“Hey, Friday, when’s the last time we did an update overhaul out here? Only camera I could find has wires. Wires, Fry. Real life wires, like in the stone ages.”
“According to the local system records, the last software update was in 2007, boss.”
“Well, that’s just my fucking luck, isn’t it?” The camera lurches dramatically, frame dropping from the ceiling to focus on Tony’s squinting eyes, right up in front of the lens while he makes an adjustment. “No Jarvis, outdated equipment, vibranium withdrawal. I should invite alcoholism over, really make it a party.”
“It would be a bad move to introduce alcohol into your system right now, boss.”
“Would sure calm the jitters though.”
“The muscle spasms you are experiencing are a projected symptom of vibranium withdrawal. They can only be cured by the reintroduction of vibranium into your system - “
“Yeah, Fry, I know. I’m the one who coded those projections, remember?”
He steps back from the camera, tilting his head at it. The rings around his eyes are almost as bright a red as his Led Zeppelin tee shirt, his beard has grown out of control, a dark shadow across the bottom of his face, he looks thinner than he should be. “How’s that looking?”
“Integrating control of the camera. Testing.” The frame blinks off, then back on, looks from side to side before settling back on Tony. “I have full operational control.”
Tony walks away, flicking on lights in the lab as he goes. Everything is covered in a thin layer of dust, tables cluttered with long-abandoned projects, the floors uneven terra cotta tiles. “Alright, keep a log. Store in new master folder RETOX. If we can’t figure this out in the next 86 hours, I’ll be too dead to explain to dear Nicky why I couldn’t go save the great state of Nebraska with the B-team.”
“Copy that, boss. You want to set a dead man switch?”
“Yeah. Put it at 100 hours. File recipient email@example.com. Include everything from the last week. And turn the camera off, Fry, there might not be enough storage on this ancient system for 86 hours of video.”
The camera comes on. Tony’s sitting at the desk in front of it, a case open in front of him to show a row of syringes filled with glowing blue liquid. He picks one up. “Liquid vibranium solution treatment number 7,” he says to the camera. “5 more treatments until this stuff kills me. 16 hours on each. 80 hours left.”
He injects the solution into his arm. The glow is visible under his skin, in his veins, for a moment before dissippating. He flexes his fist. “Fucking ow.”
He tosses the syringe aside and closes the case. The camera turns off.
“What’s the time, Friday?”
“T-minus 73 hours and 4 minutes, boss.”
Something crashes in the depths of the lab. Tony appears from behind a table, a welding mask tipped up on his head, hands in thick canvas gloves. “I need something to stop the spasms, I can’t hold a blowtorch.”
“Jarvis’ records indicate there should be propranolol in the master bath medicine cabinet on the third floor.”
Tony pulls off his gloves as he approaches the work desk, discarding them on the floor. Whirring noises continue from the depths of the lab, some machine still working. “Never thought I’d have to fucking jury-rig a particle accelerator again. I’ve gotta say, this isn’t as much as fun as last time.”
“It’s a shame I missed it, boss.”
He picks up a water bottle full of green-black sludge, and drinks half. “Gotta take this remodel upstairs. How’s our full-system blood transfusion model working?”
“Calculations suggest it would work if you transplanted your heart, too.”
Tony grimaces as he downs the last of the sludge. “No go on that one, then. Fuck. Hey, where’s the closest major hospital?”
“Valencia. An hour by car, fifteen minutes by jet, five minutes in the Mark XI.”
“They by any chance stock levobupivacaine hydrochloride?”
“They do indeed, boss. In the maternity ward.”
Tony sits down in the desk chair and pushes off, wheeling over to a nearby work station. He wakes a computer, pulls up a model of his own circulatory system, and changes a few lines of code. “See if you can intimidate them into sending some over. Rush delivery.”
He hits enter, and the model starts to run, red filtering through the circulatory system on screen. The desk chair pushes back from the desk, and he stands, heading out of frame. “And Fry? Run the full system transfusion model again. I changed a few things.”
“The blood type you coded for doesn’t exist, boss.”
“Yeah it does, it’s Steve’s. Send my tunes upstairs, would you.”
The camera comes on to an empty lab. There are alarming jackhammer noises coming from the ceiling. The lens angle adjusts in time to watch a large chunk of the ceiling fall through, crashing to the next level.
Tony coughs in the dust, a hand over his mouth as he looks through the new hole from the floor above.
“My vision’s starting to go,” Tony says. “I should have 45 hours left on the vibranium serum treatments, but if the symptoms get to the point where I can’t work anymore, that’s not going to matter.”
The frame is divided into four boxes, containing the faces of Tony, Jane Foster, Helen Cho, and Hank Pym with bonus Scott Lang hovering over one shoulder. Tony is wearing thick-framed glasses with holograms dancing across the lenses, like the interior of the Iron Man helmet.
“You think the serum treatments are too concentrated?” Hank asks.
Tony drags a hand over his eyes. “The arc reactor created a consistent distribution over time,” he says, “in the form of radiation, not liquid. And I didn’t have to dilute with 78 percent sugar water to keep it from sending me into shock. The serum is fending off the worst of the symptoms, for the moment, but it’s not sustainable. It’s going to kill me.”
“Why has withdrawal taken so long to manifest?” Helen asks. “We took the reactor out six months ago.”
“I think with the way the vibranium was being administered, I had enough left over in my system to keep me going for a while. Until last week, at least. But this is a completely new science, and I’m not a biologist, so-“
“I don’t want to be the one to state the obvious, here,” Jane interrupts, “but why don’t you just … put the arc reactor back in? Wouldn’t that fix everything?”
“That’s plan Z, yeah,” Tony answers. “I’ve got everything set up to synthesize vibranium again, if I have to. But I would really prefer not to. Because that’s just a hassle.”
“You should call Bruce,” Scott says, “I bet he’d be good at this kind of thing.”
“No one knows where Bruce is, Scott,” Jane corrects, a stressed edge to her voice. “Right, Tony?”
“Right,” Tony says. “I mean, I could try the Hulk signal, but I don’t think gamma radiation is the solution - “
“Are you sure the detox would kill you?” Hank interjects. “You might be able to ride it out. Most rehab facilites have detox wards to stabilize patients coming down off addictions.”
“He’s not a drug addict,” Helen says. “He’s had the rarest element on earth irradiating his system for five years. There is no medical precedent for this.”
Tony sighs. “I’m not really sure of anything. But the projections I’ve been running are pretty sure I’m going to die of either thousands of seizures, thousands of heart attacks, or vomiting up my own lungs.”
“Yikes,” says Scott.
Jane says, “I vote you put the arc reactor back in now, while you still can. Who’s with you that could assist with the surgery?”
“No one,” Tony says. “Just me, my girl Friday, and the friendly goat herders of Cova Tallada, Spain.”
“Goat herders have steady hands,” offers Scott helpfully.
Helen ignores him. “I can be there in 21 hours from Seoul. You should not be doing this surgery on yourself, Tony. The sternum plate we put in will be very diffucult to remove from such an angle, and correct positioning of the arc reactor in your chest cavity will require very precise incisions - “
“Okay, gross,” Scott says. “We’re out. Good luck, bye.” Hank’s square goes dark.
Helen fixes him with an entreating look, “Tony - “
“Friday’s telling me there are incoming storms in the area, Cho. You’re not going to get a flight into the Mediterranean for at least twenty four hours. I don’t think I’m going to last that long. Fry?”
Friday’s calm voice replies, “Your vision will be uncorrectable by current technology in 15 hours, boss. If tremors continue to increase in severity at the current rate, propanolol will be unable to repress muscle spasms in approximately 7.8 hours.”
Tony grins mirthlessly. “See? No time. Gotta do this myself.”
“You will have to use epidural anaesthesia,” Helen says. “Do you even know how to administer epidural anaesthesia? There’s no telling how it will affect your body while you are still experiencing vibranium withdrawal. You may not even be aware enough to perform the surgery. It could be extremely dangerous.”
“Well, the alternative is extremely dangerouser.”
Jane is watching him carefully. “Tony,” she says, in a tone that suggests she’s trying very hard not to spook a cornered, rabid animal, “have you talked to the team? To Steve?”
“Jane - “
“They’d want to know what’s going on, Tony. They’re your family. Steve - ”
“They’re busy,” Tony says. He pushes away from the monitor, so only his shoulder is visible as he works on something out of frame. “Apparently the psycho of the month has an infinity stone. If I call Steve, he’ll drop everything and come here, and then Nebraska will turn into a big fucking black hole in the middle of the continent. Anyways, in 8 hours this will all be over, like nothing ever happened.”
“Tony - “
“Thanks guys. Helen, call you back when I’m ready to go, you can talk me through it.”
“Seriously, Tony - “
The screen goes black.
The camera comes on. Tony’s sitting several feet away at another work station, one leg folded up against his chest, staring blankly at a computer screen. The transfusion model runs, blinks green.
“The last 467 runs of the transfusion model have been successful, boss. Cycling your blood through Captain Rogers’ body would enable the super soldier serum metabolize out the dependent cell structures and eliminate dependence on vibranium - “
“There’s no way to know what it would do to him, though,” Tony interrupts. “No. Scrap it.”
“Get rid of it, Fry. All of it. Purge data for transfusion models 37-B through -H.” The display in front of him dissolves into an endless run of code. He gets up and walks out of frame. The camera shuts off.
Feedback screeches. The camera sweeps over an empty lab, as far as it can turn, and then back again. A long cylindrical tube runs through the room, joining with another length of venting coming through the ceiling. Flickering lights strobe spastically from somewhere out of range.
Suddenly, a bright blue laser cuts across the lab, tearing through everything in its path. “Shit. Shit shit fuck shit fuck,” Tony swears loudly, “fuck this is just as bad as last time why did I think it would be easier - “
The feedback increases, frame shaking wildly, until the camera blinks off.
“Don’t send this, Fry, just save it to the RETOX master file.”
“Copy that, boss.”
Tony’s sitting outside, on a wide open terrace. The Mediterranean stretches towards the horizon behind him, angry black stormclouds approaching over the water, blocking out the sunset. He’s holding the phone’s camera out in front of him, squinting through his glasses at the screen.
He attempts a smile. Fails. “Hey, Steve. By now you’re so furious you’ve got your star spangled panties in a twist over my mysterious absentee superhero act. Sorry about that. I promise I’ve got a good excuse. You’ll see. Well, if you’re watching this, by now you’ve already seen.”
His shoulders slump. He looks drained. “Long story short, vibranium addiction is a thing. A thing that I have, apparently. Which, with the arc reactor gone, makes for serious vibranium withdrawal. I now have - Friday, time?”
“3.24 hours until total loss of muscle control.”
“Right. I now have 3 hours or so until highly-probable death. The arc reactor is going back in, sadly, but it must be done. Just one of those things. If all goes well, you will never see this. If not -
“If not, I just wanted to say thank you. You - ah.” He clears his throat. “Fuck, we had a good run. This better not ever get back to Rhodey, but you - Jesus Christ, I’m tearing up, what is this.” A nervous, thin laugh. “Anyway, there’s nothing you could have done, Steve. So.
“Hopefully you never have to see this.”
“This was a terrible, idea, Friday, why are we doing this?”
“Without the arc reactor, your odds of survival stand at 1 to 8,457.”
“Oh yeah, thanks for the reminder.” Tony’s lying in what looks like a dentist’s chair, shirt off, a cart of medical supplies close by, within reach. There’s a monitor hanging above his head, showing a view of his chest, and another to its right, Helen Cho sitting in a stark white lab coat. “When’s the anaesthesia kick in?”
“It should begin to take effect approximately sixty seconds after injection.” Helen’s holding an x-ray of Tony’s rib cage, his sternum a noticeably different density, his ribs spread wider than average. “Now, the first incision should be six inches exactly from the collar bone to the fifth rib. That will give you access to the sternum plate, which you have to unscrew from the first and fourth costal cartilaginous zones.”
Tony picks up a scalpel, then drops his head back, looking green. “Oh, geez. I definitely should’ve gotten drunk for this. Smashed, last birthday party level drunk.”
“Tony,” Helen snaps, “pull yourself together. It’s just surgery.”
“Yep, just surgery on myself. Perfectly normal. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.”
“Friday,” Helen says, “how are his vitals looking? Is his heartbeat elevated?”
“Heartbeat normal, Dr. Cho,” comes Friday’s even voice. “Blood pressure, blood toxicity, respiration rate, and body temperature all holding steady. Ocular acuity deteriorating at 1.4 percent per minute.”
“Tony, how are you feeling? Do your mental functions feel impaired at all?”
“Nope, I can still think,” Tony replies. “Alright. Here goes nothing.” He flips the scalpel over in his fingers and lowers the blade to his chest, pressing. A bead of blood appears, trailing over his tan skin. “Fry, stop recording. No one wants to see this.”
“Boss, lung capacity is at 74 percent. Dropping. 73 percent. 72 percent. 71 percent. Stabilizing at 71 pecent. Lung capacity stabilized.”
“That’s normal, Friday,” Helen says. Tony’s chest is closed, a hollow metal tube nestled between his ribs, a thick suture running a line down the center of his torso. “The arc reactor presses against his lungs.”
Tony twists the glowing blue core of the arc reactor into place in his chest. It sinks down with a metallic clunk, and his eyes widen abruptly, mouth forming a shocked o. He gasps, then splutters back down, breathing hard and heavy. His arms are coated in blood up to his elbows.
“Tony,” Helen soothes, “you need to lower your heart rate. Just breathe evenly. In through the nose, out through the mouth. You did it, it’s over. You just need to breathe.”
Tony’s erratic breathing evens out. His gaze drifts to the screen with his chest on it. “I did it. Huh.” His eyelids droop, head listing to the side. “Friday. Tunes.”
The opening of Dazed and Confused plays softly over the lab’s loudspeakers.
Helen says insistently, “Tony, you need to take the epidural IV out of your back, and start a drip of glucose in your arm. After that, you can pass out.”
“You know what would be nice? Holy-fuck-we’re-alive sex. I love holy-fuck-we’re-alive sex. I think I deserve it, too. Fry, how would you feel about a quick tumble in the haystacks?”
“I’m an AI, boss.”
“We can make it work. Don’t rain on the love parade, baby.” Helen laughs lightly. “Still no? Alright, fine. It’s a shame Steve isn’t here, I bet he’s great at holy-fuck-we’re-alive sex.”
The camera comes on. “We’re on hour 96, boss.”
The view is straight up like the phone is lying on a table, Tony leaning over it, chewing a mouthful of energy bar. He taps the screen, then slides his finger across it like he isn’t aware that the camera is on at all.
“That’s nice, Fry.” There are deep bags under his eyes. His hair is unkempt, beard spread across the entire lower half of his face, and he’s shirtless. He finishes the bar, crumples the wrapper, and tosses it away.
“There are 4 hours left until the deadman switch - “
“Whatever it is, it can wait until I get some sleep. I’ve been up for most of the past week.”
“But boss - “
“Do not disturb mode, Fry. If there’s an emergency defcon two or higher, wake me.”
He picks the phone up, still tapping the screen as he moves out of the kitchen, down a hallway, and into an enormous, sunlit bedroom. He climbs into an enormous, empty bed, crashes down onto a mountain of pillows, still staring up at the camera. A second later, the camera shutters off.
“Where the hell have you been, Tony?”
The camera peers out from behind a stack of papers, like it’s been discarded and forgotten.
Tony’s puttering around a Stark Industries R&D lab with a soldering iron in one hand and half an apple in the other, and he doesn’t even look up when Steve accosts him. “I was enjoying my Mediterranean villa, Cap. Figured you had enough firepower with the B-team.”
Steve looks furious, a splotchy red flush all the way up his neck to his face. “If I put out the call for the Avengers to assemble, I expect Iron Man to respond.”
Tony’s fiddling with what might have once been a coffee maker. “Well, I was on vacation, and Iron Man doesn’t function so well without me. You may have noticed.”
“Tony, you have a responsibility to - “
“The cornfields of Nebraska?” Tony interjects. The coffee maker is spitting out hot brown water into a mug with Iron Man’s mask on it. “You’re gonna have to try a different guilt trip, Cap.”
“A responsibility to your team, Tony. Sam got taken down, Vision had to cover the whole sky - “
“Vision can handle it.” Tony picks up the mug of coffee and starts drinking it, black and scalding. “He’s is a cross between a demigod and an Artificial Intelligence system. Eyes in the sky is a downgrade.”
“That’s not what this is about, Tony. You’re part of a team, you have to show up when the team plays.”
“The team doesn’t need me, Steve.”
Steve grabs Tony by the shoulder, and turns him around. “Tony, is this about the Ultron program? You know none of us blame you, I thought we left this whole thing behind us ages ago - “
“No, this isn’t about Ultron.” Tony knocks Steve’s hand away and stalks towards the camera, setting the mug down hard on the table in front of it. Coffee splatters the lens. “Would you just fuck off for once - “
“Tony, come on - “
Steve tries to grab his shoulder again. Tony dodges his hand, bumps into the table behind him. The coffee mug tips over, spilling onto the camera. There’s a fizz, a spark, and the picture shorts out.
The camera comes on. Tony’s sitting at the desk in front of it, shirt off. He unwraps the layer of bandages over his chest, revealing the arc reactor. “Fry, how’s the quinjet engine update coming?”
“Moving along nicely, boss. The prototype should be fully synthesized in 34 minutes.”
Tony puts a square of gauze over the reactor. He grabs a roll of duct tape, and starts taping over it, masking the blue glow of the core. “Print those blueprints. Coulson likes paper.” He tears the last strip of tape off with his teeth, pats it down, and pushes away from the desk.
“Friday, can you please log into my email account?”
“Sure thing, Captain Rogers.”
Steve leans in close to the screen, the light from it reflected in his eyes. “Aw, geez. When’s the last time I checked my inbox?”
“4 weeks and 3 days ago, Captain. Would you like to filter messages by importance?”
A look of relief soothes the crease between his eyebrows. “That would be great, thank you.”
“Would you like to use the same parameters to judge importance as saved in your user preferences, or would you like to set some new criteria?”
“No, just the usual is fine, Friday.” His eyes flicker over the screen while the email filters and rearranges, then settle in to read. “Why was Tony emailing me during the mission? He said he was on vacation.”
He moves the mouse to click the messge. “Captain, I don’t think Mister Stark meant to send that.”
Steve squints at the text. “What, was he drunk? This sure has a lot of attachments.” He double clicks, and the white screen reflected in his pupils goes dark. “What … “
Tony’s voice comes over the computer’s speakers. “Hey, Friday, when’s the last time we did an update overhaul in here?”
Steve looks perplexed. “But he said - “
“I’ll just give you some privacy, Captain Rogers.” The camera turns to black.
“Friday,” Steve’s voice wavers on the word. His eyes are rubbed red, still overflowing with moisture even though his cheeks are streaked with tear tracks. “Where is he?”
“Mister Stark is in the 17th floor research and development lab.”
Steve is standing to leave before she finishes speaking.
“Alright, Dummy, try and hold steady for once in your life, will you?”
The camera lurches then comes back up and settles on Tony. He’s standing at the center of a cleared space, wearing the Iron Man suit from the knees down, wiggling his eyebrows at the bot holding the camera. Dum-E whirs closer, but Tony waves him back away, so he’s fully in frame again.
“Stay still, you useless bucket of bolts. Alright,” he squares his shoulders, “Mark XV incapacitated flight simulation, take 7. In 3, 2 - “
The repulsors on the bottom of the boots fire, lifting him from the ground. His arms windmill wildly, no repulsor gloves to stabilize him, his legs go into the splits, and he cartwheels out of the air, repulsor jets shutting off half way to the ground.
“Dummy, stay - “ comes from somewhere in the wreckage of the lab. Tony staggers to his feet behind a lab table that’s been knocked on its side, the boots heavy and ungainly without the rest of the suit. “Take 7 is - “
“What the hell, Tony?”
Tony tries to whirl around, but his feet don’t cooperate. “Steve, buddy, didn’t know you were home. Just some routine testing, nothing to see here - “
“I could’ve saved you, you idiot!”
Every muscle in Tony’s body freezes. “What are you talking about? I’m fine, Steve - “
“But you weren’t last week, Tony!” Steve stomps into frame, his cheeks still damp and his chest heaving. He’s in a loose black tee shirt and grey sweat pants, like he was about to go to bed, golden hair stuck up in the back. “You were in trouble, and I could’ve helped, but instead you just - “
Realization dawns on Tony’s face. “You weren’t supposed to see that. Damn it, Fry, deadman switches are for dead men - “
“Well I’m glad I saw it, Tony.” Steve’s right up in his personal space. Tony makes an aborted movement away from him, but the boots weigh him down. “You were just going to hide this from us? From me? You shouldn’t have to go through something like that alone. You don’t have to go through something like that alone. The cornfields could have waited - “
“It’s all good, Steve,” Tony taps his chest. “Arc reactor back where it belongs. No sweat.”
“You enormous idiot - “
“Good insult, really. Look, I tried just about every other avenue. Probably could have figured something out if I had more time, but this works, so.”
“You didn’t have to do that, you didn’t have to - to perform fucking open heart surgery on yourself. You could have used my blood, the super soldier serum - “
“Steve, look, I know you would go to hell and back for your team, but there was no way to know what affect my vibranium-fucked blood would have had on you - “
“I don’t care, Tony, I would do anything - “
“You can’t just risk your life every time one of us is in danger, Cap - “
Steve cuts him off, grabs Tony by the head, and kisses him hard. Dum-E whizzes closer in curiosity, the camera bobbing out in front of him, in time to see Steve pull back a breath, knocking his forehead gently into Tony’s. “I would do anything, Tony,” he says, the force of Captain America behind his words.
“You were busy.”
“You’re more important than Nebraska, punk.” Steve kisses him again, lifting him off the floor even in the Iron Man boots to settle him down on one of the few upright work tables left in the lab. He tugs at Tony’s tee shirt, nuzzling into his neck to murmur, “Let me see it.”
Tony pulls back slowly, just enough to put space between them to yank his shirt over his head. The patch of duct tape covering the arc reactor stands out in stark relief against his skin, and Steve starts to gently pull back the edges, until the blue core is revealed. He bends and presses his mouth to it, then moves up to brush his lips along the raised cord of Tony’s surgery scar.
“Steve,” Tony drops a kiss on his head, “come up here.”
Steve surges up to meet him, his arms wrapping as far around him as they’ll go. Tony spreads his knees, and Steve steps between his thighs, catching his mouth with short, close-mouthed kisses.
“Please don’t ever do anything like that again,” Steve pauses to say. “Don’t do that to me, Tony, I can’t - I love you, you can’t just - I don’t want you to be alone - “
Tony turns his head and kisses him, pulling Steve down on top of him as he eases down onto his back on the table. His fingers rake through Steve’s hair as Steve moves down Tony’s chest, dragging his lips across his stomach, mouthing at the waistband of his pants.
Dum-E whirs curiously closer. The camera swings to Tony’s head, thrown back, his eyes half closed, a flush on his cheeks, mouth a kiss-bruised slash of red. He bites his lip, eyebrows arching, and whines, “Jesus - “
The camera swings back around to Steve’s head moving unsteadily lower, Tony’s pants shoved down around the Iron Man boots. A rough gasp, and the frame goes black.