He was falling. It made sense. The thrusters in his legs had reached maximum trajectory. There would be no staging or upper stage burn, this was it. Still he couldn't stop he scream that tore from his chest as he fell face first. The ground hurtled closer. He needed to flip. To dangerous to land like this. He pulled in his limbs, drew in as deep a breath as he could and rolled. The last few moments felt like an eternity, and then the world went dark.
He let out a quiet groan. Everything hurt. Forcing his eyes open he blinked. The sunlight streaming through the eye holes of the mask was too bright after so long in the cave. Cautiously he turned his head. It hurt but he was able to move. He wiggled his fingers and toes. All good. Maybe he'd managed to avoid any major spinal injuries. His arms were still encased in the wiring and framing of the suit's skeleton. He lifted his left arm to try to shake off the connections and a sharp cut of pain exploded at his shoulder. Letting his left arm drop he more carefully lifted his right. It ached but he could move it.
Shaking off the last pieces of the suit from his right arm he reached up and pulled the mask off. The sun burned at his eyes. He let his head drop back into the sand. “Not bad.” He mumbled.
The sun beat down in his shoulders and chest. How long had he been out? It was morning when they had started the escape. A quick glance up at the sun told him it was now around noon. Any skin that had been exposed to the sun felt tight and hot, the beginnings of a sunburn. He needed to get moving.
Using his right arm as a brace he pulled himself up. The shift in movement sent a fresh wave of pain over him, centering on the reactor. His vision went grey. He forced himself to breathe as deeply as he could around the obstruction. He couldn't pass out. He had to stay awake. When he felt like he could breathe again he started to work. Using his right hand he carefully freed his left arm from the last bits of the suit.
Dropping back into the sand he began to half drag himself out of the leg sections of the suit. Thankfully his legs, while incredibly sore, seemed to have escaped any major injuries as well. He pulled some of the cloth from inside the suit. Grabbing a jagged piece of metal he cut one of the few intact water cooling lines and soaked the cloth. He wrapped the cloth over his head and face and stood shakily.
Glancing over the horizon he turned his back on the plumes of black smoke still rising from the fire and began to walk. Each jostling step made both his left arm and the reactor throb painfully. He pulled his left arm up against his chest. He should have fashioned a sling from the wires and cloth. It was too late now. He wasn't going back. His left hand blocked the metal of the reactor from the sun. The last thing he needed was it superheating on him.
This wasn't how it was supposed to work. He'd fucked up the plan. He was supposed to have killed everyone he could then they are going to spend the day planning, eating, resting, gaining strength and then leave out tomorrow. Yinsen was going to take him to a village that was a days walk away and help him get home. But Yinsen was dead. If he'd just spent more time optimizing the initialization sequence, or even thought of starting it before they began to put the suit on the other man would still be alive.
He stumbled going down hard on his right knee. A shout of pain tore past his teeth before he could stop it. Stumbling back to his feet he kept moving. He needed to find somewhere he could survive the night. While the sun was miserably hot now when it went down it would likely get below freezing and he was only wearing a tank top and what was left of his dress pants.
His eyes searched the horizon but he saw nothing but heat shimmering up from the sand. He turned to make sure the smoke was still directly at his back and continued. Each hill he crested he looked for any signs of a burned out tree or cave or anything he could use to survive the incoming night.
His tongue felt thick and swollen in his mouth. What were the symptoms of heat stroke? Maybe he didn't need to worry about the night after all. Maybe the sun would get to him first. He pushed the thought away. He couldn't die. Not yet. He had to fix things. He had to make things right.
The sun began to drop lower and lower on the horizon. Either the fires had died out or been put out because he could no longer see the smoke. His legs shook with the exertion of moving through the sand after so many hours. He couldn't stop. Stopping meant death.
It was starting to get dark. He needed to find something, somewhere to be. He-
The sound of helicopter blades made him spin. In the fading light he could clearly see the Stark logo on the side as it flew over. He lifted his right arm and called “Hey!” Waving frantically he watched as the helicopter circled back. A hysterical bubble of laughter pressed through his lips as and he yelled again before letting his legs give out.
The helicopter landed and Obie stepped out, crossing the sand towards him. “Tony!” The other man called as he approached. “God Tony. You're alive! Come here, my boy.” He pulled Tony to his feet.
Tony smiled weakly. “Hey Obie.” His voice was tight, this throat raw.
“Come on. Let's go home.” He nodded, stumbling the last few feet to the copter. He dropped into one of the back seats. He was going home. He swallowed back the tears that tried to form at the edges of his eyes. No one passed him a headset but he was fine with not having to talk.
Obie tapped his arm and pointed. He leaned over. The fire still smoldered in the darkening desert. Obie pointed at Tony then back down at the fire. He nodded. Obie said something into his headset but he couldn't hear it. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the seat of the helicopter.
The sun had fully set by the time they made it back to the runway. He was relieved to see one of his private planes already fueled and ready. “Go ahead Tony. I need to talk to the pilot.”
Tony nodded. The temperature was plummeting and he was ready to be inside the heated plane. It wasn't the same one he and Rhodey had flown in on. This one was a strictly business planes. The inside held four sets of four seats. Each set had two seats facing forward, a small table then two seats facing backwards. A few minutes later Obie climbed into the plane and pulled the door closed. “He's not coming back with us?” Tony asked.
“No. He's local. Stand up, let me get a look at you….What's that?” Obie's fingers reached for the glow of the reactor. A ripple of panic shot through him and he was backing up before he even realized it.
“Easy Tony. What's going on?” Tony's eyes checked the empty plane before carefully pulling up his shirt to show him the reactor. “Is that?”
“Yeah. I was able to miniaturize the arc reactor. It's how I escaped.”
Obie’s eyes were wide. “Sit down and tell me everything.” Obie grabbed three bottles of water and some sandwiches from the hostess cart and sat in front of him.
By the time he'd eaten through three sandwiches, drank two bottles of water and finished detailing everything from his capture to his escape he felt completely drained. He let his head drop back against the seat, his eyes closed. “We have to shut down the weapons manufacturing sector of Stark Industry, Obie.” He said quietly.
“Shut it down!? Tony we make weapons. It’s what we do. We can't just shut it down.”
“What I saw out there, what happened to those Americans, it isn't right. Something somewhere is wrong. Until I can find out how the ten rings got my weapons we have to shut it down.”
Obie was quiet a moment. “Okay listen when we get back we are going to go on pretending you're dead. I'll get you home, get groceries going but you lay low. Once I get the board to sign off on it then you can ‘come back’. If the board thinks it's you pulling the strings they may try to shut you out.”
He nodded. “I need to tell Rhodes though. And Pepper. She will know too. Jarvis-”
“Tony...A lot has changed while you were gone.” Obie's voice softened.
“Changed? What do you mean changed?” The tiredness gave way to uncertainty and he lifted his head to look back at Obie.
“Colonel Rhodes’ body was never found after you were taken. Its presumed he was blown up during the attack. Then a few weeks after Pepper went missing and turned up in Afghanistan a few-”
“Afghanistan?” Tony cut across.
“Miles from where the attack was. No one knows why she came over but he prevailing theory is she was coming to look for you.” Obie finished.
“No. No that doesn't make sense. She wouldn't. And I.” His heart was hammering, each beat painful as it bumped into the reactor casing. “I.” He stood and stumbled to the bathroom. He splashed water on his face. A sharp pop came from the battery connected to his chest as the hand on the back of his head pulled him up out of the water. He gasped, desperate to pull in even a breath of air before. He couldn't breath. He was drowning. This would finally be it. The time they held him under too long. Couldn't breath. Couldn't.
“Tony!” A banging made him jump. He blinked. He was bent over the sink in the bathroom of the plane. Safe. He's escaped. He was safe.
“Yeah. Be right out.” He called back to Obie.
He looked up at his reflection in the mirror. His face was stained with dirt and blood. He grabbed the hand towel and soaked it in the sink before carefully wiping his face clean. His skin was red and sensitive. He probably had at least a sunburn. The faint discoloration of bruising was beginning to show too. He'd be every color of the damn rainbow by tomorrow.
When he was sure he could breath he stepped out of the bathroom. Obie was back in his seat. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” He dropped into one of the empty seats in a different group of seats from Obie. “I'm gonna get some sleep.”
He jumped as the planes planning gear touched down and the plane bounced. Everything hurt. The reactor most of all but everything. He managed to stifle back a groan as he sat up. “Welcome back Tony.” Obie said with a smile. “We have a car here to take you back. I'll drive that way no one will know you're back.”
He nodded and followed Obie to the car with blacked out windows. Every breath felt like fire burning around the reactor. He was so ready to get home, get clean. “Tony?”
“So if I understood right yesterday, that reactor is keeping you alive?”
“Yeah.” He reached up and touched the cool metal.
“I'm sure you already thought of this but you should probably make more, just in case.”
Tony nodded. “I plan to. This one is only a prototype.”
“Do you need a doctor? I'm sure I could find one to pay enough to-”
“No. No doctors.”
Obie nodded. “Well, if you change your mind.” In spite of his words, Obie sounded relieved.
When the car pulled up outside his house he wasn't sure he'd ever felt so relieved to be home. “I had some of your favorites delivered. They are in the fridge. Text if you need anything.”
He walked up to the door and rested his hand on the scanner.
“Welcome home Sir.” Jarvis said, the digital voice warm and welcoming.
“It's good to be back J. Begin prepwork in the lab. I am going to need a complete medical rundown but first, I'm going to shower.”
“Very good Sir.”
Climbing the stairs proved to be more challenging than he'd expected. Each step made his knees ache and burn. Sheer will brought him up the spiralling staircase and into his bedroom. Gingerly he pulled his shirt off, careful not to jostle his left arm too much. He tossed the shirt in the trash. Pants and underwear followed. He avoided looking in any of the mirrors as he limped to the shower and cranked the heat on full. Steam billowed from the rain heads and in under a minute the massive bathroom was filled with steam. The moisture in the air made him cough but he didn't try to vent it away.
He turned the cool water on, adjusting the temperature until it was right on the edge of too hot. Tentatively he stepped in careful to keep his face out of the water. He jumped out of the water with a hiss of pain as the hot water washed over his sunburned skin. He adjusted the water before stepping back into the simulated rain.
As the water ran over his back and shoulders he felt the energy drain out of him. Logically he knew he was just coming down from the adrenaline that had fueled him probably since he had gotten captured to begin with. It didn't make the weight of pain and exhaustion feel any less overwhelming as it rolled over him.
He forced his eyes open wide. He couldn't rest. He needed a full medical workup from J to be sure he wasn't dying in the next few days then he had to get a replacement built for the reactor. Even Obie had pointed out if the one in his chest failed he was spectacularly fucked.
Tilting his head as far back as he could to keep his face out of the water he turned. The hot water hit his chest and shoulders, he was dimly aware of the most excruciating feeling of pain he'd ever felt and then the world went dark.
He jumped, trying to scramble to his feet, he braced himself against the wall and his left arm gave out his head cracking against the glass wall as he fell. “Sir please try to calm yourself.” It was Jarvis. He was home. He was in the shower? He blinked.
“You were showering and then you fell unconscious. Until you complete further updates, I am unable to provide more detailed information until you reach the lab.”
He closed his eyes and let his throbbing head rest against the shower wall. He had been showering, then his chest… His hand flew up to the reactor. Still there. Still intact. He took another breath. Had the water? He cupped his hands and collected water in his palms. Carefully he poured it over his chest. It hurt around where the reactor met his skin but nothing like before. He tried again letting water fall more directly on the reactor. Same result. It hurt a little but nothing like-. A sharp pop and a lighting blast of pain issued from behind the reactor. He forced himself to breath, focus on staying conscious.
“J?” His voice sounded weak and distant past the throb of his pulse. “Reactor… Not watertight… Log it “
It felt like hours before he managed to pull his breathing back under control and stand. He collected a clean washcloth and wet it before beginning the slow process of cleaning around the reactor. The pain made his hands tremble and his muscles weak but he had to get it clean. If it got infected he was fucked.
It took far longer than he'd have liked to clear away the visible dirt and sand from the healing tissue around the reactor. He grabbed the sprayer off the wall and switched off the rain. Carefully he washed everything below the reactor. He soaped up, avoiding his chest and shoulders all together and rinsed again before washing his hair. At least he no longer smelled like he'd spent a lifetime in a cave. “J?” He asked as he dried off. “How long have I been gone?”
“Three months, two weeks, and five days.”
Somehow that felt like too long but also not long enough. He nodded. “Once my arm is better I'm upgrading you so you can see everywhere instead of just hearing.” He said, tossing the towel at the hamper before wandering into the bedroom.
“Very good, sir.”
Pepper had always protested the idea of Jarvis seeing everywhere in the house but now… He shook his head trying to clear those thoughts away. He couldn't right now. He had to get the reactor fixed, get it upgraded. He wouldn't do any good for anyone if he was dead.
“Show me the stocks, and any other important information since I've left.” He said rummaging through the dresser. He could do this. He could manage the company now. He just needed to focus.
The windows rippled as the invisible screens pulled the data he'd requested. There was an obvious drop in the stocks after he'd been suspected dead but it seemed to have bounced back within a few days. He crossed to the window. “What happened here?” He pointed to the spike in stock prices. A news story appeared showing Obie next to…he blinked. “J, did we release prototype 428.a?”
“The prototype was completed after the announcement of your suspected passing.”
“Those plans weren't even on the Stark server. Did they come here?”
“Yes sir. Obie came and collected a few boxes of schematics.”
He pushed a hand through his hair. It made sense. The company couldn't just die with him but the knowledge that they had come to the house, taken his ideas. “Add update security protocol to the list, J.”
“Of course sir.”
He sat in the bed, pulling on boxers and sweatpants. He wasn't about to try real clothes. His knees protested every step down the two flights of stairs but it was more manageable at least than going up.
Stepping into the lab felt like letting out a breath of air he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. Dum-E trundled over chirping happily with U on his tail. He couldn't help the smile that spread as the two bots crowded him. “Yeah yeah sorry to have worried you.” He said. Dum-E clicked his claw reproachfully at his sarcastic tone. U's camera spotted it first. His servos whirred softly as he moved to get a better look at the reactor. Dum-E followed U's shift in attention noticing too. “Don't touch. It's what's keeping me alive.” He warned softly. Dum-E let out a shrill whistle of concern. “I'll be okay. At least I think I will. J has to check me over.” He moved around the two doting bots and hopped into the medical table.
“Sir I feel I must remind you that I don't have any medical-”
“You have webMD access right? Close enough. We aren't going for perfect here. I just need to know if I'm going to keel over in an hour or two. Is that too much?” When Jarvis was quiet he leaned back. “Run every scan we have.”
“Of course sir.” He could feel Dum-E and U watching as he lay still. “Scans complete.”
His chest felt tight. He stood and moved to the screens at his desk. A wireframe of a human stood in the monitor with a zoomed in view of the chest. “It appears that to make room for the housing of the reactor your sternum has been almost completely removed.” He watched as the sternum on screen faded until only a tiny fragment at the top was left. “This has left most of your ribs floating. Past the bone structure,” the bones disappeared on screen, “the housing displaces both your lungs and heart. This has decreased your lung capacity between 15% and 30%. Because if this your chance if pneumonia is increased. During times of elevated heart rate your heart may come into contact with the wall of the housing. This may weaken or injure your heart over time. Less critically the back of the housing is pressing on your esophagus and may make eating larger bites of food difficult.” He had turned away from the diagram of the person his eyes instead fixed on the words Jarvis spoke as they scrolled across the screen. “Finally, the pectoral, external oblique, and rectus abdominis have been displaced. You may experience discomfort lifting your arms above your head or bending too far forward or backward. Sir I really must insist that you see a real Doct-”
“What are the immediate threats.” He cut past Jarvis.
“The skin around the housing has not fully healed and is at extremely high risk for infection.”
“Is that why it's still hurting?”
“That is highly likely.”
“What's the healing time on something like this?”
“There is nothing on record like this, Sir.”
“I know that Jarvis!” He snapped. Taking a slow breath he was able to reply more calmly. “Find something similar.”
“After a thoracotomy it is common to feel tired for 6 to 8 weeks. Your chest may hurt and be swollen for up to 6 weeks. It may ache or feel stiff for up to 3 months. You may also feel tightness, itching, numbness, or tingling around the incision for up to 3 months. Your doctor will give you medicine to help with pain.”
“It's been three months already.”
“It is likely the area has suffered at least one infection due to unavailable hygiene that has slowed progress.”
“Find a doctor who can prescribe pain meds without a visit. And antibiotics. Strong ones.”
“Sir, I'm not sure I-”
“Make it happen J. Wipe all records of the scan that show any part of the reactor.”
“Of course Sir.” He could hear the frustration but ignored it. He moved over to his work bench and began grabbing paper and pencil. He didn't need anything about the reactor getting pulled from the server. It was far too dangerous right now. "You also have a full thickness tear on your left rotator cuff." Jarvis tone had returned to normal.
He reached up and touched his left shoulder. That explained the pain. “Did you find the break in the water seal?” He asked, sitting to work.
“There is a 2mm gap on the bottom left side. It appears to have been damaged rather than a defect.”
He settled over the table and began to work. “Music on.” The wall of sound quieted his mind and he began to draw.
“Your prescription will be available shortly. Shall I request Mr. Stane to pick them up?” Jarvis’ voice cut through the music. He looked up from the basic shape he'd roughed out.
“Sir, you need to consider eating soon. It's vital you keep up-”
The design slowly began to take shape. Each measurement he noted incorrectly, each note about an element changed. He could remember the right information but if anyone else tried to pick it up and make it, the creation would likely explode long before they got close to completion. Even if Obie had stolen the schematics to save the company if Howard was around to know he'd stopped making those kind of anti theft changes to his schematics the man would have come unglued. “Never write down anything they can take.” He'd said over and over. If he found designs Tony had done with correct measurements Howard would burn them and make him start again. It had only taken a few times to learn that lesson.
A knock on the glass quieted his thoughts. He looked up as Obie dialed in his code and stepped in. "Jarvis mute music." The silence made his ears pound. Obie held up a prescription bag.
"Jarvis had me pick this up. I thought we agreed no doctors Tony." Obie tossed the bag to him.
"The only doctor I've been to is Dr. Jarvis." He said frowning at the weight of the bag. "Fuck Jarvis how much is in here?" He began to pull out bottles.
"Without seeing you the doctor wanted to prescribe a range of antibiotics and pain medicine. He also very firmly suggests visiting at your earliest convenience."
There were four antibiotics and three kinds of painkillers in the bag as well as clearly hand written instructions in how to take them and how often. "Is this the reactor?"
He turned to see Obie looking at his work. It made his skin prickle. Too many years of Howard looking over his shoulder. Obie wasn't like that. "Yeah. The start."
"Looking good Tony. Looking good. I'm surprised you chose to go old school." Obie lifted the paper.
He tried to shrug but ended up only managing to twitch his shoulder before the bloom of pain from both his chest and shoulder stopped the movement. He grabbed one of the pain pill bottles, opened it and tossed back a pain pill. The pill tasted chalky and was hard to swallow dry but he managed to choke it down.
"Need anything else from me?" Obie asked easily. He shook his head. "Take care of yourself Tony. Can't have you disappearing on us again okay?"
"Yeah." He said. Once Obie left he opened the antibiotic bottles, careful to get the dose written in the note correct. He crossed to the fridge and grabbed a water
"Sir, I must advise you that you will be unable to safely consume any alcohol with the pills you are currently taking."
"Yeah, saw that in the note. Music on." The music swelled from silence to prevent as jarring a transition. He sat back at the table and continued to work. Jarvis reminded him when to take the antibiotics but otherwise no interruptions came as he worked. Once he had a drawing of what was in his chest he switched to a red pencil and began to make modifications.
"Sir. I really must insist you eat." He sat up from the bench, his neck and back groaned in protest.
"Why? How long has it been?" His head felt fuzzy.
"..approximately twenty six hours since your return home."
"Yeah. You're right. I need to..." He stood slowly, everything felt tight. He carefully stretched his left arm then letting it fall limp to his side he yawned and stretched his back and shoulders before lifting his right arm to stretch. It got halfway up before a lighting snap of pain flared around the reactor. "Fucking damn it!" He grabbed an empty mug from one of the tables and flung it at the wall where it exploded in a shower of dust and ceramic. His hands came up to his hair, pulling at it as he crumpled to his knees. A wordless yell of frustration erupted from his chest.
How was he supposed to do this alone? Tears threatened to fall at the anger began to melt into anguish and fear. His whole life he'd had someone there. Edwin and Ana as a child, Rhodey in school, Pepper after he took over the company. But now...A touch on his shoulder made him jump. Dum-E was next to him, beeping softly with concern. He heard the soft scrape of ceramic and knew without looking U was cleaning the cup.
He reached up and touched the cool metal of Dum-E's arm and the robot beeped again. It didn't matter if he could do it. He didn't have a choice. Bracing himself on Dum-E's housing he pulled himself up. The robot clicked his claw in question. "Yeah. I'm okay." He patted the bot before turning to the stairs.
Blessedly his legs had healed enough that he stairs were less horrible than before. He looked out at the waves and even though he hadn't surfed in years he found himself craving the freedom to spend hours out in the surf. He'd never been great but it hadn't stopped him from enjoying.
He crossed to the fridge. Obie hadn't been kidding. The fridge was packed with all his favorites. He briefly considered the pizza that took up most of the bottom shelf of the fridge until his eyes caught the sushi bag. He yanked it out of the fridge, and moved towards the table before stopping. It was too quiet up here. He carefully managed the stairs back to the lab. Dum-E and U both chirped at his return.
His stomach audibly growled as he sat back at the bench. He inhaled the first few pieces without really even tasting them. He forced himself to slow down and savor the next bite. He couldn't stop the groan of pleasure if he wanted to. After months of basically gruel water the explosion of flavor was incredible. He powered through the whole bag even though there'd been enough in there for probably at least two if not three meals. "J is it possible to die from sushi overdose?" He asked. His whole body felt sluggish from inhaling so much food so quickly. "Don't answer that."
"You may have been gone for awhile but I do in fact still remember sarcasm." Jarvis said. He couldn't help but smile at the snark in his tone.
Standing he moved over to the couch and dropped into his back. The jostling made his arm hurt but he didn't care. He didn't even remember grabbing a pillow before darkness fell over his mind.