“A man does not die of love or his liver or even of old age; he dies of being a man.”
Percival Arland Ussher
Tony thinks that the shield coming down upon his arc reactor had been the wake-up call he had needed for a very long time.
He counts months
So many months of his conscious mind being submerged in the comforts of a team, a family, a child’s dream of being surrounded by friends, or people that one can relate to as a brother, or a sister, or that weird uncle or distant second cousin, twice removed. Tony thinks that the only reason he had been snagged hook, line and sinker by the entire goddamn package is because he had known no better than the comforts of cold marble and vast gardens, of summer houses and private jets, of strangers being paid by the thousands to keep an eye one him, to serve him, to cater to his every whim. He knows of a long sixteen seater dining table, where the chairs had always been too big for him, and the smooth oak had always looked endless from where he sits at one end, while the rest of the chairs lining his left and his right remains empty. He understands solitude and maybe, his intelligence had also been his saving grace. His intelligence and need to keep his hands busy, to be constantly inspired to think of ideas that seems so out of reach, to think beyond the stars, had saved him to a point, while eating away at his soul and fueling his anxiety, that without Tony realizing it, had consumed him.
It’s the price to pay, he thinks, growing up in the shadow of Howard Stark. Howard had been involved in some of the greatest things the world has ever seen: being a founding member of SHIELD, and scientist who revolutionized the engineering, weaponry and the business world, being a key scientist in possibly one, if not the only, successful Super Soldier program — Tony had lost count of his father’s successes.
And somewhere along the way, like a child looking at a towering gargantuan hero, Tony had dreamed.
He had dreamed of humanitarian movements that would make the world a better place.
His dream had been big, fueled by clean energy, sustainable housing, healthcare that was thorough and cheap and accessible to anyone, of barren wastelands flourishing with green, of droughts replaced with blue that would seem endless to the human eye. He dreamed of making the earth a better place with the help of technology.
Tony had kept on dreaming because apparently, dreams are the only things that he had now, the only things that rob him of sleep, that slams doors on his face and the bringer of warm comforts and memories of Christmas melodies being played on a grand piano.
Even after the captivity, after the torture, after barely managing years of palladium poisoning, after burying years of trauma that he should have handled as they had come to him, Tony had kept on dreaming.
But somewhere along the way, his need to constantly not be alone and not just surrounded by images confined to the times when he closes his eyes, his need to be surrounded by people who had been capable of keeping up with him, to be a part of something that represented something greater than himself, to work with the Super Soldier, the infamous Captain America that his never had never stopped talking about, the man that he had grown to dislike and later on hate as a child, if only because he had seemed so great, an icon and a legend.
It had been every little boy’s dream, to be in the same team as Captain America.
(His father certainly never stopped talking about the Super Soldier.)
And Tony had that.
Captain America, in all his stars and stripes and Old Glory blue, had been nothing more than a distraction.
And nothing had felt more heart shattering, than seeing his friend, or who he thought had been his friend, a man he had grown to love and care about, want to end him with killing intent so palpable, it had felt as cold as the memory of all the empty rooms and endless polished halls of what Tony had remembered as home.
Unless one is staring at the holographic image of one’s diseased heart and lungs.
The feeling is almost similar, Tony realizes. Knowing that you’re gradually dying and realizing that you are about to die in a second.
Tony realizes then, as he laughs with such bitterness while Friday advises him of the top cardiologist and internists of the world to consult with, that the clichéd saying that a veil is lifted from your eyes when you realize that your clock is ticking, that you do not have a lot of days left under your belt, is actually, absolutely, hilariously true. That when he really sits thinks about his limited time, the phantom feeling of his armor cracking and force of the shield shattering his arc reactor and reverberating all the way past the scars and synthetic they had to use to fill the hole in his chest engulfs him like a tidal wave.
And he’s left with nothing but short breaths and his heart palpating at alarming rates, while his head swims and he feels his body start to shut down and he just can’t breathe and all he knows then, in that short moment, is fear and the Perfect Soldier, the man that he had thought was his friend, the man he had thought would come to see him as someone important or something important, looking down at him with his fists tight around the edge of the vibranium shield and killing intent, or a flash of it, so, so sharp, that just the memory of it is enough to make Tony’s heart stop for good.
Well, it’s not like the hole in his chest had completely disappeared anyway.
(Maybe it never did.)
He tries not to think about Steve Rogers, or his blue eyes, or his clenched teeth and how he had looked like when he had tried to stop him from punching Sergeant Barnes’ teeth in. He tries hard to not think of the good days, of their times together, when they had a real home, a real family. Tony tries so hard to just not think of Steve Rogers at all, because Steve Rogers at some point made his heart race. It made sense that Steve Rogers would also be the one to make it stop dead.
It’s then, amidst the self-loathing, the pain, the regret, and disgust, that Tony remembers his dream.
The real dream.
The dream that had been born to a boy who had been alone most of his life.
The boy who had wanted to make a real difference.
(And a good job that boy has done so far, huh? What have you done, Tony? Besides manufacture weapons of mass destruction for years and leveling major cities. Good job there, by the way. You’ve only wasted about three quarters of your life, at this point, achieving nothing.)
Well, Tony figures, dying alone after that cluster-fuck of a mess does not seem so bad.
In fact, it is starting to look like a brilliant and peaceful idea.
One would think that someone like Tony Stark would invest all his effort, time, and resources into trying to figure out how to fix his heart and his lungs. One would think that his first tall order at the bar would be a tall glass of ideas-on-how-to-cure-cardiovascular-disease-for-good-on-the-rocks with a shot-of-cancer-cure-for-even-the-most-wicked-son-of-a-bitches-on-earth. What he gets instead is a diagnosis of, much to his not-surprise, cancer and heart failure; they’re calling it cancer for the lack of a better terminology. Tony supposes that the arc reactor had something to with it and as with all diseases, it would only manifest much later; how typical. He doesn’t listen to the medical terms, or the advice for treatment, let alone the options for treatment. He does listen though, as to how it will affect him. Which, if Tony chooses to be honest with himself, sounds like an absolute pain in the ass. It certainly had explained a lot of the headaches and arm numbness he’s been feeling for a while.
He does hear the fact that if he is lucky, he’s got a few months. Tony makes an appointment to start treatment.
And never shows up.
Because on that day, when he wakes up from the unending dreams of terror, of the taste of blood in his mouth, peppered with the bitterness of betrayal and the feeling of his heart about to explode in his chest because it’s that damn dream again, the one where Steve had smashed his helmet to the side with his shield along with the light Tony had worn proudly over his apparently failing heart, on that particular day, Tony figures out what he would rather do.
Tony calls Pepper immediately.
And he finds it incredibly amusing that he has to wait several minutes to reach the CEO of his company and when he finally does reach her, he tells her, “I have a plan. And it’s going to, maybe, pave way to a brighter future and it’s everything you would love. I want to accomplish it in a year. I am actively stepping away from the Avengers and the politics until further notice. Can you help me?”
Pepper agrees and Tony hears the hesitation.
But he doesn’t care.
His next call is to General Ross.
That call, much to his irritation, takes longer than he had expected.
Tony is aware that he had given Pepper a time frame of a year, when the medical professionals and all other second, third, fourth and even fifth opinion suggests otherwise. The moment he hangs up on Ross, he is up and packing his suitcase and telling Vision that he has something to do and that he should use his judgment to do as the Accords bid him. After all, if there is one being who is capable of making calculated decisions, it’s Vision.
Tony knows that if he wants to achieve remotely half of the ideas that are swimming in his head, in his present condition that will only worsen, he needs fail safes in place. He knows that at some point, he will most likely end up bed ridden, maybe unable to care for himself, and maybe, his limbs and most of all, his mind would betray him. He’s not worried about not being able to move; he still has his suits to assist him with that, if he gets too desperate. His primary concern is his mind and Extremis had been sitting dormant and untouched since he had fixed Pepper up years ago; Tony knows he needs to work fast.
And he knows that it doesn’t necessarily have to work.
But what is the worse than can happen?
Tony snorts at his train of thoughts and locks his suit case, only to find Vision hovering on the other side of the bed, looking at him with an unreadable expression and tilt to his head.
“Are you certain this is wise?”
“For who, the government or myself?” Tony looks away from the pointed look Vision gives him. Funny how, even without eyebrows, Vision seems to be very capable of being expressive while not moving much of his synthetic facial muscles. “You want an honest answer?” Vision doesn’t move. Tony doesn’t look at him as he turns to his night stand to pick up his watch. “I don’t care.”
“That seems rather odd of you to say, given everything that has happened.” There is a pause in the room and Tony is staring at the reflection of mirror, at the opposite side of the room where he has the shield leaning against the wall. “What has changed?”
Tony looks away from the shield and swallows thickly. He opens the drawer to his nightstand instead, picks up an old flip-phone that is every bit as tech-offending as memory of the person who had sent it to him and tosses it towards Vision. The action makes something in Tony’s chest clench painfully that he goes very still, sucking a slow breath; he knows this is for the best.
“When the time comes and you think it’s necessary, call Rogers."
Tony watches as realization flickers into Vision’s eyes, too bright and almost divine to be human. But in that very moment, like a small flame in a vast dark room, Tony thinks that Vision looks the most human; he can almost see the dots connect in Vision’s mind and briefly, Tony feels guilt. He almost sees Jarvis, the real Edwin Jarvis, just for a brief moment and Tony knows his talent of bottling things up has been perfected to a T, but the grief hits him quite hard then that his hand comes up to his chest, rubbing at the almost pinching sensation beyond the synthetic sternum. How he misses Jarvis, and Vision standing there looking at him like that, makes the memory of his deceased care-taker and friend, so painfully raw that Tony feels like he’s three again.
“Is everything all right, Mr. Stark?”
Blinking the sudden swell of emotion away, Tony gives Vision his media smile.
“Never better, Vee. Never better.”