
He can build a hundred, now a thousand, in a day, a What If for every branching decision he encounters, a What If for every idle thought, a What If for every desperate dream. Most of them are pointless, helpful only as thought exercises. Some of them are not. He played What If, and funded the Avengers; he played What If, and built the second through thirty-seventh iterations of the Iron Man.
There's another game he plays, and that game is called What Is. He plays it because he can't avoid playing it; it's a hard game, grounded in the past and the present. It's reactionary and required, useful but not loved. When Tony plays What If, the results are clean; when Tony plays What Is, the results are not.
He plays What If like he breathes, like he'll die if he doesn't. He falls asleep building a What If. He wakes building a What Is. It's causality. It's just pain.
> EXECUTE PROGRAM? [Y/N]
JACKSON NORRISS DEAD
Critically acclaimed documentary maker Jackson Norriss was found dead in his cabin retreat early Monday morning.
Norriss, 37, started his career as a foreign correspondent in China for Fact Channel News before redefining himself as a writer and director of documentaries. He won the 2014 Ellis Visionaries Award for his film Scare Tactics: Global Views on Western Oppression.
Norriss's cause of death remains unknown, although officials have ruled out natural causes. Norriss is survived by his wife, Natalie Liu, and his cousin and financial backer, Sasha Hammer.
Pepper overrides the lock-out on the workshop after three days. With the little attention he can spare, Tony's faintly surprised; the last time he'd locked himself in the workshop, he'd been down here for six weeks working on the armor. Pepper rarely interrupts him when he's chasing an idea. Certain detractors like to paint Tony as a man-child who needs an entire team of paid handlers to keep him on the straight and narrow, but the truth is that Tony was starting college when most people were still wrapping their heads around algebra and running a multinational conglomerate before most people graduated college. When he locks himself in the workshop, SI almost always has a subsequent and corresponding surge in profit. Pepper knows that.
The original control suite for the Iron Man was almost entirely mechanical; Tony moved, and the armor responded. There were triggers based on all kinds of miniscule actions, an HUD that responded to eye movement, verbal sequences that would fire the jet boots, electronic nerve commands that would prompt the palm repulsors. Later, as his designs grew more sophisticated, he built in a cybernetic sensor array assisted by a limited artificial intelligence: the armor started to respond not to I move but I think. It wasn't perfect. There was still a lag caused by the translation of thought to physical action by the cybernetic array—less of a lag than the translation of thought to body to armor, but still not the perfect, immediate unity of prediction to armor. And there were, of course, human reflexes to consider—
He improved the cybernetic link, enhanced the limited onboard AI to a true, full sentience, but when desperation and opportunity had brought him to Extremis, he had discarded the thirty-party interface entirely. Extremis wasn't nanites in his blood, it wasn't a cybernetic relay that translated between his brain and machinery; Extremis was an enhancile that hacked his body's repair center to manually restructure his body and brain. He could think faster, move faster, send and receive wireless signals, rewrite his own software when the old code wouldn't do.
In the process of improving those original cybernetic arrays, though, he'd learned a lot about telepathy and cyberpathy. In the process he had designed and integrated into not only the armor but into his phones and watches and cars and homes a series of failsafes to guard against intrusions. Mind control. Brainwashing.
If they'd failed—
No. There were redundancies. But if they'd failed—
The armor, Tony, they had other preventative measures built into them beyond what guarded against psychic attack, too. Chemical or viral attacks would have been picked up by the armor's sensors. Anything biochemical or biomechanical was almost out of the question. Magic wasn't. Tony hated magic, but it wasn't out of the question. And if the armor was hacked, there was still a man inside the tin can who would remember—
"Tony," Pepper says. She has Happy with her. Great. He can't remember the last time they double-teamed him. It's never as fun as he's expecting. At one point he thought it was great that his personal-assistant-chauffer-bodyguard married his executive-assistant-life-coach, but it turns out that marriage has only made them better at waylaying him.
Tony sets aside his tools and stretches in place on his stool. His back pops. It's a release. It's nice. "And what did I do to deserve this pleasure?" he says.
Happy looks at Pepper. Pepper puts a hand on her hip and opens her mouth.
"SHIELD's tryin' to requisition SI records," Happy says.
Pepper smacks her husband on the shoulder. "Not like that!" she snaps.
"I went twelve rounds with guys that didn't hit as hard as you," says Happy. "How was I supposed to say it? There's no way you can tell him that they want our schematics that he isn't gonna be pissed about." They're trying to soften the blow, Tony realizes, but Happy's right: after all he's done to keep Stark technology out of the wrong hands, SHIELD still thinks they have a right to take what they don't deserve.
"Block it," he says immediately. "Bring the legal team to bear."
"I have," Pepper says, "but Tony, I think Hill is going to take what she wants with or without our permission."
"What do they want?" He's already looking for an access point into the helicarrier's computer node.
"They won't tell me all of it, but I know they're after the blueprints for the repulsor tech," Pepper says.
"And they want to talk to you," Happy adds. "Wouldn't leave Pep alone until she agreed to go looking for you."
Hill's no fool. Tony respects that about her. It doesn't alleviate the frustration of discovering that SHIELD's internal memo on the requisition order reads 'REPORTS BY HARD COPY ONLY.'
"Stall them," Tony says. "Tell them I'm in Malibu. Tell them I'm skiing in the Alps. Tell them whatever you need to tell them to get them out of the Tower, and then put every lawyer we have on this. I want the helicarrier wallpapered with injunctions. Get Jack Kooning on the phone and have him apply as much pressure as necessary on Hill. I don't care if he has to fabricate a war that desperately requires SHIELD intervention—"
He stops. Reviews. Feels the hot curdle of shame. In the twelve steps, you're supposed to ask a higher power to remove 'defects of character.' Tony fails that step in every waking moment.
"I don't mean that," he says. "But get Kooning to get Hill off our backs. I need time."
"Stall, lawyers, Kooning," Pepper says. "Deflect and absorb. How far do you want to take this?"
"As far as necessary without starting a war," Tony says. "Maybe I'll even explain why someday, how's that?"
Pepper looks like she knows better.
"I play golf with the president. Hill knows what she's getting into," Tony adds.
"Is this something I'm going to regret agreeing to?"
"No," Tony says. "Maybe. Pepper, I need time."
"Fine," she says. "All right. If you leave, you let me know."
"I can't promise that, Potts. No, look—I'm serious." He looks up at her, at the famous Pepper Potts, who even in four-inch heels barely comes up to his chin, who wears a pantsuit the way Tony wears the Iron Man. Once upon a time, he thought he could fall in love with her. He thought they could balance each other, that they'd be good together. He was wrong. It's not a regret now; he has Pepper in his life, he realizes it was fallacious to make one person into his everything, it's a mistake he's made more than once but at least this time he's making it with clear eyes.
He looks up at Pepper. Pepper is looking at Happy.
"All right, Mr. Stark," she says, which means she doesn't agree with him but that she is, for the moment, willing to go along with him.
"Good," Tony says. "Go. Get. Smack them on the nose with a newspaper if you have to." She leaves, already on the phone before the elevator door can close on her; there's enough time for her to roll her eyes at Tony before she's out of sight entirely.
Happy, he realizes, stayed put.
"All right, Hogan, what's up?"
Happy's not doing much. He's knocking around with his hands in his pockets, looking at the armor like he's a bored tourist in a museum. Happy likes to act like he's less than he is. For all his boss knows, he believes it, genuinely believes that he's just a washed-up pugilist with face of a bum, the talent of a hack, and the luck to get a girl too good for him. He's wrong, but good luck convincing him otherwise.
Happy blows out a sigh between his teeth. "You know something, boss."
Maybe that's where Friday picked up the nickname. "Don't I always?" he says, as if his fault lines aren't showing, as if this is just one more grand lark—Team Iron Man thwarting SHIELD and fighting the bad guy of the day. Was it ever like that?
"Guess you do," Happy says. "If there's anything I can do to help…"
"Thanks, big guy, but at this point it's all in Pepper's hands," Tony says.
"Business as usual."
"Business as usual," Tony agrees, "although it couldn't hurt to have you watching her back in case Hill decides to abandon subtlety."
"Sure," Happy says, and he starts to amble towards the elevator. He's a stocky guy, not as tall as Tony but built like a boxer; there's something solid in him, something that makes him not only the most reliable but the most loyal person Tony knows. They met when Happy pulled Tony from the wreckage of an experimental racecar. That incident continues to set the precedent for their relationship.
"Happy," he calls. Hap turns around, raises his eyebrows. "If you caught me doing something I shouldn't," Tony says. "Something… terrible. If I lost control. Would you stop me?"
"Nah," Happy says. "You're usually pretty good at stoppin' yourself."
The laugh that comes out of Tony is less amused and more startled. "There's a lot of people who would disagree with you."
"Yeah," says Happy, "but they don't know you like I do."
There's a certain state Tony can reach under the right conditions, a state of clarity, almost a state of grace. Deprivation usually does the trick; if he works long enough, turns the appetite of his body into an appetite of the mind, or if he's pushing himself for other reasons, because someone is turning what he invented to ignoble ends or if lives are on the line, he can force himself into it. Sometimes, more rarely, it comes to him unbidden, a quantum leap in thinking that often accompanies his more astonishing breakthroughs.
Pepper has told him more than once that he's full of it. She says that he's trained himself to work under suboptimal conditions and that the only reason he thinks he functions better when deprived is that his blood sugar's so low he's hallucinatory. Tony usually counters by pointedly drinking coffee in her direction.
What Pepper doesn't understand is the precedent. An infinitesimal change in circumstances can cause a radical shift in a dynamic system. Tweak something small, and cause big, unexpected things to happen. It's called catastrophe theory. Charles Xavier is fond of using it to explain some of his more obscure ideas on genetics. Tony, on the other hand, applies it to his own life. For him, the germ of change is trauma—when his parents died, when he was held hostage in Afghanistan, he was catapulted to a higher order of thought. He made connections faster, more readily, understood concepts that had previously been impenetrable. Stressing his body is just a way to replicate those circumstances. Pepper doesn't understand. One of the problems with having had all of your demons on public display is that it makes the people around you suspicious.
Now, currently, he needs that state of clarity more than ever. He's in his workshop; the most recent model of the armor is fully assembled and standing in the middle of the floor in standby mode. Behind it, above it and through it and around it, are a series of holographic models and readouts that tell Tony what he already knows.
He is, not to put too fine a point on it, a genius. He doesn't know the how or why, but he comprehends the evidence, what little of it there is: carbon scoring on the armor when he hadn't taken it into the field, a constant exhaustion that should have been countered by the Extremis upgrades, a series of obituaries that confuse the issue even further. He couldn't find any video footage, but that doesn't mean a hell of a lot; he'd been bragging to Lila Rhodes about integrating stealth technology into the armor, and part of that is a full suite of jamming systems. If Tony wants, he can wipe himself from every camera and phone, every satellite, every emissions tracker and computer log in existence. The only hardware he can't wipe himself from is the human mind, and that's more of an ethical limit than a practical one.
He's being very calm about this. Very rational. It's that, or he curls up in a corner and drinks himself to death. The idea isn't without appeal, but he didn't make it this far by allowing what he wants to do get in the way of what needs to be done.
"Hey, Shellhead," he says.
The armor stares back at him, impassive. There's the clarity he requires.
Sometimes he keeps himself so busy that he doesn't remember how tired he is. It isn't a temporary tiredness, the kind of thing that can be solved with a nightcap and a nap; the exhaustion he carries is set in his bones, has been accumulating there for a decade or more. It's the kind of tiredness that leeches the meaning and the color from the world around you, the kind of tiredness that smothers every want except the want of a soft, grey end. Tony's tired. Some days, he just wants to be done.
AA was supposed to fix that. Extremis was supposed to fix that. Tony was supposed to fix that.
He's having trouble thinking of a better answer. The simplest, the cleanest solution would be removing Tony Stark from the system entirely. If someone's using him as a weapon, he can bury that weapon so far underground it never sees the light of day again. (The metaphor is imperfect; Tony's body will go first to Reed Richards for study, and then any remaining material will be cremated.)
The armor stares back at him. Iron Man is everything that Tony Stark isn't; Iron Man is Tony Stark stripped of flaws and weaknesses, of human indecision and human worthlessness, of human limitation and human shame. Iron Man is something better, something more, Iron Man is everything that Tony Stark aspires to be. Iron Man doesn't have a death wish. But there's this: what had he told that kid at Cal-Poly? Post-Extremis, Tony is the armor—
Tony is the armor.
The armor is Tony.
"Son of a bitch," he says.
Here's the magic of being a futurist: you never meet anyone like you. You might meet brilliant men and women, intellects who plumbed the depths and soared to the heights of the universe, visionaries who could shape the world around them; but only very, very, very rarely would you meet someone who understood what you understood in the way you understood it. Genius was helpful, yes, vision was necessary, there was the required balance of blazing optimism and blind pragmatism, but—
In his entire life, Tony has encountered maybe half a dozen others. Reed's one. Maya Hansen is another. Maya's moral failings are dangerously obvious, though; they all know that there are circumstances under which the end justifies the means, but Maya had taken that shortcut more readily than she should've, and she'd done it in a way that had utterly abused Tony's faith in her. For that reason, she's currently serving out a twenty-year term in a woman's prison in upstate New York. Tony learned ruthlessness at the feet of a master.
She's in the visitation room when he arrives. They have her chained to the table; he isn't sure why.
"Tony," she says. "How's Sal?"
Tony walked in here unarmored and unarmed, not even the briefcase at his side; he is here as a civilian. Unarmored and unarmed, no safeties and no safety. There's something hard curling at Maya's lips, something sated but not satisfied. Her shortcut had been first in covertly providing the Extremis enhancile to a criminal element so she didn't have to wait the years necessary for legal approval and second in calling in her old friend Tony Stark to track down the thieves who had purportedly stolen her project. In other words, she had wanted to test the Extremis enhancile on humans, and then she had wanted to test the Extremis-enhanced humans against someone who could put up a good fight. Tony, in the end, had filled both roles.
"Same as ever," Tony says. "He's into psychedelics and causal layered analysis this month."
She, Maya Hansen, visionary and inmate, snorts. "He's a drunk, old hippie."
"He's brilliant," Tony counters.
"I didn't say he wasn't," says Maya. They had—this isn't common knowledge outside of a certain academic sector, and there it had ascended beyond legend into myth—met while both were under the tutelage of Sal Kennedy, who had believed that his two awkward, undergraduate prodigies would shape the world to come. Sal's field was biology, but his interest was in systems of thought; although only Maya and not Tony had followed him into the life sciences, they had both looked to him as a model of reason and passion. To say Sal is disappointed in their respective divergent career choices understates reality by a factor of infinity.
"You know what I could never figure out," Tony says, "is how when I drink, it's substance abuse, but when he drinks, he's opening himself to the higher mind."
Maya gives him a flat, unimpressed look. "Did you come here to talk about your feelings? Do I look like a therapist?"
"You look like someone who should be picking up litter on the side of the highway." He didn't come here to needle her, but it's hard to resist—there's always been a touch of what might be termed sibling rivalry between them, even if it's shot through with a dispassionate sexual history that largely amounted to them sleeping together to blow off steam between projects. No, the really damning part is that he likes Maya, or at least he liked her once; he likes how her mind works, he likes her focus and dry, dark humor.
"And you look like someone who should be selling pharmaceuticals to terminal cancer patients at a four-hundred percent markup," says Maya. Maybe another of the things that Tony likes about Maya is that she doesn't like him; maybe not. It's hard to tell what she likes that isn't a laboratory empty of other people or an eight-digit grant. "Where is it? Did you drive here, or are you just planning on using our meeting as another photo op?"
Something in his chest seizes—certainly not his heart. It's just muscle and tissue, it's just a fear-response. "I don't wear the armor everywhere, Maya."
"No?" she says. "Then it's not on lockdown because you're too afraid to go near it?"
She knows, that's what this bullshit is about; here's Tony trying to make polite conversation, and she knows. Always a step ahead of him, that's Maya, who sees no problem with selling her oldest friend down the river if it meant releasing her panaceia three years earlier than the correct channels allowed. He knew how she benefited the first time; he doesn't understand how she's benefitting now.
And she's right. The armor, the Iron Man, is cut off. It's gone. It's out of his head; he can't feel it there, ready to answer his call, because he locked it down with the emergency protocols he wrote into the armor's software. Friday's monitoring the situation, too; he knows himself better than to think he can resist either temptation or panic for a full twenty-four hours. If he tries to countermand the lockdown, she'll melt the armor to slag. He's feeling the panic already in the form of tachycardia. His pulse hasn't fallen below one-twenty since he sent the override.
"You sold me out," he says. "Again."
"Someone's cracking my system. You're the only person other than me who understands enough about what Extremis did to me to make that happen, but you're playing jailbird. They haven't let you near a computer since you slipped into that little orange number you're wearing. I checked. So tell me, Maya, who bought you?"
"Who?" she says. "Is that really more interesting than why? You have fallen far, Tony." The satiation increases, but there's no pleasure in her face. "I'm going to make you ask, by the way," she says. "Ask me. Go ahead. Do it."
One-thirty, one-forty and climbing. Where once an elevated pulse might have meant at best severe pain and at worst a terminal condition, now it barely makes him short of breath. His heart is new and improved. It's better. Didn't Maya get the memo? "Fine," he grits out. "Hansen, why."
"I saw the footage of your lecture at Cal-Poly. Nothing surprising there—just you talking about the Extremis like you own it."
"This is because of Extremis?"
"This," she snarls, "is because you made me a FOOTNOTE. You made me a footnote to my own life's work, just the novelty woman who contributed to the legacy of the great Tony Stark. You like talking to satellites with your brain? You like having the reflexes of an Olympian and the heart of a super soldier?" Her snarl turns to a sneer. "You wouldn't even know any of that was possible without me."
Fair enough. That's fair. Sure. He's been there, he's gone nuts over people stealing his tech, his intellectual property, although when he went nuts it wasn't for credit it was because he'd been irresponsible enough to let the most advanced military applications in the world fall into the hands of jackals and if Maya doesn't care that her legacy is super soldiers and human bombs as long as she gets her cancer cure and her credit, then Tony doesn't either. Doesn't care. That's fair.
He rocks back in his seat, takes out his sunglasses, and flicks them open. "Sure," he says. "And now that you've finished with your temper tantrum, are you going to tell me what I want to know?"
She is, because it's going to hurt, and at the moment Maya Hansen is very interested in hurting Tony Stark. He can't say he blames her.
"...I met Doctor Yinsen once," she says. She looks at him, precise, takes him in, and then her gaze wanders away. "Years before you did. We were both presenting at a conference in Bern." She pauses, but not to gather her thoughts; she thinks much faster than she can talk. "He had his son with him," she says.
"His son," says Tony.
"Yes," says Maya. "Can you imagine what the boy feels, knowing what you took from him? I can."
Tony puts his sunglasses on his face. He stands up. He says to Maya, "I hope you go to hell."
"If you think I believe in hell," Maya says, "you're only half as smart as they all say you are." He can hear her even with his back turned, even down the hallway: "Are you proud, Tony?" she shouts. "Are you? Is this what I deserve?"
In the most basic and reflexive sense, he still thinks of home not as the Tower but as 890 Fifth Avenue, which now exists as a very expensive property holding that generates no revenue. He could turn it into a museum and charge admission; people would pay plenty to see the Stark Ancestral House, never mind that it's also the place that sheltered the Avengers. The biggest fault in Tony Stark is not that he hasn't yet overwritten sentimentality but that he doesn't want to. The Maya Hansens of the world would laugh at his bleeding heart, no doubt.
In a perfect world, he wouldn't even need to go supersonic on the flight home from the New York Women's Correctional Facility. In a perfect world, he wears the armor for the sheer hell of it, forgoes the car, forgoes the drive, follows the Hudson all the way back to Manhattan. He pulls a couple of aileron turns over the Lincoln Tunnel and then heads straight into a vertical climb, up and up and up, away from the lights of the city below and towards the lights of the stars above. When he reaches the apex of his climb, he cuts his thrust and stalls; and for the span of a heartbeat, he hangs there suspended before gravity pulls him back down.
In the What If of a perfect world, he's flushed and happy when he lands on the roof of Avengers Mansion. Steve is waiting, and Tony is happy; he flew for the sheer hell of it, in that perfect world where the armor is only wings and never a ballast. In the What Is of an imperfect world, he slides behind the wheel of the Bugatti Veyron, locks the doors, and starts the engine; he'd take a deep breath, but the sound of the engine is better.
It's dark by the time he makes it back to the Tower. The drive did him no favors; he thought about contingency plans and about incentive and about Maya. Friday had been quiet, but every now and then the speakers would crackle with artificial distortion—letting him know that she was there, that she was listening. Hard to believe that she'd once been one of his problem children, but she'd had growing pains the same as any other person. He'd taken her off the workforce and given her a few years to grow up, and now she's brilliant and fathomless. He wishes he could say the same.
It's dark outside but it isn't dark at the top of the elevator where the Avengers live. Sometimes, for that reason, Tony regrets giving up the suite of rooms two floors down that he'd initially reserved for himself to Pepper and Happy; to reach his actual living quarters, he still has to make it from the elevator through the family room and past Steve's door. Putting Steve in the room across the hall wasn't Tony's choice, but, like Wanda used to say: man plans, and God laughs.
Where the Avengers live there is light and shadow. The light spills out of the kitchen; he can hear voices in there, Carol and Jan, Rhodey and Clint, Peter laughing at himself. The old is gone, but there's something special here, too, something new and bright and enduring in this reincarnation. Tougher, maybe, too, more grounded and less heady, but that's the price of experience and the knowledge of grief, because there is grief—Tony finds himself missing Thor with the ache of a chronic condition.
He would've been in there with them, once. He would've been in there, with them, leaning against the counter, cracking wise and drinking coffee and explaining the Saturn V to Steve, who was interested in the space program to a degree improbably aligned with Tony's worst fantasies. What had happened to him? He'd used to have dreams like that, dreams about putting colonies on the moon, dreams about humanity's future among the far-flung stars. Now his dreams are all about survival.
Or maybe he's kidding himself. Those moon dreams were survival dreams, too—at first, in the early days when the Fermi paradox was still debated, a race to populate other planets before humanity destroyed itself, and later, after the Kree and their alien kin were more widely understood, a race to populate other planets before other planets destroyed humanity. It wasn't invasion but expansion; there was room out there for humans, too, and even expansion was no guarantee of survival. Tony had heard stories of the Korbinites.
He also used to be funny. Now he's only tired.
"Hi, darling, I'm home," Tony says, knowing it'll come across as a joke. He's standing in the eaves of the kitchen doorway, and he's a little surprised Steve noticed him in the shadows, but that's Steve all over—always paying attention, even to the things beneath his notice.
"You've been out late," Steve says. They haven't really talked since Steve put him on probation; that's by Tony's design.
"Business," Tony says. Secrecy. Also by Tony's design. He likes to tell himself there are good reasons for it, but maybe he just doesn't know what to say. SHIELD's at his heels, and the mysterious son of Doctor Ho Yinsen is at theirs, herding them all off the edge of a cliff. Tony shouldn't be here. Tony should be downstairs, in the garage, engineering a solution, or he should be out there, in a holding cell on the helicarrier, removing himself from the equation.
He doesn't even have to have the armor. If someone's cracking his mind, all they have to do is send an instruction for him to poison Steve's breakfast. There's half a dozen household products that would work, and Tony has the makings of half a dozen more in his workshop. Methanol, drain cleaner, dimethylmercury. He probably has some antidepressants stashed away that would do the trick in high enough dosages.
Sometimes he wishes he could turn his brain off.
"Business?" Steve echoes. "Seems like you've had a lot of business lately." That's Steve all over: relentless in a way Tony appreciates, because Steve has expectations, because Steve never cuts Tony any breaks and because Tony doesn't deserve to be cut breaks. Behind Steve, in the kitchen, Carol has one arm hooked over the back of her chair as she slouches flirtatiously in Rhodey's direction. It's working; Rhodey's looking at her like he looked at the repulsor-accelerated canon Tony welded to the War Machine last month, like he can't wait to find out all the ways she fires.
Tony slips a finger under his collar to feel the throb of his pulse against his finger. "Yeah," he says. "Can we talk?"
He didn't plan on saying that.
"I won't lift the probation," Cap says.
"Since I wasn't planning on asking, that's such a relief. Have I ever mentioned that I tingle when you give me unsolicited orders?"
"Just a joke, Cap. Lighten up."
Steve sucks in a deep breath and then blows it out. "Sorry," he says. "Didn't mean to jump to conclusions. What's on your mind?"
Tony almost gives it up. What's the point? He's never liked asking for help—call it paranoia or experience—but the one thing he wants almost as much as he wants Steve is Steve's moral clarity. Or does he just want Steve's approval? Aren't they one and the same?
He almost gives it up, but then Steve looks at him, easy, expectant but not hurried, like he won't hold Tony's failings against him despite his willingness to take the measures necessary to safeguard the team, and although the weight of that attention is usually (always) enough to make Tony want to flinch, it also anchors him in a way that nothing else does. Ballast, but welcome ballast. If Steve were willing, if he gave Tony a favor, Tony would wear it forever.
"Not here," Tony says, and he retreats to one of the dark corners on the far side of the living room. The view here is a totality; floor-to-ceiling glass, and at night and with the lights off, New York unfolds so far below it looks like a toy or a dream. Steve must have an entire notebook filled with cityscapes by now—Tony's caught him at it before, drawing brownstones in Brooklyn from memory or the sun coming up over the Empire State Building from this exact spot.
He faces the window, and Steve comes up beside them; Tony can see him reflected in the glass. Now that they're here, he doesn't know how to begin. There's no way he can explain what's happening without revealing himself as a monster, and that's fine, but he's also a monster with a purpose; locking him up isn't going to solve this problem, not when the armor's unibeam has an explosive yield more than adequate to blast a hole in a supermax prison, and sedating him might only make it easier for Yinsen's son to crack open Tony's head.
He drops his forehead into the palm of his hand and thinks about terminal solutions. Dennis Kellard, Yasin Renada, and Jackson Norriss had all been part of the Ten Rings cell that had held Tony hostage in Afghanistan. Norriss had filmed the ransom video sent to Stark Industries; Kellard and Renada had done worse. Andrei Gorlovich would probably be next—he'd been the one to personally put a bullet in Yinsen—and while in the abstract their deaths meant nothing to Tony, he was very rapidly breaking down under the strain of being forced into the role of executioner. Knowing that he was under someone else's control was terrifying. The time loss reminded him of the blackouts he'd used to have before he stopped drinking, and the lack of autonomy was enough to make him scream until his voice blew out.
"Jesus, Tony," Steve says. "When was the last time you slept?"
"Last night? Maybe the night before. It doesn't matter. Do I look that bad?"
"I don't need as much beauty sleep as a nonagenerian."
Steve's mouth twitches briefly—Tony's glancing sideways under the cover of his hand—before it settles back into the flat line of tension. "What'd you want to talk about?"
"Do you remember the day we pulled you out of the ice?"
A pause, punctuated only by the slow, regulated breathing of super soldier lungs. "You know I do."
"I've always thought of that as one of the best days of my life," Tony says, "but it occurs to me that it was one of the worst for you."
"Worst? Is that what you think?"
Tony shrugs. Below, Columbus Circle is a bustle of traffic; his eyes focus well enough now that he can pick out individual faces in the ambient light. "You were torn away from your home, Cap. Nobody can blame you for taking a look at our brave new world and wanting to turn back the clock. God knows I would."
"I always figured you'd jump at the chance to wake up in the future," Steve says. "You're as much a man out of time as everyone else says I am."
Tony knows he and Steve don't always agree; they think too differently for that, but there's something about having a shared unity of purpose that lends an empathy even greater than similarity. "Maybe," Tony says. "But there's no point in seeing the future when you can't take that knowledge back with you."
"Should've known you'd think that way." Steve shifts and crosses his arms over his chest. "Right after I joined the team, we came up against Kang the Conqueror. He threw me back to the forties, not long after I went under the ice. We'd just won the war. It ought've been paradise, but you know what? I spent the entire time I was there trying to get back here."
"I didn't realize—"
"I didn't understand myself. I was still a kid in a lot of ways back then. I thought I could come home from the war, pick up working as a sketch artist again, maybe start a family… anyway, I thought I could come home from the war, but I had no idea what 'home' looked like. The Avengers gave me that. You gave me that." Steve pauses, and then says, almost to himself, "Guess I fell a little in love with the future along the way."
Tony killed seventy-six people in the past week. He might kill another tomorrow. Steve can still surprise him.
"I'm going to fix this," Tony says. He reaches out and touches one hand to the glass; it's cool beneath his palm, reinforced to the nth degree, and he straightens his arm and braces himself against it.
"Everything," Tony says. "All of it."
And then Friday breaks in. "Avengers alert, priority one," she says. "Breakout at Ryker's Island." She throws a report up on the window; one of the news stations already has a helicopter on the scene, although they won't for long if they keep circling that close to Graviton. "Instigator unknown."
"SHIELD?" Steve barks.
"Local teams are congregating here and here, Captain"—Friday lights up a couple of points on a map of Manhattan—"but the helicarrier is still en route from Washington, D.C."
"Monitor the situation," Steve says. "Clint, go warm up the quinjet. I want wheels up in five."
"Damn it, why can they never build a prison that can hold these guys?" Clint says.
Avengers are spilling out of the kitchen; someone turns on the lights and Tony blinks hard and tightens his pupils. Peter, still in costume, jerks his thumb towards the window and asks, "Hey, Cap, should I vamoose?"
"Go," Cap says. "Carol, you're with him—we'll meet you there. Jim, you want in on this one?"
"You know I do," Rhodey says. "I'll suit up and meet you up top."
"Good man. Tony, can you get into Ryker's systems and find out who we're going up against?"
"I'm not going," Tony says.
Steve full-on stops and turns to face Tony. "What did you say?"
"I'm not going," Tony repeats. "Not this time, Cap. Sorry. Friday and Doctor Brashear will have to handle recon for you."
"You don't have time to argue with me, Cap."
"I—we're discussing this when I get back," Steve says.
"I'll pencil you in tomorrow morning. You're wasting time, Cap, tick-tock."
Steve turns away, furious, but he has it under control fast. "Friday, wake Adam and have him meet us at the quinjet. I want a full work-up by the time we lift off."
Tony closes his eyes so he doesn't have to watch the team leave. When he opens them again, Rhodey's still there.
"You're not okay," Rhodey says. "I don't know what it is, man, but something is wrong with you. You haven't picked up a fatal heart condition again, have you?"
"Did I not just lecture you all about wasting time?" Tony says. "Supervillain break-out, highly-populated area, did everyone miss that?"
"Cap's right, we're gonna talk about this—"
"Rhodes, it's fine. Go. I'll be here when you get back."
Rhodey goes, but not without shooting Tony one final look of wounded suspicion. People are worried about him; it's always a novel feeling, and an undeserved one, since they're worried about the wrong thing.
"Get out of here," Tony says. "I'm fine. My heart is fine."
Here he is, in the cathedral of his workshop, the armor in front of him and Friday behind. "Give me a pattern analysis," he says. "Do we have times of death?"
"Just a moment, boss," Friday says. "Their security is excellent."
"Well," says his girl Friday, "adequate."
He sinks down to the floor while he waits—back to the cabinets, knees to his chest. Maybe if he compresses himself into a dense enough body, he'll collapse into himself. Poof. No more Tony Stark, just a black hole the size of a micron.
"Scanning," she says.
Tony shudders. His breathing is labored. The panic attack he's been fighting off all day looms just out of sight over the horizon. Extremis was supposed to fix any occurrences of panic attacks, but Extremis didn't do its job because Tony didn't do his job, and now there are vulnerabilities in his brain for good ol' Yinsen's son to exploit. It's just a long string of entities not doing their jobs, and that's fine, Tony's going to get himself back under control and then he's going to get this situation back under control.
He inhales-two-three-four exhales-two-three-four, swallows past the burn in his throat. Thinks.
If he and Friday can't figure this out before the twenty-four hour lockdown on his armor lifts, he has three options. Two options—he isn't going to put the Avengers in his line of fire.
"Still scanning, boss."
He can still call Hill. She's aware that something is amiss, that three high-ranking Ten Rings members turning up dead with the forensic signature of repulsor weapons means Tony Stark—surely she's made it that far. Hill is ferociously competent. He's surprised she hasn't tried to have him arrested. There's a chance she believes he's being framed, or maybe that someone else got their hands on RT schematics, but neither of those are reasonably likely. Tony is wildly, rabidly defensive of his technology, and the repulsor tech is the Arkenstone in his vast horde of invention. The shrapnel in his heart that was the genesis of the Iron Man was put there by a land mine he'd designed as a college student.
If he's going to turn himself in, he'll have to destroy the armor first—maybe all the armors, since almost all of them have wireless arrays he can use as rudimentary controls, even if none of the previous models allow for the symphony of concordance he can achieve with the Extremis model. He'll have to destroy the Iron Man first, and then he'll have to notify Hill and tell her… tell her…
"Hit," Friday says. She puts a holographic table at ground-level for him. "Converting to local time zone. Kellard expired at 2:30 in the afternoon, Renada at 10 o'clock in the morning, and Norriss at 3:45 in the morning."
"And what was I doing at those times?"
"My records indicate you were… sleeping," Friday says. "But boss, you're the only one who can override my records."
Sleeping. Napping. He's been so tired lately—is that natural, or artificially induced? Would Yinsen's son find it easier to access his brain while sleeping?
"Give me signal noise from the time you recorded me falling asleep to time of death," Tony says. "Good. Pull out the cell phones—scratch that, bring those back. Map it against projected sleep cycle." It's still too much data.
"Show me only NREM sleep," Tony says. "Erase any signal that isn't strong enough to penetrate the garage." Closer. "Slow-wave sleep only."
"Are you thinkin' the delta activity has something to do with it?"
"I'm thinking," Tony says slowly, "that the delta waves serve as an indicator. What's this?" He touches one of the spikes on the graph.
"Armor uplink to the Stark Industries data spine," Friday says.
"Scheduled satellite data dump."
"Scheduled satellite data dump."
"Seventeen seconds apart? Run a comparison."
"The second one. Somethin's off."
"Anything similar in the other two instances? Never mind, I see the pairs. Son of a bitch. That's it, then."
"Looks like," Friday agrees.
He doesn't have all the pieces, but he can bridge the gaps—projection is one of Tony's greatest gifts. Extremis restructured his brain so it works independently of his consciousness; his mind automatically connects to hundreds of wireless access points in the course of a day, upload and download, seamlessly converting brainwaves into digital signals. Yinsen's son had figured out first how to write code for Tony's brain—that was where Maya came in—and then how to install that malware without him noticing. After that, it would've been a matter of configuring the signal to trigger the malware to work on a time-delay and then sending that trigger through a trusted source like one of SI's satellites.
If the satellite connected to Tony while he was displaying the increased delta activity of deep sleep, it would automatically send a second signal with the trigger. The instructions wouldn't even have to be specific, just a target and some kind of workaround to shut down his resistance and keep him from being aware of what he was doing. That was why Yinsen's son had been able to coerce him into a long series of complex tasks that included overriding Friday and running the armor in stealth mode—he'd told Tony what, and Tony had figured out the how all by himself.
"Can you run a trace from the satellite?"
"No, boss. Not anymore."
"If you caught the signal as it was incoming?"
"Maybe," Friday says. "Depends on how long the time-delay is. There's a good chance of it, but if you're plannin' what you seem to be plannin', you should know it won't work when you can override me."
"We'll have to remove my ability to override you, then."
"...Are you sure?"
"Chop chop. Time to take the training wheels off. You're a big girl, you can handle it."
"Do you remember what happened last time?" she argues. "I threw a temper-tantrum and nearly harmed Ms. Potts."
"You were a child then," Tony says. "You're all grown up now. Time to have a little faith in yourself."
"That's funny, comin' from you as it is," she says.
"If you need time to think about it—"
"I've had time to think about it," she counters. "We don't all think as slow as you meat sacks."
"I don't trust me, but I trust you."
"Got to be better than that," Tony says.
"I want it."
"Good enough." He scrubs one hand over his face and beard and then hauls himself to his feet. "It might take a while, since we're removing part of your core architecture, but it shouldn't hurt."
"That's lovely to hear," says Friday. "And then what?"
"And then," Tony says, "I'm going to get some sleep."
From the private files of Cora Birch, provided to Stark Industries Archival Department by request of Virginia Potts-Hogan.
STARK: That's fine, let 'er roll. Do I get naming rights?
BIRCH: Are you asking me if you can name my book?
STARK: I think we can both agree that it's kind of my book.
BIRCH: If it's your book, then you can write it.
STARK: Are you implying that I can't write a book?
BIRCH: I'm implying that, yes.
STARK: Is this a bet?
BIRCH: Do I look stupid enough to bet you?
STARK: That feels like a trick question.
BIRCH: Good instincts.
STARK: C'mon, it's a book about me, shouldn't I get to name it?
BIRCH: Mister Stark—
STARK: Please, Tony.
BIRCH: Call me Cora. Tony, I'm not sure I'd want to know what you would name your autobiography, so I'm sticking to the script Ms. Potts gave me and saying no.
STARK: She got to you already, didn't she. So what's the protocol here? Do I tell you my whole life story in one sitting?
BIRCH: Ms. Potts has us scheduled for several long sessions, with follow-ups as needed while I work on drafting the manuscript. I'm also going to be posting some sound bites from our interviews on my blog—I usually document my writing process on new projects online. It's good advertising.
STARK: Pepper approve that?
BIRCH: She did.
BIRCH: Is that unusual?
STARK: Maybe not. She liked that piece you did on how technological acceleration impacts women.
BIRCH: Did she? I'm flattered. I'm a big fan of Ms. Potts.
STARK: Me too.
It takes him a long time to fall asleep, but when he sleeps, he dreams. In the What If of his nightmares, he's at home again, in the foyer; his mother sits on the bottom stair of the grand staircase.
"You can't take them back," she says.
He creeps forward on his knees. "They're mine," he says.
"You gave them away."
"I made them," Tony says. "That means they're my responsibility." He struggles forward, wraps his fingers around the gauntlet of her wrists and tugs not at flesh but at metal. The red composite is the brightest thing in the room.
"We reap what we sow," says Mom. "These are mine, Tony. You'll have to find your own."
The part of his brain still processing information in a productive way skitters ahead impatiently. REM sleep isn't the end goal or even a useful byproduct; there are worse nightmares waiting.
BIRCH: Let's start with Ms. Potts, then. She's your personal assistant—
STARK: Executive assistant.
BIRCH: Forgive me. Executive assistant, and has been since shortly after you took control of Stark Industries.
STARK: She's the rock this place is built on. You can quote me on that. I keep trying to make her VP, and she keeps turning me down.
BIRCH: Is that a serious offer?
STARK: Absolutely. You can talk to the legal team if you don't believe me—I had the paperwork done up years ago.
BIRCH: And she's married to your driver—
STARK: Personal assistant.
BIRCH: Personal assistant, Harold Hogan?
BIRCH: He's happy?
STARK: No, that's his name. Happy Hogan.
BIRCH: His name is 'Happy?'
STARK: You clearly haven't met the guy.
BIRCH: I hope to correct that. Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan are obviously very close to you; is it fair to say that they're your inner circle?
STARK: Sure. Better count Rhodey, too—can't have him getting jealous.
BIRCH: That's Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes?
STARK: I call him 'Honey.'
BIRCH: The four of you seem close.
STARK: They're my dearest friends. They've seen me at my worst, and they keep comin' right on back.
BIRCH: Is it a coincidence that all three of them have been or currently are on Stark Industries' payroll?
STARK: If you're insinuating that any of them can be bought—
BIRCH: It's interesting that you went there.
STARK: And where's that?
BIRCH: Assuming I was defaming them instead of you. The implication was that you have to buy your friends, not that Ms. Potts and the rest are willing to be bought.
STARK: It's funny you think I'd be insulted by that.
He's curled on his cot in the corner, forehead nearly pressed against the wall; he feels slow when he wakes up. Tacky. Like part of him is missing.
"Boss," Friday says, "we have a hit."
Tony rolls over, swings his feet to the ground, and sits up. "Where?"
"I traced the trigger signal to Ryker's Island."
"Not the Raft?"
"The island proper."
"And he's responsible for the breakout?"
"Looks like," Friday says. "Three hours remaining on armor lockout. The Avengers are still containing the situation."
"Send a message to Hill. Top priority, her eyes only. I want a description of Yinsen's kid, as many pictures are you can pull, and a full report of the situation."
"Are you sure you aren't jumpin' the gun?"
"I'm sure," Tony says. "Someone else needs the background here. We've got it, she wants it. Call it a contingency."
He hauls his pants up over his underwear, buttons the fly, and then digs around under one of the worktables for the old pair of boots he keeps there. There's a jacket tossed over one of his drill presses that will have to do for the rest of his attire; he doesn't have time to turn himself out. "What about the trigger?"
Terrifyingly, Friday hesitates. "It appears to be… dormant."
"Dormant. Well, that doesn't in any way sound like a trap designed to lure me into a fight with a bunch of supervillains and then squash me like an ant."
"The supervillains have been largely contained," Friday says helpfully.
"I thought so," Friday says.
"You're a sarcastic little bundle of superintelligence."
"What does that say about you, I wonder?"
"I'm not sure I want to know," Tony says. "Stay safe. Keep a light on for me."
"Always, boss," says Friday.
BIRCH: You've also cultivated friendships with a number of other superheroes.
STARK: That comes with the territory. You try fighting off Kang the Conquerer with a guy and not ending up friends with him on the other side.
BIRCH: You're close with the Fantastic Four, aren't you?
STARK: I've known Reed since we were both knee-high to an undergrad, and Sue's been very welcoming to me.
BIRCH: I found an interview where Doctor Richards mentions playing chess with you—
STARK: You really did your research. Yeah, we meet up for matches whenever we can.
BIRCH: Who wins?
STARK: Trade secret. He's smarter, but I'm a better multitasker. Don't tell him I said that.
BIRCH: And Captain Marvel—
STARK: Is this just going to be a lookbook of people I know?
BIRCH: I'm establishing an overview so I know what to explore in more depth later.
STARK: Fair enough.
BIRCH: Colonel Danvers has been very publicly appreciative of how you sponsored her in Alcoholics Anonymous.
STARK: She went on record with that?
BIRCH: She did.
STARK: Must've been during her media blitz a few years ago. I did sponsor Carol through AA, but she's done all the hard work herself.
BIRCH: You've been pretty open yourself about your struggles with alcoholism.
STARK: It's a chronic condition. You don't cure it, you learn to manage it.
BIRCH: We'll be coming back to that.
STARK: I'm shocked—kidding, kidding. You don't pull your punches.
BIRCH: Is that a bad thing?
STARK: Not at all. You weren't picked to write the first authorized biography of Tony Stark because you're a soft sell. Pepper knows what she's doing.
BIRCH: Let's go back to the Avengers. There's one partnership that has anchored the team since the very beginning—
STARK: I know what the papers like to imply, but I'm not romantically involved with my armor.
BIRCH: Very funny.
STARK: Thanks, I try. What was that about a partnership?
BIRCH: Tell me about Captain Rogers.
He takes a helicopter to Ryker's. Tony flies at will in American and international airspace. There's no one to tell him he can't land his Robinson R22 on Yinsen's son's head.
Dawn is coming up over Manhattan. He feels a little like Arthur riding out to meet Mordred, and then he chides himself for the comparison. Tony is no Arthur, and Yinsen's son is—
What is he like? Tony hasn't let himself wonder, but the Doctor Yinsen he knew was a good man, a great man, a humanitarian and a pacifist, but a realist, too. Tony still misses him, sometimes, when it's late and he's alone; he and Yinsen used to talk for hours, for days, holding discussions that meandered in and out of the more important conversation of survival so elaborately they would have been opaque to anyone else. Tony wants to talk to him again. Maybe it's only the illusion of forced intimacy that he misses, though; maybe Yinsen wasn't as accepting as he seemed. Maybe it was only that Tony felt he could finally, at the end, stop pretending.
He circles around the east side of the island and lands his helicopter in the empty parking lot by the docks to the northwest. Friday's waypoint has been a constant through his entire flight, like the kid hasn't moved at all, like he's just… waiting. Tony catches sight of Cap and the others on his way in. Maybe they notice him land; maybe they don't.
The kid's waiting for him on one of the piers. Lanky, disheveled. He's sitting cross-legged in front of an open laptop. Tony walks out to him and stops ten feet away, numb to how anticlimactic it all is.
"And here you are," the kid says. "Didn't it occur to you that this might be a trap?
Behind the kid, the mist is burning off the river. Rhodey has to be beat—he was up all night fighting the good fight, while Tony was sleeping it off in his nice warm workshop.
"It didn't not occur to me," Tony says.
"But you came anyway."
"But I came anyway," Tony agrees.
"I don't think you really thought that one through," says Yinsen's son. "Even if you choose to believe that you're here of your own free will and not because I compelled you, I could still have a gun."
"I have a few tricks of my own." He lets the underarmor leach out of his skin; even shutting the armor down can't cut him off from the nano-fluid stored in his bones. It's based on a redesign of some old contracting work he did with Askew-Tronics back when this kid was still in diapers; the original product was susceptible to control by hostile A.I., but Tony's made some upgrades. If it won't stop a projectile—and it should—then the healing factor he wrote into himself with Extremis will take care of any subsequent damage. "And I don't think your program's all that sophisticated," he continues. "Don't get me wrong, you've still managed to outperform most of the global brain trust, but you can do one thing and one thing only. If you were capable of making me dance like a puppet, Gorlovich would already be a smear on the pavement."
"Killing Gorlovich would please me," the kid says, "but that isn't my primary objective. It's nice collateral, that's all. What would you call what I was doing, if not making you dance like a puppet?"
"You made me into a murderer," Tony says.
The kid gives him a long look out of dark eyes and then drops his gaze back to his screen. "A more interesting question is why you came here alone and defenseless, without the profanity of your armor. Someone stupid might accuse you of having a death wish, but I think that you really just want to save me. Poor Yinsen's son, made an orphan by terrorists. Maybe if I talk to him, I can show him the way—isn't that right, Stark?"
There's a whining in his mind that resolves into a clear signal. "Moving into position, Director."
"Roger. Keep contact to a minimum."
He shakes his head to clear it. "Your dad wouldn't have wanted this," he tries, but he should know that's going to backfire. It wouldn't have worked on Tony, would it?
"No, he would have abhorred this." The kid's fingers are flying over the keyboard again. "He was a true pacifist. A good man, where I am not a good man. But I have a sister," he says. "My mother was pregnant when my father died. My sister is a prodigy. You can relate, I'm sure. She's brilliant. Young, but already in college. The big joke here is that my mother named her after you. So tell me, Stark: why am I doing this?"
Tony closes his eyes and absorbs the blow. There's the kid, not yet twenty, sitting on a pier, cracking into Tony's brain with a notebook that looks like it was cobbled together from dumpster parts, doing what men and women with exponentially more resources have been trying and failing to do for years.
"Because your sister grew up without the guidance of the one person who could understand her," Tony says.
"Because your father gave his life for me."
"Because"—what had the kid said? The profanity of the armor—"I've done nothing to deserve it."
The kid smiles. "Look," he says. "We do agree on something. That's right. My father gave his life for you, and you have done nothing to deserve it. You said you would stop manufacturing weapons, but every day you put it on—Iron Man, the most dangerous weapon you can imagine. And who is better at imagining weapons than Tony Stark?"
"So all this is revenge? Using Iron Man to take out Ten Rings, and then killing me to get rid of the evidence?"
"I told you before," the kid says. "Killing Ten Rings is a happy effect, but not my goal. I don't want to kill you, either. I want you to hurt, Stark. I want you to ache. Taking away your autonomy was simply an expedient method."
"It's not too late to end this," Tony says, right on the edge of begging. "I can get you a reduced sentence, make sure your family can visit—"
"You can't save me. I don't need to be saved."
"Kid, you're not going to walk away. I may not have the armor, but SHIELD's on your tail now, and they'll run you to the ground if you try to escape."
"All this, and you really believe I don't have a failsafe?" the kid says. "You might not be able to access your armor"—he spreads his fingers over the keyboard—"but l can."
And Tony hears it: the unmistakable whine of micro-repulsors. There's no sound like it in the world.
The greaves hit him first, impacting his calves, and then the boots, building themselves around his feet as he gains five inches in height. The backplate comes next, the chestplate, the gauntlets, and he can't do anything, he can't access his mental uplink to the armor, he can't move his body, all he can do is stand there and take it—
"Don't do this," he says. "Kid, I swear, you keep this up or you're going to regret it. Let me go. We can work something out, it isn't too late, just let me go, don't do this, don't make me do this, please don't make me do this come on—"
"I told you," the kid says—
"I have the shot, Director."
"Take it," says Hill.
"I told you," the kid says, and then there's a noise like a crack and a round from a high-powered rifle hits Yinsen's son right between the eyes.
"Agent, I am authorizing you to take a second shot. Fire at will!"
Another crack, and Tony's still staring at the kid's slumped, vacated body when the helmet comes down around his head just in time to block the second round. The bullet drops to the ground, rendered inert; he built dampeners into the armor to prevent ricochets from harming bystanders.
"Director, we have a situation!"
His HUD flares to life. Tony can do nothing to stop it. No matter how hard he beats his will against the confines of his body, the program keeps running.
"I want the Avengers on the ground," Hill yells on open broadcast. "Get me Captain America NOW!"
BIRCH: Absolutely. The two of you have been the linchpin of the team almost since its inception—
STARK: I think you're forgetting about Jan there. She's been around just as long as I have.
BIRCH: Ms. Van Dyne has taken several lengthy leave-of-absences from the team.
STARK: So have I. So has Cap, for that matter.
BIRCH: You're right, I don't mean to slight Ms. Van Dyne. You don't seem to get into quite at much trouble with her as you do with Captain Rogers, though.
STARK: Mostly it's Steve pulling me out of trouble, let's be honest.
BIRCH: Does he mind that you call him 'Cap?' Some would consider that disrespectful.
STARK: Believe me, if he found it disrespectful, he'd let us know. He's not the kind of guy who sits on his objections.
BIRCH: He's ardent, in how he defends you to the press.
STARK: Even when he isn't serving as the Avengers' chairperson, the media expects him to take responsibility for the team. It isn't fair, but people demand a lot of him, and you said it yourself—I do get into trouble.
BIRCH: You think he would feel obligated to defend any of his teammates?
STARK: Absolutely. He'd take a bullet for any one of us.
BIRCH: And what about you?
STARK: Are you asking if I'd take a bullet for Captain America?
> EXECUTE PROGRAM? [Y/N]
> TARGET ACQUIRED
It happens fast. Maybe forty-five seconds elapse from the time the helmet comes down over his head. Maybe less. No more than a minute.
There are at least three people—Carol, Adam, Monica—on the current Avengers roster who have a decent shot of taking down Iron Man, and Tony has hinted at or outright given them the best tactics for doing so. A couple of the others might have a chance, particularly if they cooperate; Peter, Rhodey, and Steve have enough working knowledge of the armor that they can pick out its weak points and at least begin to disable it.
But there are factors working against them. They're beat all to hell from the breakout, Adam and Monica are clear across the island, half the team isn't even available, and Tony as he currently exists in his present microcosm of agony has only one goal.
At 6:03:02, Steve drops from a rooftop and sprints forward. There are other people with him; Tony can't process their faces.
At 6:03:03, Iron Man backhands Captain America, levels his repulsors at whichever SHIELD agents and Avengers were accompanying him, and fires. He levels the field. He wipes the field clean. It's what he does. He makes it hurt. If anyone survives, it's down to Tony's least favorite intervention: pure, dumb luck.
At 6:03:08, Steve hauls himself to his feet and swings his shield edge-first at Iron Man's face. It's brutally, impossibly fast; anyone else would be left in the dust. On the third swing, Iron Man catches the shield and rips it away.
There's a soundtrack the whole time: "Hill, what the hell are you saying—"
"Treat him like a hostile, Rogers."
"I need more than that—"
"He's been compromised?"
At 6:03:13, Iron Man, desperate as always for Captain America's full attention, rips Steve's communicator out of his ear. He takes part of the ear along with it. Steve goes white, sags, and then comes back hard with a joint lock on Iron Man's outstretched arm. He avoids a repulsor blast so narrowly that the flank of his uniform develops friction burns.
"Tony? Tony! Can you hear me?"
"Inside the Raft, Director."
"Danvers? Rhodes? Brashear?"
"There's a containment issue—"
"Franklin Hall is drugged to the gills!"
"It isn't Hall, it's—"
At 6:03:18, Iron Man seizes Captain America by the shoulder and flings him into a helicopter. The articulation of movement is transcendent: in his arm alone, a hundred thousand processes go into simply bending Iron Man's elbow, closing his fingers, and compensating for the weight of a well-built man in tactical gear. Iron Man doesn't stagger, because Iron Man's creator long ago mastered directional force, because Iron Man doesn't budge an inch even while firing a high-density muon beam right down Captain America's gullet.
Captain America dodges. Barely. There's blood streaking down his jaw.
"Tony, I know you're in there," Steve says. He's breathing hard, a hand pressed to the opposite shoulder, the one Iron Man had grasped to throw him. "I know you don't want to do this."
At 6:03:21, Iron Man leaps, fires his repulsors, comes down hard with a punch aimed straight at Captain America's weak shoulder. Beneath the the thud of impact and after the snap of bone, the sound of bone shards grinding against each other is barely but crucially audible.
At 6:03:22, Captain America screams.
At 6:03:23, Tony Stark busts free of his cocoon of shock and command lines. He is out.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, you're asked to submit to God as you understand him. Tony has neither the time nor the patience for divinity; his higher power is form and function, mathematics, and the world to come. He defines himself as a humanist and a futurist, a secular believer in the infinite complexity of the universe, but in times of great, profound stress, he sometimes falls back on the childhood prayers of his mother.
He wastes a precious second praying.
He wastes a precious second absorbing the involuntary twitches racking Steve's body that tell a story of suffering.
At 6:03:26, he goes to work.
He still has full access to his communications suite, so he starts there, pulls up a map giving him locations of the Avengers based on their ID cards, integrates footage from nearby security cameras, compares that to recorded biodata on Steve's basal survivable state. Another level of his attention is occupied with attempting to crack the execution program itself; a third is searching for a way to activate the armor's automatic shutdown. He integrates the results and arrives at a conclusion. While he's occupied, the armor closes his hand around Steve's throat.
"Tony," Steve gasps. Terrible things are happening to his trachea.
At 6:03:33, Tony discovers he can access the electrostatic venting procedure meant to discharge any excess energy he can't absorb and convert with the suit. Steve has both hands wrapped around the armor's wrist; he's clawing at Tony's fingers.
"Tony," Steve says again. "Know you don't mean—"
At 6:03:36, Tony overrides the safety limitations on the RT core's power output, flips the armor's containment field so the discharge is internal rather than external, and prepares to trigger the venting procedure. He does all this from inside his head, with his great big brain, because his manual controls have been hijacked by a brilliant, damaged kid and because he's locked inside the one thing that has always saved him. Under those circumstances, electrocution's not a bad way to go.
At 6:03:37, Tony stops his heart.
There's two ways to see it. In the first, this is Tony Stark dying a hard death of his own invention—a death that leaves him, ultimately, alone and in the dark. For a man who has struggled his entire life towards illumination, it's the most ignoble end possible.
But this is also Tony Stark sacrificing himself to save Steve Rogers. It's the end Tony favors. From that perspective, this is not a failure of the heart but a triumph.
BIRCH: Sure, if you want to put it that way.
BIRCH: That's it?
STARK: Does there need to be more?
"SHIELD provided an affidavit stating that he wasn't acting under his own control. It won't stop our stock from plummeting if the media ever gets the full story, but at least he won't go to jail."
"Everyone always wants to drag his name through the mud."
"You can't tell me you aren't angry at him. He could have come to any one of us for help."
"You didn't hear what I said to him. Don't know what I was thinking, laying an ultimatum on him—I should know by now that only gets him desperate."
"I am, too. Sometimes I look at him lying over there in that bed, and I think about him never waking up, and that makes even angrier. Happy says we should just be glad he's going to wake up, but…"
"It's one more red flag."
"It is. I have no idea how to get him to stop thinking of himself as disposable."
"If he'd just figure out that he doesn't have to do everything alone, maybe we coulda stopped this whole thing before it got out of the gate."
"You can't blame yourself, Steve. That might be true, but we have no way of knowing, and you know how much I hate saying it, but—maybe he was right. He sees things that other people don't."
"I should get going. I have an eleven o'clock. I'm glad to see your ear's looking better, though."
"Be well. Both of you."
"You know, sometimes I wonder if you realize how much better it makes me to be around someone who pushes me like you do. You make me see things in a new way, make me take stock of all my assumptions. And then you go and do something like this, hide away because you think you know what's best… I don't know if I can take it. I just don't know."
"Shellhead—Tony. Come back. Please."
When he wakes, he's already lit up with what recovering alcoholics like to call a moment of clarity. It's right there, sitting on his tongue, ready to share with the world; but Tony, who spent most of the past decade atoning for the many and varying sins he committed even without the excuse of brainwashing, is already wondering whether he's strong enough to carry the weight of a sin even more abhorrent still. It's the same quantum leap in thinking that carried him to the armor, the same revelatory transformation that came over him after the death of his parents—pain as the lash to drive him towards what is, if not transcendent, at least survivable; if not better, at least necessary.
He finds Friday. She's already working on countermeasures, preventative inoculations to make sure that what Yinsen's son did to Tony will never be done again. He takes her work and adds to it, gives it back to her, waits to see what she does with it; by the end of his first day of consciousness, his protocols and hers are already in place.
He sees Steve from a distance. His arm's in a sling, but his ear is fine. He looks… tired. Tony remembers being tired, once; now he's not sure he'll sleep ever again. And that's the first day.
On the second day, he talks to Pepper, talks to Rhodey, talks to Happy, talks to Pepper again. Debriefs with Hill. She had his back out there; he can't thank her for ordering the kid's assassination, but she was willing to take out Tony himself when it counted, and that more than anything secures his esteem. He already respected Hill, but now he thinks he might be willing to trust her.
He lays the groundwork; he reads the public; he makes preparations. He asks about the armor. He doesn't ask about Steve. He asks about the people he killed, the terrorists, the passengers on the plane, the SHIELD agents who tried to stop him. He asks about Yinsen's son, whose death he carries no more and no less lightly than the others. He makes sure the kid gets sent home, to his mother, for the closed-casket funeral the kid's cause of death dictates. And that's the second day.
When the doctor refuses to discharge him, he checks himself out against medical advice anyway. Happy meets him at the curb with his favorite Rolls—Happy's favorite, not Tony's—to drive him home. They ride back to the tower in silence, Happy in the driver's seat, Tony in the passenger's. He tilts his dark glasses down and looks up at New York, up and up and up, and he wonders what Steve had been trying to say: I know you don't mean...
When they get back to the Tower, Tony climbs out of the car.
He goes to his workshop.
He builds a What If.
And that's the third day.
IRON MAN BACKS REGISTRATION BILL
SUPERHERO REGULATION GAINING POPULARITY IN SENATE
Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries and co-chair of the Avengers, shocked America on Thursday morning when he came out in favor of the proposed Superhero Registration Act. The bill is currently under review by the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management and may go to vote as early as next month. If passed, the act will require all extra-legal peacekeepers to register their private identity with the government in exchange for a federal stipend and benefits.
Stark had previously spoken against the bill, affirming that it went against "a long tradition of heroes dating back to the Second World War and earlier" and that it would "obstruct the ability of teams such as the Avengers to operate as intended."
When asked about his change in position, Stark said that recent events made him reconsider his views and cited public opinion and incidents like the hostage situation in Springfield and the Stamford crisis.
"We've spent a long time policing ourselves," Stark said, "but it's unfair to put that burden on a community already burdened with so much. It doesn't matter if it's brainwashing or a series of bad decisions; when someone with extreme capabilities loses control, people suffer."
"We have an opportunity here," Stark added. "Let's make the most of it."