Title: Begin Again
Genre: Family, Kid!Fic, Fix-It
Content Rating: PG
Warnings: Prior Addiction, Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Discussion-Other Trigger Topics, Disturbing Imagery, Dubious Consent, Violence-Canon-Level
Word Count: 50,113
Summary: She tugged Tony against her body, the baby cradled between them. With her forehead pressed against his, she murmured a blessing. “If you would save all creation, look beyond each single life. Mourn the fading of each dead leaf but do not pause to stop it. Instead, create anew. Create out of ashes and death. Create out of darkness and chaos. Remake yourself, Anthony. And rise.”
Artist: The Other Willow
It was a matter of a few hours for JARVIS to repair the suit, during which time Tony slept and fed his son his midnight meal. However, a quick check of his email before going back to bed meant Tony got an email from Christine Everhart requesting a statement about confirmed photos of the Ten Rings using Stark Industries weapons to take over a town called Gulmira.
From there, neither Lex nor Jarvis entered Tony’s thoughts. His mind focused entirely on the blood being spilled on the other side of the world in Yinsen’s own village, and Tony left to put an end to it.
Even after all these years out of the Starks’ service, Edwin was accustomed to their habits of sinking into creation to the exclusion of all else. He disliked it more when Anthony did it to his son than he did with Howard, but a new child in the house was a bit of a change and Edwin was trying to be understanding. He had spent the entirety of yesterday engineering with his child, so Edwin couldn’t fathom why he didn’t do so today, but instead of routing Anthony out of his workshop and back onto the parental schedule – which would only make Anthony dig in his heels in defiance of his own desires and self-interest – Edwin employed the same tactics he had used to get Anthony eating healthy food as a child. It would be slow and sneaky, but one day Anthony would turn around and his engineering would be on a schedule and he would be spending ample time with his son.
However, with his brand new and world-altering creation needing fine-tuning in the lab, Edwin knew it was not the day to start. Despite Alexander’s obvious dissatisfaction at Edwin being the one he spent all his time with – the boy didn’t take his eyes off the door the entire day – they went on together.
At least, they did until Edwin asked JARVIS to call Anthony out of the lab to come up and eat dinner so he didn’t collapse face first into his machinery when his blood sugar dropped. JARVIS paused, which was all the red flag Edwin could take at the moment. He demanded an answer from the AI. JARVIS only informed him that Sir was ‘out’. Edwin immediately flipped on the television and began racing through news channels to discover where Anthony had taken that iron suit of his and found himself watching the scrolling footage on CNN with a broken heart.
When Anthony finally came up from the workshop, pretending that he’d been there all day, Edwin was waiting in the living room with Alexander on his lap and a small valise beside him.
Anthony was all but skipping up the stairs as he announced, “Hey, J. Rhodey is probably going to drop by later today.”
“Because of Gulmira.”
Tony froze, then glowered at one of JARVIS’ cameras.
“He didn’t tell me, Anthony, CNN did.”
“Did they talk about the suit?”
“Not yet, but they will, I’m sure. At this point they just have breaking news banners talking about the Ten Rings being driven out of Gulmira while the US military swears to their allies that they were nowhere near the place.”
“Good, that’s good.” Anthony nodded and made his way to the wet bar that was somehow still standing beside the wreckage of the piano and the hole in the floor because Anthony had been too distracted to call a contractor and Edwin didn’t want to overstep. That was no longer a concern.
“Good? Anthony have you lost your mind!”
“I told you what I was going to do with the armor, J! I told you and you understood!”
“I understood wanting to stop arms sales and save lives! I even understood picking up your mess and wanting to undo the damage that your company has done! This is not that!”
Few things were quite so frustrating as a Stark tuning out your words to stare in the middle distance while their massive brains went someplace that wasn’t your conversation. “Oh.”
“Anthony?” Edwin darted forward, scanning him for blood.
“I haven’t picked up my mess, J.” Edwin had a bright, shining moment of hope that perhaps Anthony understood that this wasn’t the way to go about solving things, but then he looked up with that glazed expression that only came when he was engineering. “The suit I made to get out of the camp, I left it behind.”
“There’s no real circuitry in it, but if they had someone with any skill, they would be able to piece it back together and maybe replicate what I’ve done and how I made it work.”
“It won’t be very good, and powering it would be almost impossible, but it would be something.”
“Especially when footage gets out of the Iron Man armor, they might be able to make something of it.”
That brought him out. “You never call me Tony.”
Edwin wanted to say that he had never been so disappointed in Anthony before, but even in this moment he could not bring himself to such cruelty. “Take your son, Tony.”
Anthony scooped the glowering boy into his arms. “Did he keep you up last night, J? JARVIS said he was sleeping well.”
“Not so I can take a nap. Take him permanently.”
“I’m leaving, Anthony.”
“You’re… what?” His voice caught.
“I cannot watch this. I refuse to watch this.”
“J, I told you what I was going to do!”
“You told me you were going to save people like your Yinsen. You made it sound like you were going to do research on where your weapons went and create a charity to help these people rebuild their lives; that you were going to send them doctors, and make them schools, and help them immigrate! I didn’t think you’d go running off at a moment’s notice in the dead of night to start blowing up terrorists! How is that not what Stark Industries was doing before?”
Never had Anthony looked so much like his father as in that moment, with rage burning bright behind his eyes. “Because the terrorists are the ones with their guns pointed at the heads of women and children.”
“And you’re going to kill them all?”
“You’re damn right I am.”
“And when Alexander comes to me and asks me why his father decided to keep making weapons, what am I to tell him?”
“That’s not what this is, J! You’re the one who taught me to clean up my messes.”
“I also taught you not to make a new one in the process! Between working on your armor and actually flying to the other end of the world to attack people, you haven’t seen your son in nearly two days.”
Anthony flinched, actually looking down at the far too displeased expression on his child’s face. “I’m not going to just—
“You have, Anthony. And worse still, do you have a plan for what happens if you get shot down in your flying suit?”
“Well tonight it was the US military shooting at me.” Anthony tried to joke.
“That makes things much better, being shot at by the only people who I am sure could actually take you down if they so chose. Good heavens, Anthony, JARVIS showed me your approach and the suit is covered in bullet holes!”
“I’m fine, Jarvis!”
“And if you were not, what do you have in place for your son?” Anthony didn’t answer. “I’m waiting, Anthony. Or have you been so busy with your vengeance that you haven’t yet signed the papers Ms. Potts gave you making Alexander your heir?”
“It’s not vengeance. These are my weapons out there in the hands of terrorists. I made them. I sold them. And I had no fucking idea that anyone was using them to attack innocent people. This isn’t about me, it’s about all the damage that has been done in my name and the blood on my hands.”
“And how great a comfort that will be to your son when I tell him how you died.”
“It’s him I’m protecting, Jarvis! Who do you think the terrorists are going to come after if I leave them alone out there?”
“I rather think they will have a much easier time of it when you’re dead and you haven’t put anyone in charge of caring for your child!”
Anthony stormed back to the wet bar, but this was not a conversation to be had with a drunk Stark. Edwin had tried to lecture Stark Senior about parenting while drunk and despite being regenerated, Edwin still had the scars from broken glass.
“Do you know who will have custody of Alexander in case you get yourself shot down? Will that person just have physical custody or will they get all his shares in Stark Industries as well? Have you thought about who will control the company when you’re in the ground instead operating as CEO? Or have you gotten your lawyers prepared for the insanity that will come from the entire Board wanting access to Alexander’s shares? Or when they go to the Court and say that if you’d meant your boy to inherit the company you would have passed it on to him because you’re too clever to forget about such a thing?”
“You’ve made your point, J!” Anthony smashed his glass to the counter and though it didn’t break, the sound made Lex screech in surprise. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Anthony cuddled Lex close, only now seeming to remember that his son was still in his arms. He spent a long minute murmuring apologies into his son’s skin, hunched over and wrapped around him in a way that gave Edwin hope.
Finally, he turned back to face his accuser. “I get it. I do, but I can’t leave these weapons out there, J. I have to fix this. I can’t let these people get away with it. I can’t let people keep dying because I didn’t do enough.”
“You’re on a quest, I understand. You’ve got a world to save. But Anthony, in your desire to set things right I will not let you misplace your son. I sat idly by and let one Stark man do that already and I will not make the same mistake twice.”
“So, what do I do?”
“Have your magical suit of flying armor, but remember that you are more than weapons. Because if you don’t remember that, no one else will.”
Anthony stared at him for a long moment, as always, seeing more than Edwin meant to reveal. He tiled his head and said, “That was weird, J. You gonna tell me what happened to make you say that?”
Edwin sighed. “The injunction was delivered while you were out.”
“Yeah, J told me while I was en route as an FYI. That’s not what’s got you riled.”
“It is not enough to know you nearly died tonight and I wouldn’t have had the chance to say goodbye?”
“J,” Tony stepped closed. “I’m not aiming to get killed, here.”
“No one ever does, Anthony.”
“I’m not suicidal, Jarvis. I’m going to do my best to come home and actually be here when I’m here. I… L is just a baby. I’ve had him for a day and even though I didn’t ask for him I can’t imagine treating him the way Howard treated me. I was a kid. I was a little shit, but I was still a kid. You’ve been telling me for years that Howard being an ass was all on him and wasn’t about me, and I think this might be the first time I actually believe you. I can’t imagine putting all that shit on Lex. I’m still pretty damn sure that I have no idea what I’m doing, but I can at least try. I want to make the world a better place for him, honestly better, not just richer.”
And there it was. He claimed such terrible skill with other people and yet Anthony knew precisely what fears were eating Edwin. He could not say whether it was his worst fear that Anthony might die, or that somewhere along the way he would evolve into Howard and Edwin would be granted a new life just to watch history repeat itself as he failed again. “I will never be able to excuse some of the things Howard did to you, Anthony, and I apologize if you ever thought I was trying to.”
“He was your friend, J, I get that.”
“You were my boy. I should have done better by you. And now that I can, I will do better. Both for you, and for your son.”
“No matter what some of the whispers like to say, Howard wasn’t that terrible. He just – now that I’m sitting here with my kid, I’m pretty sure that he wanted an heir and didn’t think about all the child raising that had to come with that. He didn’t know what to with a kid, and we Starks don’t like being bad at something. And let’s not lie, it’s not like it was a time when he could’ve gone to a therapist for parenting help. Even now that probably would’ve damaged his business.”
“Better his business than his son.”
“That’s why I’ve got J seeing if he could bribe or blackmail any of the therapists you’ve got him looking at who seem good.”
Edwin refused to be embarrassed by JARVIS ratting him out. “Yes, the ability to keep one’s mouth shut is probably of more value than raw talent. But Anthony, perhaps you should let JARVIS conduct his search and speak with a therapist before you go flying off into the blue?” Edwin’s voice cracked.
“I can do that. I can be better, J. I just… I have to…”
“I know. Anthony, I know.” Edwin cradled Anthony’s face between his palms. “I know that if you want to save the world, and run your company, and protect these people, and take care of your son, you can do all of that. You just… you have to decide. It can no longer be a matter of leaving it up to everyone else. You want Stark Industries to stop selling weapons, then make them. Don’t rely on Stane to do it for you. You want the people in that bombed out town to have lives free of terrorism, make it happen.” Tony opened his mouth to counter that that was precisely what he’d been doing, but Edwin pressed on. “You know how to repair machines, not people. Make a charity, talk to the diplomats, read some studies. Stark Industries has tried bombing people into submission for decades, try something else, as you said.”
Anthony gave a gentle nod of his head, careful to agree but not to dislodge Jarvis’ touch. “I can do that.”
“You’re Tony Stark. You can do anything. But first, may I recommend I prepare breakfast for you while you call your counsel.”
“Counsel and Pepper. I’ll need them both if I’m going to get this done.”
“What’s got you so excited, Cheese?”
Phil Coulson had been told by several reliable sources that thanks in no small part to his bland expression they had been convinced he was a Life Model Decoy instead of a real boy. Nick Fury, however, didn’t have that problem. Fury liked to pretend it was natural ability, but in truth he had known Coulson so long they’d both still had hair when it started, and some things were just a matter of time. So, while everyone else roaming the halls of SHIELD thought Phil Coulson looked no different than any other day, Fury caught how Phil kept glancing down at his stack of papers to check on them and make sure they weren’t a figment of his imagination.
“The US Air Force made contact with an unidentified flying object over Gulmira, Afghanistan.”
“Before or after something started blowing up terrorists?”
“And that little grin you’ve got means you think it’s the same UFO spotted over LA yesterday?”
“According to reports from people who caught good sightings in LA it was a flying man, not an object.”
Coulson ignored the joke. “The audio from the Air Force flight recorders also identifies the bogey by saying,” Coulson paused to flip open the folder and read notes that he absolutely didn’t need to, “‘it looks like a man.’”
Nick stiffened. “Show me.”
Coulson set his phone on the desk and tapped play. There was two seconds of white noise from a flying jet before the engagement started, just enough time for Coulson to flick open his folder and lay down the few photos from LA snagged from cell phones and satellite footage over Afghanistan.
The photos were blurry, but coupled with the panicked voices of Air Force personnel and the flying metal suit coming back to save a pilot, it was convincing. “What in the hell, Cheese? Do we have a guy who can turn into metal and fly?”
“I think it’s just as likely that we have a mechanical genius in LA who can build a flying metal suit.
Fury stared at him. “You think it’s Stark?”
“I think it’s a better explanation than a naturally-occurring flying metal man.”
“Given some of the shit we’ve seen, I think it’s more likely that we’ve got another lab experiment gone awry than Tony Stark having enough backbone to fly into Afghanistan and attack terrorists.”
“I think PTSD has manifested itself in stranger ways than that. I also think that James Rhodes was standing in the Air Force Middle Eastern Command at that moment and it was his recommendation that they not target the bogey.”
Fury leaned back in his chair. “His justification?”
“They didn’t know what they were shooting at.”
“Which they didn’t.”
“As the Commander pointed out, it had already taken out one Raptor. Shooting was the logical option.”
“So, you think Rhodes tried to call them off because Tony Stark was in this flying metal suit?”
“I think that if Colonel Rhodes hadn’t been in Middle Eastern Command surrounded by witnesses, I would guess Stark built the suit and Rhodes was the pilot.”
“I don’t like guessing, Cheese.”
Phil didn’t roll his eyes, but Fury saw it anyway, just like Nick didn’t give an order, but Coulson heard it anyway.
Whatever Tony had meant to do – and yes, he might have gotten a little distracted from calling Pepper by working on the bullet holes in the suit, but this was a critical skill Lex needed to know – everything fell by the wayside when Rhodey called.
“Let it ring through, J.”
“Do you intend to ignore all conversation with the outside world on matters that you promised you would handle?” Jarvis said, and really, Tony didn’t like that he couldn’t tell if that was the tone Jarvis had used on Tony when he was being a bratty teenager or if it was the tone he’d used on Howard.
“I don’t have anything to tell him!” Tony objected.
“Colonel Rhodes is cursing into his phone and telling me to, and I quote, make Tony pick the damn thing up.” JARVIS announced.
“Feel free to tell him that I’m working on something and can’t come to the phone right now.”
There was another pause, during which Jarvis just stood there with his arms crossed.
“Colonel Rhodes is using his reasonable voice, Sir. He is currently attempting to persuade me to relay a message to you presently rather than wait until you have completed your work.”
“Putting it off will only make matters more difficult, Anthony.”
“He knows I was in the suit, J. I told him so.”
“Yes, when you were capitalizing on your friendship to keep the US Air Force from shooting a bomb at you.”
“Which they did anyway.”
“That was entirely beyond Colonel Rhodes’ control and not something you can blame him for, as you well know.”
“What Rhodey doesn’t know, the military can’t drag out of him, which you know.”
“I am sure he would agree to keep silent on all matters, not just your son and proprietary technology.”
“Rhodey can’t talk to me about stopping weapons production without it turning into a screaming match, J. I doubt he’s going to turn sympathetic with the Iron Man armor.”
“A secret that is now out of your hands thanks to yesterday’s recklessness. Delaying him will only make matters worse. If Middle Eastern Command chose to drag Colonel Rhodes in for a consult on your armor at the first sighting, you can’t imagine that they’ve suddenly chosen not to interrogate him on the subject with the passage of time.”
Tony sighed and stepped away from the keyboard. The last thing he wanted to do was get irritated with Rhodey and start smashing keys. “Point, J. Let him through.”
“—and you know what’ll happen then, JARVIS!” Rhodey’s voice came bursting over the speakers.
“What’ll happen when, Rhodey-bear?”
As always, Rhodes’ silence managed to echo through the room, all the more impressive when his displeasure was coming through JARVIS’ speakers. “Couldn’t have told me that you’d put me through, JARVIS?”
“Pardon me, Colonel. Your arguments were so persuasive that I chose to act upon them immediately.”
“That’s a lot of sass for a computer program.”
“I shall take that as a compliment to Sir’s coding abilities.”
“You are absolutely a product of Tony’s influence. What in the hell was that, Tones?”
“A person suit test flight?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny.”
“The pilots have already come in and given their statements, Tones. They’ve said it looked like a person, which matches the statements we’ve gotten from people on the ground in Gulmira about the suit of armor that flew in and shot the hell out of some terrorists.”
“Well that’s interesting.”
Tony could hear Rhodey pacing back and forth, restraining himself from cursing. It said something about their friendship that Tony knew the quality of silence meant Rhodey was counting to ten. He could just imagine his best friend out on the grounds of the base somewhere, having abandoned his office with whatever listening devices or eavesdroppers there might be so he could interrogate Tony in the privacy of a parking lot. “Don’t bullshit me, Tony. You already told me it was you. You can’t take that back.”
Rhodey’s objections about truth, justice, and the American way were drowned out for a moment by a test flight zipping by overhead, and that was the end of the conversation.
Rhodey was on base. That’s all it was. And jets flying overhead and a missile coming in for landing didn’t even sound the same. If anyone in the world knew the difference between the acoustics of their propulsion systems, it was Tony Stark. But coming through the speaker on Rhodey’s tinny little phone, Tony’s brain couldn’t tell the difference. Tony tried to reel himself in, tried to say it wasn’t his brain’s fault, it was the phone’s. He could build a better phone. One where it sounded like the person was standing right next to you. He could build a phone that didn’t have the blur that made everything sound the same so you couldn’t tell the difference between jet engines and afterburn.
“Anthony.” Jarvis’ soft hands stroking through his hair broke through Tony’s spiral. Though, judging by the frigid temperature, the jazz JARVIS had playing low, and Rhodey’s murmured suggestions to the people actually in the room, it had taken them a minute to bring him around.
Tony gulped and forced himself back to his feet. “What happened?”
Despite being the only one not in the room, Rhodey said, “You had a flashback, Tones.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You just collapsed, Sir.”
“It wasn’t like I was there, J. I knew I was here, and I knew it was a jet I could hear on Rhodey’s phone, not a missile.”
“Anthony, you collapsed anyway.” Jarvis helped him back to his feel and bit his tongue when Tony went for one of this workshop chairs instead of the couch.
“Knowing doesn’t mean it didn’t scare the shit out of me.”
“Involuntary memories are a sign of PTSD, Sir.”
“I don’t think that’s what it was.”
“Tones, the Jarvises and I aren’t medical professionals. JARIVS can read every article every written on PTSD, Junior can make you tea, and I can guess from what I’ve seen before, but that’s not the same as someone whose job it is to diagnose this shit. I know you don’t want to, but you need to talk to a professional.”
Tony reached out and put a shaking hand on Jarvis’ shoulder. The poor guy looked all kinds of thrown that Rhodey was talking about him like young Jarvis was a regular part of their lives – apparently original Jarvis’ son – and Tony wasn’t helping. “Did you know that the second time he called me after Afghanistan, Jarvis told me to talk to someone about what happened?”
“Jarvis is a smart man.” Jarvis straightened his spine and ran his hand through Tony’s hair, the change in age making it no less soothing.
The first time Tony had called Jarvis after Afghanistan, he’d been fresh off a military cargo plane and in the car on the way to get a hamburger. He’d still been manic enough with relief that everyone in his life had just let him ramble because to do anything else would feel ungrateful. While the rest of them had waited at least a week before mentioning therapists, Edwin Jarvis had no time for delicacy. Tony wondered how Lex’s mom had filled in that part of their memories, what the world thought had happened to Edwin Jarvis to get Edwin Jarvis, Jr standing here.
“Do you want me to hunt down some recommendations?” Rhodey asked, oblivious to miasma of panic giving way to guilt in Tony’s stomach.
“JARVIS is on it.”
“Your AI reading reviews is only going to be able to tell you so much, Tones.”
“Reading reviews, their entire published body of work, any statements they have made about the US military, weapons operations, or Sir in particular, as well as discerning any information in their background that might lead to blackmail or outright threats, as well as indicators about their ability to withstand such treatment, Colonel Rhodes.” JARVIS replied.
“I think you might have insulted him, Rhodey-bear.”
“Computer programs do not get insulted, Sir.”
If you’ll excuse us, Colonel, I believe Sir needs to rest.” The AI hung up on his objections.
“You know, he’s just going to turn up at the front door now.”
“How convenient that I control that as well, Sir.” That was actually pretty comforting.
“Come sit down on the couch, Anthony.”
“I’m sorry, J.”
“Panic attacks aren’t something to apologize for.”
“Whatever you choose to call it—”
“Not the freak out, J. The… you’re not you anymore.”
Jarvis ignored Tony’s objections to wrap his arm around Tony’s waist and haul him to his feet. “Of course I am.”
“But you’re not.” Tony dragged them to a stop and made Jarvis look at him. “You’re Jarvis Junior now. I meant to make you documents, forge your existence, not… whatever in the hell her magic did.”
“It’s fine, Anthony.”
“No, it’s not!” Tony shoved off the touch trying to get him moving again. “What does the world think happened? Do they think you’re dead? Did you just vanish into thin air? And where did Junior come from?”
“Tony, Tony.” Jarvis put his hands on Tony’s shoulders. “These are all good questions that I’m sure my Other Self can find the answers for, but you need to calm down.”
“I don’t, Jarvis! You don’t exist anymore!”
Jarvis threw aside all their usual protocol for dealing with one another and wrapped Tony in a bear hug. It shouldn’t have been so comforting from such a lean guy, but Jarvis smelled the same way he had when Tony was young. He felt too big for his own body wrapped up in those arms, but the scent, it was like coming home and the rush of terror and guilt leaving Tony’s body made him want to sob in relief. “I’m sorry, J. I’m so sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for, my boy. It is a gift to be given more time. No father in the world would say otherwise. Learning a new life story is a small price to pay.”
“But it’s still a price.”
“Such is life, Anthony.”
“Sirs, I must interrupt.”
“We’re kind of having a moment here, JARVIS,” Tony said with his face buried in Jarvis’ throat.
“Da-da!” Both men froze. “Da-da!”
“Fuck.” Ever so slowly both men turned to the crib and found Lex standing on his own two feet when ten minutes ago he couldn’t sit upright. His hands were wrapped around the top of the crib and the was onesie uncomfortably tight around his fat little body while he expressed his displeasure at being excluded from the hugs with the one word he knew.
“I believe the Young Sir can be placed at nine months.”
“I do not believe—”
“Discernable growth started the moment you hit the floor, Sir.”
“Well, fuck. J, call the therapist.”
Stanley Keyworth had never been more uncomfortable in his life. Considering he’d spent his career in war zones and once been subjected to a Secret Service background check that required an evaluation from another psychiatrist so incompetent Stanley actually feared for the future of democracy and his profession, that was saying something. Stanley was self-aware enough to know why he was standing in the absolute middle of foyer with his hands in his pockets. Somehow a Mr. Jarvis had gotten ahold of Stanley’s federal background check, run one more thorough than the US government, then gotten himself on Stanley’s schedule for the day. Mr. Jarvis had called to grill him about his approaches to various conditions and thoughts on work done by fellow psychiatrists with names and specific details that had never been published so a guy outside of the rooms where the opinions had been spoken shouldn’t know about them. If Stanley wasn’t too curious for his own good, he would’ve hung up around minute ten of Mr. Jarvis verbally writhing through his psyche.
(He did call up a former Presidential Chief of Staff he’d worked with in the past so if he went missing, they’d know what he’d been up to. The guy had said he’d gotten his own call from Mr. Jarvis as a reference, and if he was right, this would probably be the most important gig of Stanley’s life. Thank goodness Stanley was a professional or that would have thrown him off his game.)
However, Stanley had hung on, and after several days of silence he’d had an abrupt phone call from Mr. Jarvis and a car turn up outside of his practice. He spent the drive reading and signing non-disclosure documents so he could be standing here, in the foyer of Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion, asking himself if he’d done something really wrong or really right with his life that this was how it had turned out.
“Dr. Keyworth, thank you for waiting.”
Stanley twisted away from what he was pretty damn sure was an original Jackson Pollock hanging on the entryway hall like other people had cheap stuff from Home Goods. He was met by a tall gentleman, every inch of him perfectly poised and pressed.
“It was no trouble… Mister?”
“Edwin Lawrence Jarvis, Jr. I am personal valet to Mr. Stark.” He held out his thin hand and Stanley shook it.
“I’m pleased to meet you after that grilling I received, Mr. Jarvis.”
“Oh, that was not me, Dr. Keyworth.”
“No? There’s another Mr. Jarvis here? Mr. Jarvis, Senior?”
“Technically I might be considered Mr. Jarvis the Third. It is a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Keyworth.” A slightly different Mr. Jarvis’ voice came from the ceiling. Stanley startled and looked around, but there were no visible speakers.
“Uh, and you Mr. Jarvis? Are you… watching me through security cameras?”
“In a manner of speaking. I am Mr. Stark’s AI.”
“An Artificial Intelligence, Dr. Keyworth.”
“Yeah, no, I got that part, I just… I can barely stand to deal with the AI on my phone. All that conversation and I never would’ve guessed that you weren’t…”
“Human, Dr. Keyworth. It is not insulting to state a fact. I am not human. I am an AI. I was crafted by Mr. Stark and thus am the most advanced AI the world has ever known, but still, I am a computer program.”
“Well, you’re a very good one.”
“Thank you, Dr. Keyworth.”
The other Mr. Jarvis stood there with a little grin on his face while Stanley spoke to the ceiling. “Can I ask why I got grilled by the world’s most advanced AI before I had a car turn up outside of my house to bring me here without a moment to doubt my life choices?”
“You’re a trauma specialist, Dr. Keyworth.”
“Then you know exactly why you’re here.”
Stanley had been scolded by Presidents and he didn’t feel nearly as upset by their disapproval as he did by this man’s, but Stanley stuck to his guns. “I can make a good guess, but I’d still like to hear it.”
“Because I spent four months captured by terrorists.” The words stalled in Stanley’s brain. Not only had Tony Stark emerged from nowhere, still in the safety of his living room but now in Stanley’s sight line, but more, there was a baby on his hip. “And I’d like to not have a panic attack about water boarding when I give my son a bath.”
“Well… that sounds like a pretty good reason. Does that mean you weren’t going to talk to a therapist if you didn’t need to for him?”
“Does it matter?”
“A little bit. It’ll change how we approach things, and make me feel better about the amount of digging you had your AI do into everything I’ve ever done wrong in my life.”
“Yeah, JARVIS doesn’t really understand privacy.”
“Mr. Stark, I’m pretty sure I’m one of a handful of people in the world who even know your son exists. I’d be protective over the ones who got that information too.”
Tony stared at him for a long moment and Stanley didn’t flinch under the attention. “Well, come on then.” Tony cocked his head and headed through the living room, which Stanley noted didn’t have any sign of the child. He didn’t think that was down to the maid’s cleaning skills. No, as Stark handed off the baby to the human Mr. Jarvis, Stanley backtracked. There was no maid in this house. Anything that couldn’t be done by Mr. Jarvis was done by JARVIS, or by robots he controlled. Stanley wouldn’t have been surprised if Stark had his own roombas that vacuumed the floor and drones that dusted the shelves.
Despite the baby in his arms, Mr. Jarvis waved them both to the balcony, and raised an eyebrow at Stark’s hesitation before he rolled his eyes and went. Stanley gave him a nod of gratitude, because he was damn sure that Stark would’ve gone for the wet bar instead, and no therapy had ever been helped by flirting with alcoholism.
The balcony held the first signs of the baby. Not in any actual toys, but there was a springy material on the balcony’s floor and plenty of trees in planters to protect from too much sun. Stark leaned against the nearly invisible plexiglass in between him and the ocean. Stanley debated for a moment, then settled on one of the lounge chairs with the hope Stark might appreciate spunk. “Why outside?”
“I had a panic attack at the sound of planes going overhead on a phone call. JARVIS has been researching potential triggers and telling everyone about them. They keep opening the windows like the smell of the ocean is going to keep me from freaking out.”
That the Pacific Ocean was as far away as possible from a desert cave in Afghanistan didn’t need to be stated. “That’s kind of them. Though usually there’s usually a major trigger that you can learn to avoid or control.”
“Thank fuck, because I do all my work inside and the windows in my lab don’t open.”
“Is Mr. Jarvis the one who keeps opening windows?”
“He and JARVIS.”
“How do you distinguish between the two of them?” Because Stanley was certain that Tony Stark didn’t go around calling his butler ‘Mr. Jarvis.’
“One of them is a computer and the other is flesh and blood.” Stark said in the sarcastic tone of a man tired of answering that question.
“I mean when you’re talking to them in the same room. Metaphorically.” Stanley shrugged.
“They just know. You’re not here to grill me about my AI.” Stark buried his hands in his pockets.
“So why are you asking me about him?” Despite how easy Stark claimed it was, it took Stanley a moment to realize the ‘he’ was the AI, not the human.
“Because the way you talk about him tells me a lot about you.”
“Do you need to know that?”
“Do I need to know things about you before I try and help you?” Stanley used a tone that would’ve been worthy of Stark.
“You’re a trauma specialist. That’s why you’re here.”
Stanley raised an eyebrow. “Not just that, though.”
Stark wet his bottom lip and probably ran through more variables in that moment than Stanley could compute in a day. “No. Not just that.”
“All right, Tony.” Stanley swung his legs back to the ground and leaned forward with his forearms on his knees. “I assume that you know exactly who am I and what I do.”
“I wouldn’t have let you in my house if I didn’t know more about you then you ever wanted anybody to know.”
“Do you know or does your AI?”
“Does it matter?”
“Usually there’s a benefit to having a certain distance between a therapist and their patient. Something like the comfort of strangers. When we only see people in one space and in one situation, we forget that they exist in the world outside and feel comfortable speaking with them about details we wouldn’t share otherwise.”
“You think that would work here?”
“I think that you appreciate every bit of power you can possibly have over this situation. I just don’t know if that’s in your best interests.”
“JARVIS did his research.”
“On everything. He could give you a lecture on the history of psychiatry, tell you about current treatment methods, scientific data on their efficacy, how to determine which methods might be the best for any particular patient, and yeah, JARVIS knows about psychiatric ethics.”
“So he told you to bring me in for a consult without telling you anything about me and you accepted it?” That was a hell of a lot of trust to place in a computer program.
“Oh no, J told me all sorts of things about you, just not the stuff I wouldn’t have been able to find from Googling or making a few phone calls.”
“It must be interesting to be the kind of man who considers calling a former Presidential Chief of Staff just a ‘few phone calls.’”
“In some ways. In others, it means that I have to drag people out of their homes before they have a chance to talk to someone so I can preserve my privacy.”
“Which is why I started asking you questions about your AI.”
“To see if I would tell you about proprietary technology?”
“How much did it just hurt you to refer to JARVIS as ‘propriety technology’?”
“Instead of what?”
“Him. Or J. Or whatever dozen nicknames you have for him.”
“Tell me, Doc, what does it mean that I personify my tech?”
“It means you’re not just making things; you’re creating them.”
“We just met, Doc. That’s third date kind of talk.”
“How often do you make it to third dates, Tony?”
“Now, why don’t I believe that?”
“Because you assume that famous playboys don’t ever have long-term relationships.”
“You said you were so concerned about your privacy that I had to be spirited away from my house on my day off. Inviting people into your bed is more private than inviting them to your living room.”
“You say that only because you haven’t been in my bedroom.”
“It is just as sterile as everyplace else here?”
Tony flinched. “It was.”
“And then what happened?” Tony didn’t answer. “Let me ask it a different way: why aren’t there any signs of your son in this house?”
“Because Stark Industries filed an injunction against me.” Tony lurched off the railing and started pacing.
“And you think that means someone is going to turn up at your house unexpectedly, so you want to keep your son’s existence concealed.”
“I just got back from being held by terrorists, Doc. Forgive me for keeping him off their radar as long as possible.”
“But you didn’t just get back, you’ve been back for months.”
“So, I’m supposed to be better now?” Tony spat.
“I don’t think Afghanistan is the problem.”
“You’ve got me diagnosed already, do you?”
“Tony, I diagnosed you the second I saw your son.”
Tony paused, but didn’t look at Stanley. “PTSD.”
“Which you probably could have powered through with all your electronic creations, surrounded in the safety net of your artificial children who sneak in therapeutic controls. But that flesh and blood kid, the one you can’t backup to a separate server to protect him from everything scary in the world, he messed things up. You’ve probably had a mental break cooking since the first time you looked at him after you got back.”
“I’ve only known about him for a few days.”
“That’s both better and worse.”
“Better because hasn’t been triggering you for months while you’ve been ignoring it. That would take some time to unwind. Worse, because you snapped pretty quick.”
“I’m doomed then?” Tony tried to tease.
“Nope. You let JARVIS call in reinforcements after the first sign of trouble instead of trying to force your way through and pretend everything was normal. That path only leads to doing something you’d regret.”
“Like spending a few years screaming at your kid and making him feel like it’s all his fault.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“You wouldn’t mean to. But you believe in control, Tony. You have all the money and fame in the world, and even better, all the brains too. You can bend the world to your will and make anything happen just because you want it.” Stanley gave his speech to Tony’s back. The man was hunched over the railing and looking at the ocean instead of the world behind him.
“But then all that control got stripped away by psychopaths who live in a cave. That’s the kind of thing that breaks even the best and brightest the world has to offer. But instead, you blew up a terrorist camp and saved yourself when the entire might of the US military-industrial complex couldn’t do it. Even more, I’d be willing to bet every dollar I have that you had something to do with the attack that happened on those same terrorists yesterday.”
“You’re going to have to sign some more forms before we talk about that.” Tony’s voice was hoarse.
“Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know. You’re a man who seizes control from the jaws of death and chaos, who has so much control that you manage to project precisely the image you want. Despite several sex tapes and who knows how many hit pieces, you are the backbone and crown prince of one of the most profitable companies in the world. You created a person out of zeroes and ones, and you took out a terrorist cell before the UN found its socks in the morning. You’re Tony Stark, and there’s nothing Tony Stark can’t do.
“Except, now you’ve got this squishy little creation you can’t control.”
“I don’t want to control my kid.”
“In future appointments we’ll be having a long talk about the fact and fiction of Howard Stark, but right you know full well that I mean you can’t protect him.”
“Hell yes, I can.” Tony whirled around, and with the fire in his eyes, Stanley absolutely believed him.
“Not forever. The world is going to have to know about your son at some point. And despite everything you’ve done to maintain your privacy despite getting followed everywhere by cameras, they’re going to want to know everything about him too. You were on the cover of Time Magazine at eight. He’s going to be stalked by paparazzi for the rest of his damn life. That must be your own version of hell.”
“It was hell… six months ago.”
“And now hell has a whole new flavor of terrible. You dead and your son carrying on his grandfather’s war.”
“So, Doc, what do I do?”
“Tell them to go fuck themselves.” Stanley shrugged.
Stanley took Tony’s flinch of a smile as progress. “I thought doctors weren’t supposed to talk like that.”
“Now you know why your AI picked me. Kids are the best kind of chaos. You want to let your kid grow up to be whatever kind of chaos he wants, to just enjoy the ride and not try and force him to be anything other than what he is. So, let him be the chaos and fulfill your need to make order with everything else.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be prescribing me an anti-anxiety med and lecturing me on deep breathing?”
“You wouldn’t take whatever I prescribed, and don’t you worry, we’ll get to techniques for handling PTSD attacks, but right now we’re talking about your new life picture.”
“And that’s to create order from chaos?”
“That’s what you’ve always done. I figure that before the kid you liked a certain amount of chaos in your personal life so you could have something to inspire you. You probably worked all hours of the night, ate whenever Mr. Jarvis insisted, and got a rush from thumbing your nose at the establishment.”
“If you tell me I can’t thumb my nose at people, we’re going to have problems.”
“No, go for it, just think about thumbing them in a planned way instead of when the mood strikes. You’re going to get all the chaos you can handle from raising a kid, so the parts of your life where you used to embrace the chaos need to get more orderly to balance things out. If you keep working through the night and staying off a schedule, it’s going to damage you as a parent.”
“I feel like I’ve heard people getting lectured about this before.”
“For you, it’s critical. You find chaos necessary to your creative process. You like to ride the wave of it and come out the other side with something brilliant. However, the chaotic wave to be ridden is now your son. If you keep to your old patterns at the same time as you’re trying to parent, you’re going to end up being what you determine to be an insufficient father.”
“Is there some kind of uniform standard of insufficiency?”
“When in the hell have you ever adhered to uniform standards of anything? Anything less than throwing yourself into fatherhood with everything you have is going to be insufficient for you. You’ll hate yourself for it and soon enough we won’t be having conversations about PTSD anymore.”
“Are you going to tell me what to do about the PTSD?”
“This is about the PTSD. I’ll give JARVIS some things to watch out for and to try so he can update me for our next appointment, but you’re not getting panic attacks from the sound of planes or too much heat, they’re from feeling out of control. If you don’t make order where you can, pretty soon every time your kid cries you’re going to have a panic attack. Then you’ll feel like a failure for the attack, and you’ll just dig yourself into a deeper psychological hole. You and the Jarvises who control your life need to get that sorted first.”
“JARVIS is listening.”
“I figured. But it’s rude not to pay attention to a person when you’re talking to them.”
“So JARVIS gets to be in charge of my mental health?”
“He and Mr. Jarvis.” Stanley nodded. “They’ll collate data for me on how your PTSD is presenting and we’ll talk about some methods for coping next time. What I want you to think about is turning everything that used to be chaos into order and letting your kid be the chaos. If you can manage to not actually start working on it, which I doubt, I’d like you to make me a list of the things that are stressing you out the most right now and ways you might be able to fix them.” Tony didn’t respond. “I assume from your silence you’re already working on that.” Tony just shrugged. “Right, well, don’t tear down civilization and rebuild it in your image until after our next appointment. That might be too much chaos for any breathing techniques.”
Tony probably should’ve taken a nap after the first conversation with his therapist, but he figured that if the mental health professional thought it was all right for him to go full Tony Stark, he might as well. Instead, he told JARVIS to find out what Pepper needed to do an end run around the injunction and get it to her, and told Jarvis to tell him where all the baby shit hanging out in his lab and hidden in boxes was actually supposed to go.
He may have taken a moment of privacy to murmur to JARVIS that he wanted a check in with APOLLO and gotten told that neither AI was yet ready to disclose their findings. That meant they’d found something objectively terrible but didn’t have enough proof to satisfy their processors. That thought sparked Tony’s first deep breathing treatment of the day and a group lecture on muscle relaxation techniques from a guy who didn’t have muscles. It was more the thought of JARVIS ordering Tony to lay down on the living room floor and coaching him through ‘unclenching’ than it was the actual process of conscious relaxation that did anything for Tony’s anxiety. JARVIS made a note and said he had a whole list of things they could try. Tony chose to take than as encouraging.
Apparently one of the techniques for dealing with anxiety was distraction, because three seconds after Tony said thinking about releasing tension in his feet wasn’t doing anything for him, Jarvis set Lex on Tony’s stomach and JARVIS connected a call to Pepper.
(In about a week and half Stanley would explain to Tony that muscle relaxation wasn’t working for Tony because a chunk of his anxiety came from the arc reactor in his chest. Though releasing tension in his lower back and shoulders would make the reactor more comfortable, it didn’t make the weight or the ache in his ribs go away.)
Tony was grateful for his kid drawing spit lines across the surface of the arc reactor with his plastic screwdriver since otherwise the conversation with Pepper and his lawyers would maybe have been the worst conversation he’d ever had. (Even the solid minute it took to get Truman – the new lawyer – on topic because he was too busy fanboying over Tony wasn’t any fun when Tony knew what was coming.)
Stark Industries’ in-house counsel had filed the injunction on behalf of the Board and had it hand delivered to Tony’s mansion and Tony’s usual personal lawyer, Ms. Sharma. She’d been warned by Pepper about what was coming and had no qualms admitting she was better suited to striking down paternity claims, blackmail attempts, and illicit photos than she was at handling hostile takeovers. (At least, handling the legal aspect of hostile takeovers. If Tony didn’t have AIs on it, she would absolutely be the person he had pointed at the Board.)
Between Pepper, Sharma and Harper – the beautiful nerd who handled Tony’s intellectual property – they chose a guy one firm over to handle the injunction. Neither Truman nor his firm had dealings with Stark Industries (Pepper’s requirement); he’d done this kind of litigation before and done it well (Harper’s concern); and he was smart enough to realize he was putting on a front and this matter wouldn’t be handled in a courtroom (Sharma).
“The Preliminary Injunction Hearing is scheduled for the end of the week, Mr. Stark. If you were in New York it wouldn’t have even been that long but the judge was merciful about you actually needing to schedule a flight to come in.”
“Your in-house counsel objected that you have your own plane and could be there today if you wanted,” Sharma added, “but the judge agreed that given the potential consequences to the company of even a temporary Restraining Order, he could give you a few days to gather enough information to mount your defense.”
“Well isn’t that sweet.”
“It really was, Mr. Stark.” All right, Truman had a bit more of a backbone than Tony gave him credit for. “Your best defense for this Hearing is going to be presenting the judge with your new, peace-friendly growth plan that would soothe all the Board’s worries if they weren’t in the military’s pockets. That’s the angle. You’ve been doing everything in your power to change SI’s direction and objectively it’s all a good idea, the Board just doesn’t have the vision to see it.”
“Pepper has been trying to tell us that you’re hesitant to share the details of such a plan, which I assume means you don’t have a plan?” Sharma said. It sounded like a question, but it really wasn’t.
Tony didn’t even need to have the video chat turned on to know all the lawyers were glancing at one another in bafflement that Tony hadn’t managed to run SI into the ground yet. “I hate to say it, Mr. Stark, but a judge won’t appreciate broad strokes as much as a solid growth chart. I can work with it, but there’s more chance of losing. Your biggest selling point against the Board’s complaints is that you’re Tony Stark. I’d like to bring in at least two therapists who are willing to testify you’re in your right mind and some financial experts who can say that despite only having broad strokes, those strokes are going in the right direction. But that means Ms. Potts is going to have to present your strokes to someone who can testify to that effect.”
“Or, Stark could just hand over a prototype of whatever not-bomb he’s been working on in that mad scientist’s lab of his and this will take five minutes and shut down any future attempts at a takeover.”
“Not necessarily,” Truman said, “but Ms. Sharma is right that that would be helpful.”
“You’re not going to tell me to make some concessions to get them to withdraw the Injunction?”
Truman paused. “I’m lawyer, Mr. Stark. It’s my job to help you—”
“He wants Pepper to give him permission to start Discovery on justifiable cause to expel every member of the Board.” Tony could visualize Sharma leaning into the speakerphone and glowering at Truman for dancing around it.
“I was getting there!”
“Tony likes honesty. Even if he disagrees with it, he’d rather hear the truth.”
“All right, honesty.” Truman snapped. “You may be a high-functioning alcoholic, a manwhore, and likely suffering from crippling PTSD, but you’re still Tony Stark. You’re Midas. And even if you weren’t, I’d want to ruin them all for treating you this way after everything you’ve been through. If they’re unwilling to show human compassion, they don’t deserve any.”
Tony let the pause hang for a long moment before Truman murmured, “Too much honesty?”
“No,” Pepper finally spoke, “Tony has just decided to tell you the truth.”
Truman’s demand of “What truth?” ran over Sharma’s objections to being lumped in with the new kid. Sharma’s voice came in clear when she went after Harper and demanded to know why he wasn’t furious. “What would you tell Harper that you wouldn’t tell me?”
Lex chose that opportune moment to chuck his plastic screwdriver across the room and shout, “Da, da-da, da!” Tony recognized the irritation at tech not doing what he wanted, but still stood up to get him a bottle. (Tony was thinking about medicating his own irritation with milk instead of whiskey. Lex seemed to enjoy it.)
Dead silence rang out from the other end of the line.
“Mr. Stark… what was that?” Of course, Truman was the one asking. Pepper was Lex’s aunt, Harper had handled the paternity paperwork, and Sharma had sense.
“That’s my kid, Truman.”
Lex squawked at the sight of his bottle. “My son.”
“Tony.” Sharma breathed.
“That would be the truth we’re keeping under wraps. Not for much longer, but long enough that the Board can’t use him against me.”
“Well then,” Tony could hear Truman’s frantic scrambling with paperwork, “we need to get this Hearing done as soon as possible!”
“Nope. We’re not worried about the hearing, Truman.”
“We’re not? What are we worried about?”
“You’re going to salt the earth,” Sharma declared.
“I am indeed. What I need from you is enough time to burn everything down.”
“Mr. Stark is taking out the Board of Stark Industries,” Pepper said, in case Tony’s dramatics weren’t clear. “He’s gathering information, and what he needs is enough time to stay out of any legal entanglements that might impede that process.”
There was a moment of silence, then the lawyers sprang into action. “Then we need to try and disqualify the SI counsel for conflict of interest.” Truman said.
“To do that we’ll need copies of paychecks with Tony’s signature.” Sharma pointed out.
“And any time they’ve done work that could be construed as personally for Tony and not strictly for the company,” Harper added.
“It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, kids,” Tony called over the line before they could start a plotting a months-long siege. “I just need to keep a judge from telling me I shouldn’t be in my own system.”
“And enough time to sort through whatever you find and get the blackmail into place, Tony,” Sharma added. “Blackmail is not as easy as I make it appear.”
“It’ll be sorting through who’s getting blackmailed after everyone else goes to jail.”
“You really think there’s enough criminal conduct that the Board won’t able to pay their way out of it?” Sharma asked.
“It won’t them versus an overworked prosecutor, kids. It’ll be them versus me.”
“You’re who I’d put my money on any time, Mr. Stark.” He could hear the smile in Pepper’s voice.
“Me and the house, Pep, we don’t like to lose.”
“Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
“That’ll do it, Miss Potts.”
Tony closed the call and left them to their planning. For all Tony knew, they wouldn’t need to delay things at all because JARVIS had the necessary information but didn’t want to share it during Lex time. Or, he could have suspicions and his logic circuits would require another month of distrustful behavior before something became enough to be fact.
Either way, Jarvis swept into the kitchen and handed Lex a bottle and Tony a sandwich that smelled so tasty he didn’t object to all the vegetables. Jarvis couldn’t make up for Tony not eating yesterday before his firefight, but he could aid in recovery. With his son in one hand and sandwich in the other, Tony gave in to Jarvis’ prodding and ignored the stairs to instead go sit on the balcony, chasing Lex around with the new toys that had come out of hiding and feeling the sun on his face. Despite his inclination to do laundry, Tony teased Jarvis into staying with them. It was the sort of happy family morning that neither man had ever dreamed could happen to a Stark.
When Lex went down for his nap, Jarvis again directed Tony away from the stairs and put him to work on gathering up the bits of shattered piano and clearing out the wet bar. (Which required a sledgehammer and more clearing.) Rather than exploding toys all over the living room, Jarvis had decided the piano room was going to be a play area but first Tony needed to fix the hole in the ceiling. Tony knew he was being deliberately distracted from an existential spiral about his company, but it was nice to have JARVIS calling out instructions and Jarvis holding the ladder like physics would stop working and the triangle was going to collapse.
Jarvis had probably meant for the manual labor to get Tony out of his head, but instead it gave his brain the chance to compute something in the background, like surfing the internet when JARVIS when running calculations. He probably meant for Tony to actually fix the floor too, but about halfway through the ceiling, something clicked in Tony’s brain. He hopped down from the ladder, told Jarvis he’d be back in a minute, and to the man’s never-ending surprise went for Lex’ room with the same drive he used when inspiration struck in the lab.
Being Tony’s kid, Lex felt a ripple in the force and was rubbing fat fists against his eyes when Tony stepped in the room. “So,” Tony plucked him from the crib, “we need to talk about a few things, L. Because you’re going to hear a lot of shit for the rest of your life and I want you to have heard the truth from me first so you can ignore everything else. And I’ll warn you, the lies they’re going to shout at you to get your reaction for a picture, those are still going to hurt like a slipped soldering iron, but you can stop the wound pretty quick if you know the truth and can lord it over them. You don’t even tell them things half of the time, you just get this smirk like you know something they don’t, which you do. Gossip rags and real journalists hate that smirk. Though I’m not going to lie to you, there are far fewer real journalists than there are gossip rags, especially when it comes to us.”
Lex just watched him with those solemn eyes that somehow managed to take up a third of his face. Tony was pacing and ranting with his kid in his arms and Lex didn’t seem to give a shit, happy to just listen to his father’s voice talk about anything. Tony remembered that feeling. Howard didn’t like anyone in his lab – which Tony understood. He’d be paranoid too with the amount of foreign agents Howard had trying to talk or seduce their way into that room.
But Tony still snuck in there all the time, and he loved hiding under a table and listening to Howard talk to himself while he worked. It was one of the greatest wishes of Tony’s tiny heart to make something good enough that Howard knew he could trust him in his lab so Tony could sit there listening to Howard’s voice all the time and feel the comfort of his father’s ramble like he listened to the stereo now. He’d liked to be there because Howard talked to his projects like Tony suspected he talked to women he respected: still charming, still cajoling, but more affection than sex. Tony liked that tone in his father’s voice and hiding there meant he could pretend Howard was talking to him instead of explosive material.
“First off,” with that memory, Tony began where he hadn’t meant to, “Howard never hit me. I cannot tell you the number of girlfriends I’ve had who think Howard was beating me. He wasn’t. He wasn’t even a drunk. He used drinking as a stress reliever, so yeah, he drank pretty much every day, but he wasn’t a slurring, stumbling, drunk. You can’t engineer if your hands are shaking.
“Howard just, and I wish I didn’t have to tell you this one, but you need all the data so you can know where I’m coming from here kid, Howard didn’t like me. I’m not gonna lie, I spent a long time thinking it was because there was something wrong with me, because who doesn’t like their kid? But somewhere in there – and this was before Afghanistan, no matter what Pepper says – I figured out it wasn’t about me. Howard wanted an heir to the company, heirs are generally babies, and Howard didn’t think about all the stuff that comes along with having someone to pass your company on to. Snuggles are necessary, and time, and apparently old rock standards sung at half tempo. These are all the things that Howard wasn’t really up for.
“But here’s the trick that I’m pretty sure made everything worse: Howard knew he wasn’t up to them and didn’t like that someone else was. Everything would’ve been fine if Howard would’ve just abdicated all paternal responsibilities to Grandpa Jarvis and treated me like a tiny protege, but he didn’t. He got mad at Jarvis for being too paternal, and then he half-assed his own attempts at being a dad. You see where I’m going with this?”
Lex just blinked his exhausted eyes.
“Right. JARVIS, you’re recording this?”
“I assume that is hypothetical since I record everything, Sir.”
“Great. We’re going to have to show him this later when he’s got verbal recall because I don’t think I can have this conversation again.”
“I have sorted the footage into the Put It on The Fridge file.”
Tony snorted. “What else have you got there?”
“Footage of my other self at his original age, as well as his explanation for his regression.”
Tony froze. “Yeah. We’re going to end up with a lot of messed up things in there, aren’t we?”
“I imagine every family has them, Sir. You have simply chosen to keep a visual record.”
“That’s a thing I do, kid, visual record. I used to be more of a forgive and forget kind of a guy, but back at MIT, Uncle Rhodey – you haven’t met him yet, but you will just as soon as I figure that out – one time he took pictures of my ex-girlfriend making out with someone. We broke up, and when she came back a month later and I was all ready to forgive her, Rhodey pulled out the pictures. It was pretty damn effective.
“Back on target. I wanted to get this out there because I realized that even when we take down the Board, it’s not going to be done. For the rest of our lives we’re going to have to keep an eye on whoever we put on the Board and sweep it out occasionally because people are the worst, even if you put them on the Board thinking they’re the best. And we’re going to have the military hounding us, and people asking about Iron Man, and I was thinking I could just fix this and it would be better for you.
“But it’s not going to be. It’s never going to be. My new lawyer, today he called me an alcoholic and a whore, and you’re probably going to hear shit like that about me before your tiny brain is ready to deal with it. Not that any kid is ready to hear about the parents’ sex life, but still.”
Tony’s kid was built solid, but he still cradled Lex tight to his chest, trying to wrap the baby up in his arms where the world couldn’t touch him. “That’s kind of where we’re going with this. I can read all the books in the world on the subject of parenting – and I could probably teach a class on the conflicting theories at this point – but I don’t have a lot of practical experience, and I need practical experience. Dad would buy new tech and I used to take it apart and put it back together again to figure out how it worked. Though as a kid, my putting back together skills weren’t the best. The trouble here is, I can’t really take apart our relationship and put it back together again. First, because you don’t really have any communication skills yet to tell me if it’s working right, and second, because I’m terrified that I’ll break something irreparable, and it’s not like I can go out and get a new you and try again.
“That means we’re stuck with experiments. I want a happy, healthy, fully-functioning kid that I like and who likes me without it turning into one of those ‘you have to be their parent, not their friend’ things that even I’ve heard about. But all my experience is theoretical. JARVIS has been compiling episodes from a bunch of different TV shows that have what other people call good examples of healthy parental relationships, but that’s not really the same thing. You get me?
“So, we’re going to have to scientific method the shit out this relationship, L, you and me. And we’re going to have failed experimental pathways, and I’ll be pissed, and you’ll be pissed, but no matter what, I’ll love you, and I’ll never stop the experiment because I always want you to know that I love you. And I’m sorry that you keep having to age up to deal with me, but I’m going to get better at this, I promise. What I’m trying to say here is that I love you.”
Tony gave a little bounce, the heat of Lex against his chest soothing the ache there and K’s fat fist grabbing the collar of Tony’s shirt and dragging it down. “Though I’ve tried before to tell you,” Tony tried to speak on tune instead of sing.
“Da.” Lex was obviously unimpressed.
Tony leaned in close. “I have a secret to tell you. A real secret. One that would straight up ruin my reputation if it ever got out. So, no telling anybody, okay? Pinkie swear?” Tony wiggled his pinkie through Lex’s fist and around his smallest finger. He gave a dramatic shake to seal the bargain and Lex giggled.
“Oh, you’re going to be laughing more.” Tony pressed his lips to Lex’s ear. “I like Sting.”
“Da!” Lex pushed his face back, more about the tickling breath on his earlobe, but Tony laughed anyway.
“I know, I know! It’s embarrassing but I can’t teach you not to give a shit about what other people think if I’m doing the same. And really, his songs lend themselves much better to lullabies than AC/DC.”
Lex yanked Tony’s shirt again, like, if you’re going to do it, do it.
Tony rolled his eyes. “All right already. Though I’ve tried before to tell you of the feeling in my heart, every time that I come near you, I lose my nerve like from the start.” Tony’s voice was hoarse as he tried to sing without singing, but with every line Lex’s smile grew and the inhibition slipped away.
“Every little thing he does is magic. Everything he does just turns me on.” Tony stopped singing to clarify. “Not in a creepy way. We’ll work on that.” He went back to singing, this time with no care but for his son’s smile. “Every little thing he does is magic, everything he does just turns me on. Even though my life before was tragic, now I know my love for him goes on.”
Tony didn’t know it, but JARVIS recorded it all and put it On the Fridge. And if the AI routed it to Jarvis in the kitchen so he could watch Tony dance around the nursery and listen to Lex laugh at the first time he’d ever heard his father sing, that was no one’s business but the Jarvises.
“Sir. Sir please, I need you to wake.”
Tony startled half out of bed. “I wasn’t having a panic attack.”
“No, Sir. You were sleeping. However, I need you to regain consciousness.”
“Didn’t we just get a lecture from my therapist about how I’m supposed to be sleeping at night?”
“Sir, APOLLO has news.”
That woke Tony up faster than a cold shower after a bender. “Tell me.”
“Your lab please, Sir.”
Somehow that was worse than JARVIS not playing along with the midnight teasing. The entire house was more private than most military facilities, so if JARVIS wanted the security of the lab protocols then this was going to be terrible. Tony didn’t waste time getting dressed or grabbing coffee, he just stroked a hand through his son’s hair where he was sprawled out in his crib and went downstairs.
“Hit me, J.”
“I have found the Mark I, Sir.” Tony startled when an entirely new voice came out of nowhere, but people didn’t call him a genius for nothing.
“Nice to hear you, APOLLO, though I wish it was under better circumstances.”
“I have completed a significant component of the task assigned to me, Sir. It is my understanding that that is a pertinent barometer in determining the quality of any given set of circumstances.”
“Way to look at the positive, Paulie.”
“Paulie, Sir?” There was a moment where JARVIS updated his counterpart in a string of zeros and ones about this quirk of their mutual creator. “Ah, yes, Paulie.”
“Don’t worry about. What do you mean you found the Mark I? It’s buried in a desert.”
“No, Sir. The Mark I is located in the basement of Sector 16 of the original Stark Industries, California engineering campus. Specifically, underneath the arc reactor building.”
“Proof?” Tony croaked.
One of the screens over Tony’s desk popped open and sped through security footage of crates arriving at the building’s delivery door and getting hauled inside by men in black military uniforms who absolutely didn’t work for Stark Industries. One of the scientists – no doubt the lead engineer based upon enough leeway to be that stupid – popped open the crate right there in clear sight of the loading bay camera and plucked out a piece of metal that Tony recognized as belonging to the shattered chest plate. A soldier smacked him with his non-shooting hand and shoved the guy back inside.
“Were they even trying to hide this?”
“The delivery occurred in the middle of the night and the security footage was later deleted. I apologize for the time it took me to recover it, Sir. I had to assemble this from fragmented pieces on the mainframe.”
“You’ve done good, APOLLO. I don’t suppose you have any footage of a member of the Ten Rings dropping off the Mark I?”
The question was glib, but APOLLO didn’t know that yet. “No, Sir. I do, however, have footage of Mr. Stane boarding a flight from LAX to Washington DC where records indicate that he spent the next two days in closed door meetings with various government officials.”
“And where do your records indicate he was?” Tony’s voice caught at the question.
APOLLO pulled up a grainy still from security cameras coded to Bagram AFB in Afghanistan. “There are no records of Mr. Stane’s arrival or departure, though what images I could recover indicate that he left within four hours of his arrival.”
“And he departed with the crates.”
“Well… fuck.” Tony dropped to his chair like his strings had been cut. “Obi?”
“JARVIS and myself have also located a back door into Mr. Stane’s private email server. We discovered video of a ransom demand from when you were in being held hostage.”
“Visualization of that is unnecessary, APOLLO” JARVIS interrupted. “I can testify to its veracity, Sir. You do not need to see it.”
“Show it to me, J.”
“If you insist on doing so, Sir, I first must insist that you speak to Dr. Keyworth about the benefit of such an idea.”
“Stanley isn’t my keeper and you don’t take your orders from him.”
“In this matter you provided me with instructions to rely on his expertise regarding your mental well-being instead of your decisions. I will provide you a list of the material APOLLO has collected if you require it. In summary, according to my understanding and analysis, there is sufficient material to convict both Stane and three fourths of the Stark Industries Board of Directors of treason and related activities. Of those few without sufficient evidence for a conviction, only two have not engaged in activities that fall below the ethics standard in their contracts, and all are below your personal ethics requirements. I will make these materials available for Miss Potts if you would like a human’s perspective on the information, but I cannot in good conscience allow you to analyze it without psychiatric supervision.”
Tony’s pride wanted to object, but the memory of Lex’s newfound voice was enough to keep it in check. “Well look at you, J. I’ll take the list.” Stanley probably wouldn’t have agreed that staying up all night to analyze data on his corrupt company was the best way to impose order on the chaos that was Tony’s day to day life, but not mainlining coffee would have to be good enough.
Tony determinedly didn’t think about climbing in the armor to rip apart the whole damn building and get back the corpse of his first suit. He didn’t think about the crush of the caves around him, or screaming as the last guns he would ever build ripped through flesh and made grotesque paintings that in 10,000 years other humans would think primitive man meant as rain. He didn’t think about how these idiot engineers, Tony’s own people, were trying to reconstruct the armor like Frankenstein’s monster, and not a single damn one of them thought about telling Tony what they had locked in the basement. He didn’t think about Yinsen’s blood streaked across the Mark I’s palms, and he didn’t think about the three soldiers who’d been smiling thirty seconds before a bomb bearing Tony’s name had killed them.
Stanley had told Tony to play the long game, to play with his head and not his heart, and he could do that.
As satisfying as it would be to put the Mark I back in the desert sand alongside whatever abomination Tony’s own scientists were trying to create, that would mean burying proof of Stane’s compliance. The kids had done some damn fine work sneaking through the servers and gathering evidence, but right now Stane could still lie and say he had shuffled money from one of his secret accounts to try and get Tony back and hadn’t told the FBI because he had a duty to Tony and the company to keep things going. He could claim that he put his people on it, but no one could free Tony like Tony. Or he could say he didn’t trust the government to get the job done since they were the ones who lost Tony in the first place.
It would all be a crock of shit, but considering Stane had picked up the Mark I surrounded by military personnel and put it on a US Air Force cargo plane, Stane must have had some government backers. The slightest justifiable excuse would be enough to keep Stane from jail time. Worse, it would give the Board and their fellow cockroaches space to skitter back into hiding. Instead, Tony bit his tongue and held his breath, bringing order to the chaos rather than letting it sweep him where it would.
As much as Tony would have liked to go through every piece of data himself with a fine-tooth comb so he could find those human quirks JARVIS could still miss, JARVIS behaved more like his namesake’s wife and policed hard what he let Tony see. The Ten Ring’s demand that Obi up the price for killing Tony was the worst of it. Tony couldn’t imagine how terrible it would’ve been if JARVIS had given him more than a single line summary of the contents. Even that was enough that Tony backed himself into the ‘bots’ corner and hid behind their giant recharging frames. It wasn’t like Lex could walk downstairs and see him trying not to freak out, but accidentally aging his kid only needed to happen once in a day. There were other emails where JARVIS felt the need to offer up summaries instead of the actual text, and Tony didn’t complain about a single one of them, no matter how many shitty things he’d heard the Board say about him before.
(And if JARVIS had to keep flashing math problems on Tony’s tablet to lure his brain back from starting to panic, that was between them. At least, until JARVIS no doubt passed a spreadsheet on Tony’s blood pressure on to Stanley, but these were extenuating circumstances.)
As it was, JARVIS refused to let Tony binge on the material. Any time Tony started breathing too fast or Lex twitched, JARVIS locked down the information and sent Tony out of the workshop and up into the sunshine. Tony let the AI mother hen. By the first time JARVIS shut him out for spiraling, Tony had already verified that Stane hadn’t shared news of his contact with the Ten Rings, even to his own secret contacts in the military that might have been able to do something with it. That was all the information Tony needed to place the only call he really needed to make. Going through every other bit of information was just to satisfy his curiosity, and so Tony pretend later that he was the hacker who’d found all this shit. (He didn’t think the government would permit an AI designed to hunt and destroy to testify as a whistle blower.)
Tony went about his morning the same as he would have if he hadn’t just discovered his godfather had tried to have him murdered by terrorists – minus, you know, several pauses throughout the day for math problems and the spontaneous snuggling of Lex. Tony fed Lex, then moved himself from sitting on the floor at one end of the couch to the other as Lex kept pulling himself upright and sidestepping along the sofa to chase his dad. Tony took the kid downstairs for some engineering, then told Jarvis it would probably be easier to just build a robot to fold those clothes than to do it himself and got a lecture on value of housework.
While Lex napped, Tony played with APOLLO as a reward to the AI for all its diligent work. They did some blackmail research on all those Board members that JARVIS was sweet enough to think wouldn’t be able to buy their way out of prison time. (Frankly, Tony thought bankrupting them and using all their funds to rebuild the countries they had helped bomb out for their own profit would be a better thing than prison, but that might require some doing. Yay, civil lawsuits.) Tony fed his kid again, helped Jarvis clean up, then tucked away all signs of Lex’s life into parts of the house no one would go and sent both Lex and Jarvis upstairs just in time for Happy to arrive with the personification of Tony’s vengeance.
Supervisory Special Agent Peter Burke was average in every way except for his brain. Even that was special more due to Peter’s thirst to problem solve than any regular sort of brilliance. The man was relentless, and that drive made an average-looking, average-built, average accountant of a man into one of the best agents at the FBI.
The first time they’d met, the FBI was using Tony as a witness to some other company’s fraud. Tony had refused to work with the accused because he couldn’t figure out how their products could be turning the profit they were claiming. (The FBI had accused Tony of back door dealing. Tony had laughed and showed them the math.) Over the course of the case, Burke had impressed Tony enough that he’d offered him a job at SI, which Burke had counter-offered with a junior agent position in White Collar since Tony had better instincts than anyone in the office but him. Tony had laughed and then slept with the man – and again any time Tony was in New York. When Burke got married, Tony sent the man and his pretty wife the world’s best present, and she’d counter-offered with an invitation to dinner to hear about all her husband’s sexploits with the great Tony Stark. (Apparently, she hadn’t really believed Peter when he claimed Tony Stark on his list of past lovers. That dinner had been amazing. Tony did know Peter could blush.)
More important than Peter’s tongue or how that relentlessness could be otherwise applied, Tony trusted Peter’s integrity. He also could respect a man who knew when he was out of his depth. Peter had called Tony a few times over the years to see if confiscated computers could be cracked open without destroying the pertinent information. (Which meant, yes, Tony Stark was on the books as an FBI Consultant. If you thought he hadn’t made them give him a badge to show off, you were an idiot.)
Tony met Peter with open arms at the front door of his mansion, laughing when Peter’s hello was, “You know, I had to fake a sick day for you, Stark. And my team isn’t stupid, so they all know I’m not sick and think that El and I are just having a sex day, but she’s working. They’re going to figure out I’m up to something.”
“If you trust them, they can figure out whatever in the hell you want. It’s your bosses and anyone you don’t think can keep their mouth shut who can believe you spent the day masturbating while your wife was at work.”
Peter pulled out of the hug at Tony’s tone. “Tony?”
“Come with me. I’ve got files for you to look at before we talk.”
Of course, Tony Stark didn’t have actual hard copy files for Peter to flip through, he had a tablet. Tony didn’t waste time leading Peter down the garden path or letting him make decisions for himself about what the information was telling him. Instead, he went straight for the throat with the email from Obadiah Stane’s computer. Peter was a professional, so despite how much he wanted to vomit, he clicked play and watched Tony be tortured while Tony obeyed JARVIS’ silent directive and stayed on the opposite side of the room.
“What—” Peter’s voice cracked. “What are they saying?”
“According to my AI, they’re telling him they want more money than the $500,000 he already paid them to kill me. I’d have given you subtitles, but I know you guys are fussy about getting your own translations.”
“We never got this, Tony. The government, I mean. No one got this video. Even if by some miracle they were able to keep it away from reporters, everyone in the government would’ve known about it. Stane never passed this on.”
“I mean, holy fuck Tony, we could’ve tracked the IP it was sent from, we could’ve figured out something about the dialect and accent, we could’ve put it in front of geologists to try and figure out the mountain range!” Peter gestured sharply with the tablet, but his white knuckles meant it wasn’t going to accidentally get flung anywhere.
“I think we can safely say that Stane’s primary concern wasn’t getting me safely home.”
“How in the hell did you get this?”
“The bastard sent it from the SI servers.”
“But don’t you have security?”
“Security that I designed. I left myself back doors and it’s my fucking company. You don’t have to worry about a judge throwing it out any more than other shit turned over by a whistle blower.”
“Tony, as overwhelmed as I am that you trusted me with this, this is funding terrorism and I’m white collar crime.”
“Oh, you’ll get there.”
“Keep going through the other documents, Petey-pie.” Tony gestured Peter’s attention back to the screen. Tony didn’t think he could look the man in the eye while he said what he had to say. He turned to face the windows and watched the waves crashing out at sea and wasted some time trying to match his breathing to their unpredictable rhythm. “It’s worse than just me. Stane has been selling my bombs to terrorists and half my fucking Board knew about it and just pocketed the money. The other half should’ve known and decided not to ask any questions.”
“Pretty much. You’re going to go through all the information I’ve got there for you, and when you get back to the office it’ll be partitioned off on your computer. You’re going to put together your case against all of them and you’re going to give me a heads up when you’re dragging them into prison cells so that the moment you all turn up at my office I can lock everything down, including all their accounts tied to SI. And when they claim that it’s white collar crime and they deserve to be out on bail, the prosecutor is going to stand up in front of a judge and tell the whole damn world that they’re in on conspiracy to commit murder and international terrorism. If you need to hand that part of the case off to someone else, make damn sure that it’s someone you trust as much as I trust you. If this breaks open before you’ve got them all in custody, we’re never getting them back and I get to spend the rest of my life waiting to be murdered. I really don’t want that.”
Peter didn’t force Tony around to look at him, but he did put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I’ll take this back to my house and have the best of my team meet me there tonight. We’ll go over all of it and with a little bit of luck we should have charges filed the day after tomorrow. Either way, I’ll move as fast as possible because the longer this is out there, the more likely it is we’ll have a leak.”
“Is your house secure enough?”
“I’ve got a CI whose middle name is paranoid and thinks El is too good for me. I can’t keep you out but I know that my place is secure as they can make it. He stops by once a week to have brunch with El and brings his scanners to check for bugs.”
“Good. Though when you make it to the end of that paperwork on the flight, you might decide you want to keep it from tainting your house.”
Peter finally tugged him around. “Tony, are you talking to somebody? Because this makes me want to stop by the office shrink and it didn’t even happen to me.”
“I am, and I’ll probably hear from him again about ten minutes after this information goes live.”
“Will that be soon enough?”
“Eh, there’s a decent chance that my butler already has a home visit scheduled for the moment you leave and just hasn’t told me about yet to keep me from running away before he gets here.”
It seemed that APOLLO, with JARVIS’ help, was damn good at his job. Despite Peter’s warning, it didn’t take two days and luck, it took a flight home and enough time for Peter to get a judge out of bed, review the evidence, and sign some arrest warrants. Tony got his call at 2:00 AM, thankfully on a regular phone instead of video chat since there was no hiding the arc reactor in his chest or the baby pressed against him and gnawing on the bottle like it was a binkie. (13 different shapes and brands of binkies and all his kid wanted was the bottle nipple. And not just the nipple popped off, or even the lid unscrewed, he wanted the whole empty bottle as a pacifier.)
“I’m sorry for waking you, Mr. Stark.” Peter greeted and Tony accepted the warning inherent in Peter’s formality.
“I was up, Agent Burke. What do you need?”
“I’m with The Honorable Judge Calhoun, a Federal Court Judge here in Manhattan who’ll probably end up being assigned the case on a permanent basis. He’s agreed to sign the arrest and search warrants.” JARVIS brought up a picture of an elderly white man with a head of thick silver hair with a mustache that made him look like he should be in an old Western, counseling heroes on the path of righteousness.
“And His Honor wants me to confirm that you’re not just blowing smoke; I’ll actually open up the SI mainframe?”
“Judge Calhoun here, Mr. Stark. Frankly, I’m more concerned with you preserving any evidence or assets before the accused fly the coop. The FBI can’t search for what’s been deleted.”
“That’s actually a misconception, Your Honor, but I can keep everything just as it was before the warrants dropped. I could do it right now, but I think the safest way to avoid accidentally triggering any protocols that might warn the accused would be for me to shut down the system the same moment the FBI starts conducting their raids.”
“That sounds good to me. What about you, Agent Burke?”
“It’s practical. And Your Honor, if you wouldn’t mind ignoring us all for a moment while we go off the record?” The man snorted and Tony bet the Judge hadn’t even leaned away from the phone. If he was trustworthy enough to be the one Peter dragged out of bed, Tony wasn’t worried. “Mr. Stark, if you wanted to use your not inconsiderable talents to keep things in order, we’d appreciate that.”
“What does that even mean, Burke?” Judge Calhoun asked.
“Don’t worry about it, Your Honor, I got it.” Tony might have understood a little less if he and Peter hadn’t discussed how Tony could shut down all the Board’s known and unknown bank accounts, stop their families and their mistresses from leaving the country, and all sorts of other safety latches that people were so fond of using to escape the full reach of justice.
“I believe you, Mr. Stark. But let’s not poison the tree and ruin evidence, shall we?”
“Believe me, Your Honor, there’s no one in the world that wants these people to face justice more than I do.”
Lex chose that moment to spit out the end of the bottle and grumble that Tony was interrupting his snooze. Tony froze, which only made Lex grumble louder, and Tony’s lungs seized at being so stupid as to give away his kid, but JARVIS flashed his screen before Tony could drop into a panic. Ten seconds later and Tony wouldn’t have noticed, but JARVIS caught him with just enough brain in control that Tony could process the words on the screen.
“I filtered out the noise, Sir.”
Tony forced himself to keep to a slow, steady breath through his nose instead of the sigh he wanted to heave. He checked back in to hear the judge giving final instructions about the limits of their warrants, despite how the behavior of the accused offended all their sensibilities.
“Thanks for your effort Agents, Your Honor. Peter, just give me the high sign when it’s time. I’ll have everything ready to go on your signal.” Tony had JARVIS cut the call, assuming that Peter’s original timeline of a few hours to get his fellow agents from on standby to arrests still applied. If not, Peter could call him back because Tony needed a moment.
“Fuck, that was close.”
“There is a several microsecond delay between your vocalizations and my transmission of said vocalizations, Sir. That is enough time to block any sounds Young Sir might make.”
“And if he starts talking over me?”
“It is my understanding that ‘dropped calls’ are a universal experience.”
“Not in Tony Stark’s house.”
“The main reasons for your concealment of Young Sir are about to be arrested, Sir.”
“So dropped calls are the least of my worries?”
“Or a soon to be unnecessary problem.”
Tony may or may not have sat in the workshop with his son in his arms waiting for the moment when that problem really did become unnecessary. JARVIS had everything queued while their little family of boys and ‘bots waited for the phone call. When it came, JARVIS paused just long enough for Tony to nod before the AI burned through the system and locked out everyone who wasn’t Tony Stark. Peter didn’t ask any questions about the speed of Tony’s confirmation that they were good to proceed, just clicked off the line with a promise that the infrared said Stane was the only person in his house and according to the house plans, was asleep in his bed.
“In five minutes, we’re going to have him custody. He’ll be in a squad car on his way to FBI headquarters for questioning. In ten minutes, you can sleep until CNN drags you out for a comment.”
Like an idiot, Tony believed him.
JARVIS managed to urge Tony upstairs and as far as the living room sofa before Peter called back. “He’s locked himself in the panic room off the bedroom. We tripped a secondary alarm on entrance to the house and he took cover.”
“Are you sure?”
“His sheets are still warm. There’s no place else he could be. I’ve got one of my agents on the line to the security company and they’re remotely unlocking it. This will put us off by a few minutes since we didn’t want to move on the other Board members until we had Stane in hand.”
“Give me a second.” Tony jumped up from his couch. Like a champ, Lex didn’t shout at the motion.
“Tony, no! This is just an update for your safety, not a request. You hacking into a room Stane can’t get out of would cross the line.”
A shout of “Burke!” came from the background.
“It’s open, Tony. I’ll call you when he’s in custody.”
JARVIS held the line open. There was crashing and shouting on the other end, broken only by Peter’s cursing. Tony didn’t need to make Peter pick up again when he could figure out for himself that Stane was gone. Odds were that Stane had gotten himself an unregistered exit to the safe room that wasn’t on the plans.
“J, get me every home security camera from the houses around him so we can figure out what in the hell is going on!” Tony shouted as he ran back to his workshop. Lex held on for the ride.
Burke got back on the line. Like the gentleman he was, he ignored that he didn’t have to dial. “Tony, he’s gone.”
“I know, I’m looking. They don’t have CCTV in this neighborhood but I’ve tapped into the neighborhood security cameras.”
“Do you have a visual?”
“Not yet. Do your chasing thing. I’ll let you know when I have a direction to point you.”
“We’re already on the way down the secret stairs. I’m hanging up on your now so I can tell the other teams to move on the rest of our targets. We can’t wait to capture Stane. Stay in your house and stay safe.”
They hung up on one another.
“APOLLO, what do you have for me?” Tony asked as he set Lex down in his crib.
“Nothing yet, Sir. I have prioritized all Stark Industries properties and accounts already flagged as part of Stane’s network.”
“Has he gone after any of them?”
“Not yet, Sir. I have expanded my search.”
“Don’t leave those things unwatched. And keep an eye on my shit since Stane is apparently the kind of guy to come up behind you and stab you in the back. What do you have for me, J?”
“I am monitoring CCTV footage on every possible departure point from Stane’s neighborhood and all cameras from the local residences. He has yet to visibly pass by any of them. The FBI Agents have, however, and based off their hurry they have yet to locate Stane.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony didn’t know if JARVIS had diverted some of his precious processing power to waking up Jarvis or if he could just feel the stress in the air. “Anthony?”
“Don’t worry about it, J.”
“It’s three thirty in the morning, Anthony. What’s happening?”
Tony glanced up and paused. “Are you wearing sweats as pajamas, J?”
“I didn’t know you even knew those things existed. Are you going to break out into hives at their touch on your skin?”
And Tony never could refuse that tone, no matter how much it would’ve been better for all of them in the long run. “The FBI moved on Stane this morning.”
“About five minutes ago.”
“Already? And what has gone wrong if you’re frantically typing rather than victory engineering?”
“J and Paulie really know what they’re doing when it comes to gathering incriminating evidence. But Stane had a secret exit to his panic room and the FBI lost him in the neighborhood.”
“Because Obadiah Stane is a sneaky bastard.”
“Have the boys found him yet?”
“Are you contributing something to their search or are you simply panicking and getting in their electronic way?”
“Sir is the creator, Mr. Jarvis.” APOLLO objected.
“Sir is never in the way.” JARVIS added.
“I’m going over their searches because there’s a human element that the boys still can’t really factor for. Humans are illogical and unpredictable, Stane apparently more than most.”
“Shouldn’t the FBI be the ones trying to predict him?”
“They’ve got a coordinated hit against everyone that was in on it with Stane so they’re spread a little thin. They weren’t expecting the 60-year-old executive to make a run for it.”
“I thought you turned over the information just yesterday afternoon?”
“I told you the boys are good. Peter got the warrants just over an ago. He called me from the Judge’s house and asked me to lock down SI when they got started.”
“Now we’re hunting the bad guy.”
“And how is that going?”
“We haven’t found him yet.”
Jarvis wanted to ask a hundred questions about where Stane might be, or how in the world Tony would be able to guess when he hadn’t known for all those years that Stane was double dealing. Tony probably had the same blind spots as his mechanical children, but pointing that out wouldn’t be helpful. As much as Edwin wanted Anthony to turn it over to the FBI and let them handle matters, apparently there were things that only Anthony Stark could do. Edwin hadn’t liked it when Anthony was a boy carrying the weight of the world, but at least this time his shoulders were broader and stronger to handle the increased load.
JARVIS interrupted Edwin’s mulling on the unfairness of life. “Sir, I have found Stane in one of his neighbor’s vehicles on a traffic camera.”
“Map.” JARVIS brought up the city streets with a highlight of Stane’s residence and a blinking dot of where Stane had been sighted, along with stills from the camera that he’d passed by. Though Edwin had not known it before, JARVIS indicated that Stane lived in the hills near Los Angeles rather than the slick, impersonal apartment he would have assumed. As such, there had been no camera activity until Stane reached the city, and even then, it was on what might be considered the edge of town, nowhere near Stark Industries’ headquarters or even their main campus for work.
“APOLLO, where’s he going?”
“Sir… I do not…”
“Best guess, Paul.”
If the AI had a throat to clear, Edwin imagined he would’ve. As it was, the AI chose to highlight a point on JARVIS’ maps not terribly far from the edge of town. “The old SI campus? You think he’s going for the arc reactor?”
“Given my limited understanding of Obadiah Stane I believe he would—”
“The abomination he’s making from the corpse of the Mark I.” Tony’s brain leapt ahead.
“I concur with APOLLO’s assessment, Sir.”
“I can extrapolate other locations that might possess some value to him, Sir.”
“No, you’re right.”
Edwin had a moment to be astonished at the depth of life Tony was able to coax from his creations, but then Tony stepped atop one of his platforms and the armor began assembling around him. Under other circumstances it would be poetry in motion, but in these, Edwin could only ask why.
“Stane has got to know he’s been stung by the FBI, which means he’d got to guess that the airports and SI are closed to him. If he wants out, he’s going to need something else that flies, and that’ll be his abomination.”
“Will he be able to run off to the Middle East like you did?”
“I doubt it. They’ve got to be tying their suit into the large arc reactor to try and fuel this. That’s why they’re there. The only other arc reactors in the world are the one in my chest and the one in my suit.”
“So how far will the large arc reactor be able to get him?”
“It’ll all depend on what kind of battery pack they’ve got lashed to it and what they outfitted their suit with.”
“Will they be practical about that?”
“No, Stane wants a super suit for the military.”
“So, large and heavy, and outfitted with Stark weapons.”
“Yup.” Tony gave a few flicks of his wrist, checking the mechanical reactions of his suit rather than looking Edwin in the eye.
“Can they manage a good enough battery to actually get him very far?”
“Then where is he going?”
“I have no idea.”
“Then why would he want to get to the other suit?”
“…I don’t know.”
Tony twisted to face him. “I don’t know, J! The suit won’t be able to get very far, so I don’t know if he’s planning to get himself surrounded by FBI agents and then hop over their heads, or if he’s planning to use the suit as a bargaining chip, or if he’s planning suicide by cop. I don’t know!”
“Anthony!” Edwin breathed. “I apologize. You do not need to know everything. But neither do you need to do everything. Tell Agent Burke that you spotted Stane and let the people who get paid for this sort of thing handle him.”
“And if Stane is trying to take out as many agents as he can with my weapons so he can run away?”
Jarvis didn’t have an answer that Tony would like. He wanted the professionals with body armor to handle Stane, but Jarvis had seen the images of what havoc the Iron Man armor could wreak and it was designed for peace. A suit outfitted by Obadiah Stane would be meant for blood and terror, and Anthony was the only one who could stop him. “And what happens if Stane is going there to lure you in so he can take one of your arc reactors?”
“They are, as you said, the only ones in the world that could power that suit enough to get away.”
“I don’t think Stane is thinking that long term. And his abomination won’t be able to make it all the way down to Malibu or the mansion.”
“I still think you should let Stane make his move first. Don’t go charging in to stop him when you don’t know his plans. Let him break through the building’s roof, or call his government friends and try to bargain, or let him pretend he didn’t realize it was the FBI and he thought he was running from terrorists of his own. Let Stane show his hand instead of you compromising yours.”
“And if his hand is killing people? If he knows he’s caught and the only thing to do is end as many other people as he can?”
“I don’t want one of those people to be you.”
“And if he comes for me to get my arc reactor and manages to make it here on whatever charge he’s got? Would it be better to battle it out with him over the old industrial park of Stark Industries, or over my house?”
There was nothing to say to that. Anthony snapped his mask down. “Keep the lights on J, I’ll be back soon.”
Anthony was off like a shooting star in reverse. Edwin closed his eyes and wondered if wishing upon this shooting star that it might be safe would only jinx matters and bring Anthony crashing to earth. Lex smacked his plump palm against the plexiglass of his crib and squawked out a demand that Edwin come pick him up. There was one Stark boy he could protect from the world, so Edwin did. Though based on the pats the boy gave his face, Edwin was quite sure that Alexander was rather more concerned with soothing Edwin’s worry than being soothed himself.
“Someone want to tell me what the fuck is going on in California?” Fury swept past the agents who were scrambling to do just that.
“I would that I could, Director.”
“You were supposed to be tracking this flying metal guy, Coulson.”
Phil hadn’t been intimidated by Fury for over a decade, and he wasn’t going to start now. While normally he wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at the man in front of junior agents, it was 3:30 in the morning and everyone was doing their best to piece together information. Shouting wasn’t going to help. “I have been. That’s why we knew thirty seconds after they started that the FBI was conducting raids on members of Stark Industries’ Board of Directors.”
“Why didn’t we know before?”
“There was no lag time, Director.” One of the agents called out.
Fury turned on the kid in a dramatic whirl of black leather. “Explain.”
“Uh.” The kid looked at Coulson, cleared his throat, and carried on. “The FBI got the information for their warrants after closing time today and reviewed the information not at any FBI office we have surveillance on. The time between getting the information and conducting the raids was less than 12 hours. Sir.”
“What in the hell does this have to do with the iron suit?”
“We don’t know specifics at this time.”
“Make a guess, Coulson!”
Phil wanted to snap that Fury hated it when people guessed without facts, but the room was filled with the sound of tapped FBI phone calls scrambling to arrest some of the most influential people in the country and the hunt for Obadiah Stane, who apparently had managed to evade the squad sent after him. “I can’t make a guess. The suit of armor hasn’t cropped up in any of their conversations, but Obadiah Stane making a runner has.”
“What kind of idiot lets an executive outrun them?”
Whatever answer Coulson might have had was cut out by Tony Stark’s voice coming through the phone line.
Tony’s flight to the old campus wasn’t fast enough. Two minutes out from the building, APOLLO informed Tony that he’d caught Stane’s stolen car on the loading bay cameras. “Whatever technology is inside the lab remains unattached to any network that I am able to access, Sir, so I cannot offer you more information than that. However, the arc reactor still appears to be stable.”
“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, “Agent Burke is on the line. I will cut out the sounds of the suit and replace them with the ambient sounds of the lab.” Tony agreed with JARVIS’ not so subtle opinion that Tony should keep his presence in the suit to himself.
“Pete, Stane is at the old SI campus.” Peter cursed and shouted to whoever was driving to redirect. Tony figured that pure adrenaline was the only reason the sirens in the background weren’t setting him off. “How in the hell did he get there so fast?”
“He’s stole a damn good car and he took the back roads down from the hills. I just caught him on camera entering the campus.”
“Are you going to clear us to enter?”
“No? Stark are you kidding me?”
“We contract for the military. We’ve got tech in there that could kill every agent you bring in, Burke. I don’t know why he’s gone to the campus but I know he could do a hell of a lot of damage.”
“We’re trained for that kind of thing, Tony.”
“Not for the black ops shit Stane has been working on behind my back, Peter. But I’ve got people who are trained to stop it.”
Tony cut the call. “JARVIS give him the busy tone when he calls back.”
“Agent Burke is cursing at you, Sir.” JARVIS’ tone said he wouldn’t have minded doing the same.
“They’re coming to the SI campus anyway?”
“Indeed, Sir. I assume I am to let the FBI enter the campus and direct them to your location after you have disarmed Stane?”
“Got it in one, J.”
“Sir,” APOLLO interrupted. “There has been a fluctuation in the arc reactor. A sudden drop in energy, followed by spikes as the machine attempts to compensate.”
“Meaning Stane has turned his abomination on.”
Tony came in hot, zeroing in on the building’s glass ceiling and ready to crash straight through and go in guns blazing. JARVIS chose that moment to showcase the height of his programming and say, “Mr. Jarvis has asked me to inform you that he has provided Young Sir with a midnight snack. He has voiced no displeasure at your continued absence and to my other self’s amusement, Young Sir seems concerned with forcing him to share in his pureed fruit as some form of consolation for his worry.”
Edwin Jarvis, master of the quiet guilt. “Right, tell him I got it, J.” Instead of crashing down with all his well-deserved, righteous fury, Tony landed on the roof and stared through the glass at the massive abomination beneath him. Whereas Tony’s suit was sleek and radiated personality, Stane looked like he was trying to be a metal version of the Hulk, only in that industrial matte silver favored by government contractors the world over. Stane’s suit was precisely what it was meant to look like: a weapon. A weapon currently occupied by a man who had spent several decades playing Tony, no matter how much he might like to pretend otherwise. Which meant Stane had probably been standing there in that suit for who knew how long just so he could look up at Tony, head and neck exposed in what Tony considered a design flaw and Stane’s scientists probably hadn’t even noticed. He looked Tony in the eye and then closed the lid around his face without any of the speed or the zippy snap there should’ve been when you were going into a fight.
“I’m sorry it had to come to this, Tony.”
The mechanical voice echoed up through the glass, but Tony didn’t answer. He did tell APOLLO to go plague on all the computers he could see down there, though. The poor program probably panicked about how it was supposed to get into the system, but eventually all Tony’s sons learned that sometimes you had to run before you could walk.
“What, are you not talking to me now, Tony? I though you grew out of that stage when you were fifteen! You got a hell of a lot less petulant after Howard died. And I’ll admit, for a while there you were a dream to work with. All you did was invent and drink, too busy fucking your way around Southern California to even realize what I was doing with the company behind your back. You were much easier to control than Howard, so thanks for that. It was a little frustrating to have to redirect a man child, but easier than dealing with an actual genius who’d bothered to grow up and have principles.”
“I… I am in, Sir.” APOLLO sounded terrified at his own brilliance. That was a feeling Tony knew all too well.
“Get me everything, Paul. I want these servers clear. J make sure we don’t leave behind any traces for the crazies to find and keep the engineers on this train wreck from having anything to run off with.”
“On it, Sir.”
“Yes, Sir.” Both AIs agreed to their separate tasks.
Stane had been ranting while Tony was otherwise occupied, and with Jarvis’ warning in his ear, Tony could see that Stane was trying to taunt him to come within reach. The suit’s targeting system could pick up the hundreds of tiny cords attached to the hefty armor that were making it function. Stane needed the arc reactor in Tony’s chest – the one attached to his suit instead of Tony’s innards, thanks to Jarvis. Stane couldn’t come up and get it, so he needed Tony to come down and give him a shot. If Tony hit Stane’s suit with enough velocity, he’d rip the abomination off the cords and smash him right through the wall, but Stane would probably bear hug Tony and hope that whatever battery pack the others had worked into his armor would keep him moving just long enough to hold Tony down with his weight and yank the arc reactor from his chest. It seemed insanely risky to Tony, which meant Stane had a backup plan. That thought made Tony break into cold sweats and run through flight trajectories in his head.
“We have everything, Sir.” APOLLO said with a sigh of relief.
“Great. Then shut this shit down.” APOLLO went after the other tech with a sizzle, bless his bloodthirsty little heart.
“And the other armor, Sir?” JARVIS asked.
“Fry the power cords.”
The computers started sparking just in time for Stane to realize that twisting to look was the same as driving without power steering. “What the—”
Tony nudged open the window and came down, hovering outside of the other suit’s massive range. “At least my suit doesn’t have to be plugged into an outlet to work.”
“Until I get the arc reactor that’s glowing in your chest, Tony. Once I’ve got that, there’s nothing the US Military won’t do or forgive.”
“That was the big plan? Steal the arc reactor?”
“That’s still the plan, Tones.”
Whatever Stane was about to do, Tony shot first. An arc reactor repulsor blast straight to his chest sent Stane crashing through the wall like a broken toy. It was much more satisfying when Tony wasn’t crashing with him.
Tony didn’t put in the effort to make sure Stane was clear before he started firing off tiny rockets into the structural support beams for Section 16 and went straight up, taking it all down around his ears as he flew clear. He’d let the government agents try and recover anything from the debris only to find out everything had been wiped. Tony hovered there for a moment, looking down at the perfect destruction he’d left in his wake, the arc reactor’s section of the building untouched but missing a wall.
He had a moment of pleasure that his math had been right before he got distracted by the shouts of FBI agents swarming around the other armor, guns drawn and demanding Stane raise his hands. Stane did so with the cock in his wrist that Tony was about 80% certain meant gunfire. He zipped down and finally got his satisfying crash, landing with one knee on the ground and one fist straight through the abomination’s chest.
Though he had plenty of clearance between the metal and Stane’s ribs, Stane still shrieked, “Tony!” at him like he thought Tony was trying to kill him.
As one, the FBI agents all flinched the guns away, horror at shooting Tony Stark overcoming their training. Tony was pretty sure Stane had figured out one last way to fuck him over before he went into custody, but then APOLLO’s avatar appeared at the bottom of Tony’s screen and when he opened his mouth to snort, “I’m not Tony Stark,” it was APOLLO’s voice that came out.
Agents started shouting things, but Peter raised a hand and shut everyone up, leaving Tony with something like silence as he ripped the faceplate off Stane’s armor. The agents started up again and Tony ignored them to look at Peter.
“Agent Burke, I’m who Mr. Stark said would be able to handle whatever Stane managed to pull out of storage.”
“And what in the world are you?”
“I’m Iron Man.”
There was a long pause. “…What?”
“Don’t worry about it, Agent Burke. You’ve got bigger problems today.”
Peter stepped forward, gun still at the ready despite how useless he knew it had to be against the armor. “That’s Obadiah Stane.”
“Yes. He is in knowing possession of stolen intellectual property from Mr. Stark and is currently attempting to use it for attempted murder.”
“And we’re supposed to believe the man in the suit of flying armor?” Another agent shouted, and based off Peter’s eye roll Tony didn’t think that guy was going to have a shining career.
“The man in the flying suit of armor sent by Mr. Stark to capture Obadiah Stane before he turned the guns on all of you.”
His human face on full display, Stane shouted, “I was just protecting myself from this madman!”
Before he could start spewing too much venom, Iron Man grabbed the abomination by the excess metal around his shoulders and gave Stane a little shake. “Release it.” Stane stuck out his chin. “Now who’s the petulant one? Release it.” A few agents finally found their courage and stepped forward like their guns could be more intimidating than the armor. Iron Man looked at Burke, who told the other agents to hold it.
Iron Man half dragged Stane upright. “You can release it or I can rip it off of you.” And what do you know? Tony could hear the familiar whirring of the armor detaching. Tony may or may not have helped things along since the second-rate engineers who’d built this armor hadn’t embraced the notion of speed in their design. A pajama-clad, fully-human Stane was left standing there when Peter waved forward his agents and told them to Mirandize Stane and take him into custody.
Rather than walk away with the other agents, Peter holstered his weapon and stepped up to Iron Man, staring at him like he could see traces of the human inside. “So, Stark made and sent a vigilante to stop Stane instead of letting my agents handle things like they’re trained to?”
“No one is trained for this.” Iron Man kicked the armor at his feet. “Not yet, at least. No one but me.”
“And are you going to take off your mask and tell me who you are and what Tony was thinking by making your suit?”
“Nope. I don’t answer to you, Agent Burke. I answer to Mr. Stark.”
“I doubt you answer to anyone… Iron Man.”
Tony just knew Peter was going to start lecturing him on the other armor being evidence, but there was shouting. Tony shoved Peter behind him just in time for Stane to wrench himself out of an agent’s grip – middle aged did not mean he wasn’t threatening, hadn’t these kids learned that? – and grab a gun. Before Stane could point it at anyone, Iron Man fired. Or rather, JARVIS fired since his cold logic was the only thing out there that could manage to hit Stane in the thigh rather than shoot him someplace more permanently damaging.
Stane collapsed against the side of the agency car with a howl. The other agents automatically checked their fellows for bullet wounds, and none of them got between Tony and Stane when Iron Man walked over to the man’s crumpled form.
“You going to end me?” Stane growled, not even having the decency for blood to be between his teeth like those soldiers he’d murdered in Afghanistan.
“You’re not worth the blood on my hands, Stane.”
“You know what I did.”
“I do. And you’re going to spend the rest of your life in solitary confinement because if they leave you to yourself, you’re going to end up murdered by some career criminal with a brother in the military who has more ethics than the man who betrayed his godson to terrorists. You’re going to rot in prison. And you know what the best part is? Mr. Stark is still your heir. And if he’s not, there’s no way he loses the civil case to take every asset you have left in the world since you’re never going to get out to touch them. You’re going to spend the rest of your life in the not fun part of Cuba while Tony Stark spends your money.”
Stane just stared up at him. “You always had more mettle than your father.”
“You never knew my father.”
Stane laughed. “That’s what you’re going with, then?”
“It’s the truth.”
“Well then, Iron Man. Show mercy on a man you don’t have any reason to hate.”
“I don’t hate you Stane. I don’t hate creatures this spineless and pathetic.”
“I gambled on the world.”
“And you lost.”
“I did. So will you.”
After all this time and all the blood he’d spilled, Stane still had the power to get to him. Instead of standing there and letting him, Tony turned away. JARVIS’ shout was the only warning Tony had that Stane was lunging for something under the car, but he wasn’t wrapped up in the suit any longer and the FBI shot true.
For all that Tony had seen the bodies of those soldiers who’d died for him, that he’d shot down terrorists, and that Yinsen had died under his hands, Tony had never actually watched someone be shot at close range He hadn’t seen the way their body jostled from the impact, or the blood that died navy pajamas purple, and the puddle that looked obscenely bright under the light of FBI flashlights. It wasn’t like Yinsen, struggling for breath, fighting to offer up last words. Stane was there one moment, and then in a rush of sound JARVIS didn’t quite mute, he was gone.
Tony tracked the random scrap of metal that an FBI agent kicked away from Stane’s hand, no threat to anyone. “How in the hell are we supposed to explain this? You shot him for reaching for a hunk of metal! He can’t testify if he’s dead! And you!” Peter turned all his righteous fury on Iron Man. “You’re coming in to tell us what in the hell is going on here!”
Tony cleared his throat, which neither AI translated for their audience. “Thanks for the offer, Agent Burke, but I have to tell Mr. Stark that Stane pulled suicide by cop.”
“I don’t let vigilantes walk away from me, not even ones approved by Tony Stark.”
“I’m not a vigilante. I’m Stark Industries security.”
“That’s really what you’re going with after getting caught on camera in Gulmira?”
“Retrieving Stark Industries property that had been sold to terrorists.”
Peter rolled his eyes.
“Take the excuse, Agent Burke. I’m above your pay grade and you have enough problems to deal with today. You have to answer for a dead industrialist and domestic terrorist.”
If Tony could’ve raised a snarky eyebrow through the mask he would’ve, but as it was, he just took off into the sky, leaving a fuming but compliant Agent Burke behind him. Well, mostly compliant. JARVIS informed him that about ten seconds after the armor left the ground Tony Stark had a call. Tony didn’t answer. And if he took the long way home, looping over the ocean and giving himself a few minutes over the black water and going far enough out to see the stars, he didn’t think the people at home would mind.
Jarvis met Tony with a mug of tea and his son. Tony had meant to stay in his lab and get the press statement and business plan ready for release the second CNN called asking what in the hell was going on. Then they, and every other news organization on the planet, could be pacified before they spread panic or damage to stock prices. SI needed to get in front of the story and make it clear that Tony was more than cooperating fully. That would comfort people before they gave in to the cinematic thought that mentally disturbed Tony Stark was the only pathetic thing standing between SI and total collapse. Tony was already thinking about press conferences and the necessity of an on-camera interview when Jarvis shut down that entire train of thought by pushing Tony up the stairs and into bed. Tony’s objections lost all meaning when Jarvis laid Lex down beside him in his pillow circle.
“No, Anthony. The world will be at your door soon enough. You have time enough for a bit of sleep before you endure what will be a rather difficult day.”
“Coffee helps with that too, you know.”
“I am certain you will be having enough coffee to kill a lesser man, but sleep is better.” Tony gave his obligatory grumbles, but it was difficult to really summon up discontent when his bed was so damn comfortable and Lex looked like he hadn’t slept a wink himself because Jarvis couldn’t be left to fret on his own. Tony rested a hand on his kid’s stomach and fell asleep to the gentle rise and fall of his belly.
With practice at tracking the state of Tony’s REM cycle from the twitches of his eyelids, JARVIS woke Tony at the optimum moment. While Tony napped, Jarvis had stood a silent sentinel in the living room and refused everyone passage down the hall so Tony could get his necessary rest. Jarvis had foisted off an impatient FBI agent, Miss Potts – who had just taken up residence in the living room where she watched the estimated stock price drop and swore to reporters that Mr. Stark would have a statement for them soon – and Dr. Keyworth. The good doctor watched Pepper, and he watched the news, and he read statements from FBI agents that they shouldn’t have made to reporters – which Agent Burke left to handle – and he watched Jarvis, and he chatted with JARVIS, and his highly-trained brain put together far more than Edwin would have been comfortable with if he realized.
After his digital counterpart woke Tony, Jarvis did not give Anthony the option of first calling Agent Burke or consulting with Miss Potts. Instead, he handed Anthony coffee, took Lex to the living room for a feeding, and abandoned Anthony find Dr. Keyworth waiting by the windows after he finished his morning ablutions.
Tony just sighed. “I’m not going to lie, I figured J was going to call you before he even sent me to bed this morning.”
“He thought you needed a consult after coordinating the digital end of tracking down Stane and sending SI security after him?” That didn’t sound very believable to Stanley and his tone made it obvious.
“Is that what they’re saying on the news?” Tony dropped into one of the chairs and took in the weak, morning sunshine. He chose not to be frustrated that Stanley looked perfectly chipper in tweed at this forsaken time of day.
“Yup. There are several FBI agents who couldn’t keep their mouths shut and talked to a few different organizations. It’s out that Iron Man is on your payroll and apparently answers directly to you.”
“Are they covering that more than the terrorism?”
“I’d say it depends on the channel, though they might be switching back and forth more than I’m giving them credit for. I’m sure JARVIS could tell you.”
“He’ll have running percentages and Twitter-based opinion reflection models. Pep must be losing her mind.”
“I think she’s had to wrangle other secretaries to help her answer the phone calls and just repeat over and over again that Stark Industries has no official comment at this time but they will soon.”
“I had an official statement drafted.”
“Mr. Jarvis told me that your statement was ready for Stane and his activities, not for Iron Man. Neither he nor Pepper had any idea how you wanted to handle that information. And just FYI, Pepper seems pretty ticked that she didn’t even know it was information.”
“Can’t I just claim the agents were full of shit?” Tony sighed and flopped his head back against the cushion, wishing he was still in bed.
“That seems counter-productive since you’re going to be sending Iron Man off to collect your weapons and shut down terrorist organizations that have been profiteering off your tech.”
“Why must you be so practical?”
“Because if I’m practical about that, then maybe you’ll listen to me when I ask what you’re going to do about Iron Man.”
“Own it and get the lawyers to find out how we get around being sued for vigilante problems. I’m pretty sure it’s enough to say he’s reclaiming stolen property for most of the shit Iron Man is going to get up to, but the shooting people is going to get legally hairy.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of wanting to know what your plan is to keep people from realizing that you’re Iron Man.”
Sheer force of will kept Tony from freezing. “I suppose in the way that all creators are part of their creations, I’m Iron Man.”
“Yeah, I was referring more to you being the guy who flew the suit to Afghanistan, took out a terrorist cell, stopped Stane last night, and somehow managed to convince trained FBI agents that you weren’t yourself.”
Tony rolled his head forward and met Stanley with the same bland stare he used on reporters. “What makes you think I was piloting the suit?”
“Because whatever hacking you had to do wouldn’t have required a nap. Not for you. But flying a metal suit to arrest your godfather? That absolutely would.” Tony didn’t answer. “This really isn’t what I meant about creating order from the chaos, but I should have guessed that you would go above and beyond the bounds of what anyone else would deem possible.”
“You have any ideas on the secret identity front?”
If Stanley was surprised by the trust, he didn’t show it. “Do you have anyone else who can pilot the suit?”
“J, can you manage it?”
“Standard flight patterns and such, Sir, but I do not believe I could be capable of taking it into battle.”
“Battle shouldn’t be necessary. I’m just thinking that when you have your obligatory press conference today that you might want Iron Man make an appearance if you need him to. Though, with all due respect JARVIS, I’d refrain from talking.”
“Sir assumed a voice modulator last night when dealing the FBI.”
“That’s good, but unless you can replicate the speech pattern Tony employed last night while you’re using that modulator, I’d keep my mouth shut. The same voice with a different pattern will be a red flag to any analyst watching the situation.”
“The FBI agents are the only ones who heard me talk.”
“Maybe, but you can bet that the FBI and CIA’s profilers have already sat them down and made each agent repeat what Iron Man said to the best of their recollection so they can begin constructing a profile.”
“You think I should have a fake identity for the Iron Man.”
“Honestly, if you’re going to do this, I think you should do this.”
“You think I should be known as Iron Man?”
“Hell, no. The last thing you need is to get pulled in the hundred different directions that will come with being an obvious superhero. I think you should construct a fake person to pilot the suit, not just a personality. Different voice, different speech patterns, different psychology, different combat history, create a whole person and run a program to filter that personality through whenever you’re in the suit. And then I think you should build an entire roster of backup pilots.”
“What?” Tony straightened.
“As a therapist I would not be able, in good conscience, to recommend you putting just one person in that suit all the time. Your best friend is in the Air Force, hasn’t he lectured you about the physical and psychological precautions they take to keep anything from happening to the pilots?”
“How do you know about those?”
“I specialize in PTSD, Tony. I’m part of those precautions.”
“So, you think…”
“Have your fake Iron Man in the wings if you need him for the press conference today, just to get things back under control and buy you more time, but keep him out if you can. Once you’ve survived that, start constructing a big, beautiful lie to pacify all the worries people might end up having before they even think to have them. Get everyone on Iron Man’s side before they realize disagreement is an option. Control the chaos of public opinion and shut down a bunch of future difficulties.”
“My therapist is encouraging me to lie. I don’t really know what to do with that.”
“I’m your therapist, Tony.” Stanley leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “If you leave this issue for later instead of handling it now, you’re going to end up drowning for who knows how long. Then you’ll spiral. Creating this order for Iron Man is pretty much the same thing as other people laying out their clothes for tomorrow before going to bed, or doing homework when they get home from school on a Friday.”
“Constructing a false identity for my suit is the same as not procrastinating homework?”
“Identity, personality, training schedule, flight roster, batting order; the whole plan is like other people making a study schedule for the semester.”
“Right.” Tony popped up. “J, let me know when you and Stanley get the identity basics figured out and you’ve got enough to sell it in case I have to drag Iron Man into the press conference with me. You don’t have a lot of time but Pep will schedule the conference as soon as you’re good to go.”
Tony was out the door before Stanley could do more than shout. “I didn’t agree to that!”
“Sorry, can’t hear you!” Tony called over his shoulder and made for the living room with a cackle.
Tony had planned on dealing with a scolding from Pepper first, but as much as he would be amused to do so otherwise, one didn’t really ignore FBI agents pacing around their living room. “‘sup buttercup?”
“Oh, how I wish he was talking to you.” Peter sighed at Pepper. “Are you all right?”
“I’m going to be mainlining coffee to make it through the day, but that’s not really different than after any other late-night tech session. What’s up?”
“What’s up? Tony, have you not seen the news?”
Tony went to the kitchen for the aforementioned coffee. “I know that your agents leak like an old gasket so the entire world knows that Iron Man is an SI employee.” Jarvis plucked the coffee mug from Tony’s hand and replaced it with a smoothie glass.
“Yeah, so why aren’t you freaking out more about that?”
“Because this might be even better release timing then what I planned. It’s hard to blame a guy for creating a flying metal suit the same day you find out he’s been dealing with domestic terrorists.” Lex was in his Bumbo chair atop the counter, fat little legs sticking out while he gnawed on something that might have once been a graham cracker. Tony pressed the cold glass to Lex’s feet and the boy squawked at having his breakfast interrupted.
“A little advanced notice on the issue of Iron Man would have been appreciated, Mr. Stark.”
“I wasn’t planning on pulling him out last night, Miss Potts.”
“Just sending him overseas to fight terrorists.”
Tony nodded. “Point. Though we’re probably venturing into territory that we shouldn’t be discussing unless Peter is willing to sign that employment contract with SI that I’ve got for him.”
Tony straightened away from the counter and stopped teasing his son. “That’s not a no.”
“It’s a no. I need to talk to Iron Man.”
“Ask the SI lawyers and they’ll schedule something.”
“He’s a witness to a crime, Tony. We have no idea what went on inside the SI building, just that Stane came flying out and chunks of the building came down around Iron Man’s ears.”
“I can tell you that Iron Man chose to take down Section 16 to destroy all the technology that had been bastardized off my own because it was the best way to keep it out of anyone else’s hands. As for what happened in the conversation between them beforehand, Iron Man has a right to speak with his attorney before he speaks to you.”
Peter just stared at Tony like this was a version of the man he’d never before. And really, it was. Peter had met Tony Stark scientist, salesman, lover, and friend, but never Stark Industries’ President. “What happened to everything I’ve been hearing on the news about how, ‘Tony Stark and Stark Industries are determined to help the FBI in whatever way possible?’”
A mouthful of smoothie was not nearly as satisfying as a shot. “Tell me, where’d you get all the information you used to arrest people, Petey-pie?”
Peter closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry, Tony. That was unfair.” And there was the lack of reckless pride that made him like Peter. “But Tony, we need to talk to him.”
“And I’ll get him in front of you as soon as I can, but the pilot didn’t think he was going to be in the public eye this soon. He’s got a life that he needs to protect and I’m not going to let him jeopardize it any more than I’ve already asked him to. He didn’t sign up for picking a fight with another suit in the middle of Los Angeles, but it needed to be done, so he did it. I’m going to get him a lawyer before he talks to the Feds so his desire to help doesn’t lead him to accidentally admit that he broke some laws when he took out Stane.” So long as Tony cordoned off the part of his brain where Iron Man was him, it was easy to act in his best interests. That he was more aggressive for the rights of this non-existent person then he would’ve been for his own was something Tony didn’t want to think about but Stanley was no doubt going to smack him with at the first opportunity.
Tony really wasn’t looking forward to that, but Peter recognized his stress and stepped forward to put his hands on Tony’s shoulders. “This pilot of yours sounds like a good friend, Tony.”
“I think he might be. You gonna be my good friend too?” Tony smirked.
Peter snorted. “Try your pitch again after the SI board are all serving their sentences.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that. Do you think your wife would like to sell her business and start handling event planning for the Maria Stark Foundation?”
Peter just rolled his eyes. “Goodbye, Tony.”
“See you soon, Petey-pie.”
“Oh!” Peter stopped before he made it to the door and slowly turned like he’d been happy to forget what else he needed to say until just this moment, and would have been happy to forget until he was in his car. “Did Iron Man tell you about how Stane died?”
“I got the particulars, yes.” Which was not vague enough to quell the flinches from Pepper and Jarvis, which meant JARVIS had told them both. (Though Pepper probably hadn’t gotten the video playback like Jarvis.)
“So, you know…”
“Suicide by cop.”
“Not as much as we thought.”
Tony slouched against the counter. “What did he have on him?”
“At the time, we thought he was just reaching for a hunk of metal that had come off the suit, but it was an actual device. Your guys told us it was a…” Peter took his notebook out of his pocket and checked. “A sonic taser.”
Tony closed his eyes. “Fuck.”
“Apparently it causes short-term paralysis and the US Military refused production because of the, and I quote, ‘overwhelming potential for abuse’.”
“Stane had that on him.”
“We believe it was in his hand outside the armor, probably because he didn’t think it would work from inside the armor.”
“Given what they made his armor out of, even if it did work, the range would be so dramatically cut that you’d have to be within three feet for it to work.”
“And I assume that going through the Iron Monger armor meant it wouldn’t be able to make it through the Iron Man armor too.”
“That’s what the press are calling it.”
Tony buried his face in his hands with a groan.
“Hey, they had to call it something other than, ‘Not Iron Man’”.
“I’d rather it went unnamed, but I get the impulse. So that was Stane’s plan then? I couldn’t figure out why he went for his armor instead of just taking off and borrowing someone’s plane. But if he was trying to lure everyone in…”
“Still not the world’s best plan since he’d be a fugitive.”
“He’d have his armor and Iron Man’s. That would be enough bargaining power to make pretty much anything go away.”
“Your faith in the justice system is heartwarming.”
“If you want to retain your faith, I’d leave before I drag you down to my jaded level.”
Peter laughed, but raised his hands and forfeited the field. He left with goodbyes to everyone. There was one person left to be grilled by before Tony could move forward for the day. “So, Pep—”
“Don’t insult either one of us by pretending like you weren’t in the suit last night, Tony.” Tony blinked in surprise, less at the knowledge and more at the tone. “You have a rug in that sitting room to cover up the massive hole in the floor.” Pepper pointed to the new addition taking the place of the deceased piano, and politely ignored the patch job on the roof that wouldn’t stand up to any actual weather.
“Did you think I wasn’t going to notice a new, random rug?”
“I was hoping you’d think it was for the kid.”
“It’s Persian. You don’t put babies and their toys on a Persian rug.”
“Jarvis wouldn’t. What were you thinking!”
“That I’m still twitchy about having repair guys—”
“This isn’t about the floor! Or the ceiling! Or the fact that you either fell through or shot through both of them to make those holes! You flew around the world and attacked a terrorist camp, Tony!”
“I feel that specificity is important in this situation. Because I didn’t shoot up a terrorist camp. They were using my weapons to shoot up a town.”
“Now you’re going to fly off to the Middle East every time terrorists start shooting at people? You’ll never sleep.”
“No, Jarvis has already given me that lecture.”
“Apparently not very well because then you flew off to fight with Stane!”
“That was just to Los Angeles.”
“I admit, Pep, I was a little reckless about this stuff, but I’m getting better. Stanley is back there with JARVIS creating a whole Iron Man pilot program for layers of security, and I’ve got a system tracking down my weapons and the terrorists using them so I’m not just leaping into the dark every time and hoping I hit something. I can’t rely on reporters to keep telling me where to go, or to wait until they start shooting people and then fly out to confront them. I’m making a plan.”
“A plan that involves you flying a metal suit around the world and getting shot at.”
“A plan that involves me cleaning up the mess I made.”
Pepper gathered up her paperwork with a huff. “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
“Only if you want it to be, Ms. Potts.”
Pepper turned on her impressive heels and squared her shoulders. “I’ve never shirked work before, Mr. Stark, I’m not going to start now.”
“Well then, you want to help Stanley fabricate a superhero?”
Pepper was too classy a lady to bite her lip, but Tony knew what she looked like when she was fighting back a smile.
The seven of them settled in the living room and came up with a game plan. (The four adults, plus Lex because it was all for him, JARVIS who was doing all the real work, and APOLLO because even though he didn’t talk, he sent Tony updates on his pad.)
Tony had been hoping for just enough of a plan get him through the day and keep him from saying anything at the press conference that he wouldn’t be able to stick to later. But between the lot of them, they had the next month laid out in unnerving detail and responses to half a dozen unexpected variations so they wouldn’t be scrambling to fix future problems. Which meant Tony had no excuse for putting off the press conference. They gave him just enough time to shower, shave, put on one of his more impressive suits, and drive to SI to greet to hoard of reporters who’d only been called by Pepper 45 minutes ago. (He was pretty sure half of them had just been waiting outside the building for something to happen.)
Tony braced before the door, reminding himself that Jarvis and Lex were home with Stanley, probably discussing their battle plan for Tony’s mental health over tea and those stupid little puffs that Lex kept squishing in his fist before he actually got them in his mouth. Tony conjured up the memory of Lex sticking out his hand to have Jarvis wipe it clean before he tried again – because the first major way Tony’s kid wasn’t a thing like him was that he hated getting dirty. Jarvis did it every time without complaint, somehow managing to keep any gunk off his pressed cuffs. Tony inserted Stanley into the memory. He’d probably watch the dance twice before he recommending – like Tony had – that Lex could deal with being a little dirty. Jarvis would give Stanley the same glower he’d given Tony, and Tony kind of hoped this daydream turned into reality because he wanted to watch a battle of the stare downs between Jarvis and Stanley.
Tony held on to that mental image while he swanned onto the little stage without waiting for an introduction. Tony had expected flashbacks to his last press conference, but instead his head decided to abandon the image of his kid and instead translate the ravenous wall of sound into chopper blades. He stood behind the podium and let reporters shout at him for longer than he would have under any other circumstances, just sticking his hands in his pockets and breathing like Stanley had taught. Tony’s devious little therapist had stuck an ice pack in his pocket on the way out the door, and the sudden shock of cold against his palm was enough to jolt Tony’s mind out of the desert.
Thankfully, Tony came back to himself about the same time expectant silence fell over the reporters. As a man who’d managed to present papers despite being completely wasted, it wasn’t difficult to pretend like his silence had been planned instead of the product of staving off a panic attack. Tony let the silence hang for a moment before he raised an eyebrow and said, “I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t think that would work on you guys.”
The shouting immediately started up again, and Tony waved his hands to calm them. “I can’t talk if you guys don’t quiet down.”
“Mr. Stark!” One voice from the front row rang out above the others. “What happened this morning, Mr. Stark!”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you guys.” The only sound left was the flashing of cameras. “I’m going to make a statement and then I’ll answer some questions. Think we can all manage to be quiet long enough for that?” The reporters grumbled and Tony didn’t have to look to know Pepper was glowering at him for antagonizing the press.
“As I’m sure you’re all aware, at 3:14 this morning the FBI began conducting raids on the homes of several members of the Stark Industries Board of Directors. Of the ten sitting members of the Board, seven of them were taken into custody and had their assets seized, while four prior members of the Board were subjected to the same. Two current Board members have been brought in for questioning, and the last one is giving you people a press conference.”
Shouts of “Mr. Stark!” started up again.
“I’m not done yet.” Tony called. “I cannot speak to specific charges being brought against any of the Board Members, current or former. If you want more information about that you’re going to have to go back to the FBI agents you got to leak in the first place and get more from them.
“I can speak to Stark Industries, however. Both SI and myself have done and will continue to do everything in our power to support the FBI in their pursuit of justice. Other than proprietary technology and privacy concerns of our employees, I have opened Stark Industries’ servers and financial accounts to the FBI for whatever information they need.” Shocked murmurs rippled through the room. “SI’s lawyers will be available to our employees to help them protect their own privacy concerns, but other than that, I am releasing a memo to all employees asking them to help the FBI to the fullest extent of their ability. It should be in everyone’s inbox by the end of this press conference, so you won’t have trouble tracking down a copy.
“Let me make myself absolutely clear:” Tony braced his hands on the podium and leaned into it, “whatever fines or charges are levied, domestic or international, Stark Industries will meet them. Stark Industries has more to offer this world than chaos and destruction, and we will go forward with that purpose. It is my intention to create a trust to help rebuild what the Board of this company helped destroy. Any monies gained from my personal and Stark Industries’ civil suits against the former members of the Board will be put towards furthering education, building houses, spreading technology, sharing medicine, and whatever other things are necessary to bring some measure of comfort and justice for the people who have been victims of the Board’s crimes. As soon as we understand the extent of the damage done, Stark Industries will begin repairing it. Now, questions.”
Tony peeled his hands off the podium and stuck them back in his pockets to deal with the torrent of noise. One lady was all but falling over the people in the front row to shout at him, so Tony nodded at her first before someone got a broken nose. “Mr. Stark, why did you wait so long to make a statement?”
“Because I was more concerned with making sure the FBI got everything they needed than with talking to you people.”
“Mr. Stark! Is that a confirmation that you were aiding the FBI in their raids on the SI Board Members?”
“That makes it sound like I was roaming around in a tac vest. I locked down the SI servers and associated bank accounts when the FBI started their raids.”
“Is that all you did, Mr. Stark?”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “That’s not enough?”
Some of the reporters laughed and tension leaked out of the room. There was some small measure of comfort that even jaded reporters were a little nervous about questioning Tony on the current hell of his company. That was bad enough, but Pepper had warned him in the car ride over that the FBI leakers had also shared that Stane had been the one to sell Tony out. JARVIS said the video hadn’t made it onto the Internet yet and they were vague on the content, but everyone knew Stane was dead and he’d sold Tony to terrorists. It was a hell of a day, but the reporters breathed easy that they could expect Tony to still be Tony.
“What I meant, Mr. Stark:” the reporter doubled down and shouted over their laughing fellows, “is it true that you provided the FBI with the information necessary to arrest your fellow Board members?”
The room went quiet. Apparently, that wasn’t common knowledge yet. “You asking me if I was the whistle blower?”
Tony gripped the ice pack and braced himself. “Yup, I was.”
The room exploded. It was like getting hit with a baseball bat and Tony leaned back and blinked at the force of it. There was no real clear voice among the scrum, but in between the melee Tony could pick out a general gist of wanting to know how Tony found out.
“When I was in Afghanistan—” and hey, starting a sentence like that cut off all noise. “Thank you. The terrorists who held me captive had Stark Industries weapons. That’s why they kept me alive: to build them more. When I got home, one of the first things I did was investigate how my weapons got into the hands of terrorists. SI prided itself on selling only to the US military and our allies. None of those approved organizations had reported any of their weapons being stolen, which meant someone had been dealing my weapons under the table. That search led me to Obadiah Stane, and Stane led to everyone else.”
There was a moment of silence before a seasoned reporter from the Washington Post summoned up the gumption to ask, “Mr. Stark, we’ve been hearing reports that the FBI has a video from the Ten Rings terrorist cell attempting to blackmail Mr. Stane for money to kill you. Can you confirm the existence of this video?”
“It wasn’t blackmail.”
“Obadiah Stane paid the Ten Rings $500,000.00 to attack a US Military convoy. He withheld from the Ten Rings that I would be a part of that convoy. When the local commander of the Ten Rings realized I was there, he kidnapped me and tried to shake Stane down for more money. Wanting fair market value for a murder isn’t the same thing as blackmail.”
Most of the reporters gave that a respectful moment of silence, but there was a familiar blonde in the front row who decided Tony’s vulnerability meant it was time to go for the jugular. “Why did Mr. Stane turn on you?”
“Seriously?” Tony gestured at the lobby of Stark Industries.
“What about Iron Man?” A boy shouted. And seriously, that one looked like a puppy.
“What about him?”
“FBI agents have stated off the record that the same suit of armor that attacked the Ten Rings in Gulmira was the one who apprehended Stane, and that Stane was in a similar suit of armor when he was apprehended.”
“It’s my understanding that if it was off record it didn’t happen.”
“Mr. Stark!” And Tony really didn’t know how the reporter could shout and sigh at the same time. Jarvis should learn that. (No, Tony took that back. Jarvis should never, ever learn such a thing.)
“The FBI has given their official statement about this morning and I’m not going to go into more detail until they give the go ahead.” There was a whole mess of shouting. “However!” The reporters quieted down and Tony had new sympathy for his old school teachers. “I will state that Iron Man is an employee of Stark Industries. And no,” he cut them off, “you don’t get to meet him today.” Tony took a gamble that the conversation was going to stay off vigilantism. “I had no idea that Stane had managed to steal plans for the Iron Man armor, or that any of my employees would be such idiots as to help him create it without asking any questions about where the designs came from.”
“Meaning what?” Someone shouted.
“Meaning that Iron Man has the day off.”
“I meant about the scientists, Mr. Stark.”
“I already said I wasn’t going to tell you more than the FBI has.” Which was a nice little confirmation that the FBI was pressing charges on the engineers for their stupidity.
“Where did Iron Man come from, Mr. Stark?”
Tony furrowed. “Me?”
The reporter rolled their eyes. “The point of the armor, Mr. Stark.”
“Ah, I designed the Iron Man armor with the intention to conduct weapons retrieval since the first step in cleaning up any mess is to stop making new ones.”
“And who taught you that?” someone taunted from the back.
“My butler.” Tony smirked. “Who else?” The reporters laughed.
“Mr. Stark!” Tony nodded at this one for having the decency not to just shout a question at him. “Why did weapons retrieval turn into a gunfight at Gulmira?”
“Because Iron Man got there and, what do you know, there turned out to be terrorists killing people.” He shrugged.
“Follow up,” the reporter shouted over someone trying to turn them back to SI. “What weapons was Iron Man ‘retrieving’ from SI when he confronted Obadiah Stane this morning?”
“The suit that you guys are calling the Iron Monger. I discovered its existence while shutting down the SI servers this morning, but not before Stane was wearing it and preparing to attack FBI agents. Iron Man intervened to protect the agents and the people of Los Angeles.”
“Do you intend to continue to use Iron Man in situations where terrorists just happen to be killing people?” Another guy shouted.
Tony looked the man dead in the eye and then caught the camera that would give everyone at home the clearest view of his resolve. “I intend to clean up my mess.”
The reporters started shouting again, but the familiar blonde in the front row popped to her feet and apparently had enough street cred that the people calmed to let her question get out loud and clear. “You’ve been the head of Stark Industries for over a decade. Why would Mr. Stane try and kill you for it now?”
Tony… had no fucking idea. Not a clue. Pepper had nothing, neither Jarvis nor JARVIS could make sense of it, APOLLO hadn’t found anything in Stane’s paperwork, and for all Stanley’s brilliance in this area he could only make guesses. It was like one morning Stane had woken up and decided, ‘I think I’ll kill my godson today.’
“Oh, a couple of reasons.” Tony hadn’t quite planned on taking things this direction, but he wasn’t the sort of man to pass up an opportunity.
“Feel like sharing?”
“Not really, but you guys will just follow me around until I do.” Pause for laughter. “Stane might have gotten a little murderous because I was talking about moving SI away from weapons manufacturing.”
“Before your kidnapping, Mr. Stark?” A young reporter called out for clarification.
“Before. I’d been doing some casual engineering on other projects, though this probably isn’t the press conference to release a line of phones and tablets so check in with me about that later. Looking back,” Tony put his hands in his pockets and gripped the ice pack while he stared off in the distance like he was having to mull on this one, “what probably made Stane really murderous is that he wasn’t my heir anymore.”
You could’ve heard a pin drop. Even the photographers stopped for a moment to make sure they’d heard that right.
“Stane was my godfather. I trusted him like almost no one on earth. So like a good godson, I told him when I was putting it down on paper that if I should die, Stark Industries would no longer pass free and clear to him. He’d still be regent like he was with me, but he’d no longer inherit the company.”
The crowd was a mix of “Are you saying—” and “Mr. Stark, who else would inherit?” pretty evenly divided on gender lines, but no one got out an actual question.
“See,” Tony came out from behind the podium and leaned against it, a composed version of the slump he’d donned when he came back from Afghanistan. “I thought my godfather would be happy for me. I thought when he encouraged me to go and hobnob with the military brass in Afghanistan, he was buying me some cushion so they wouldn’t worry about not seeing me for a few months. About once a year is pretty much all those guys can stand me anyway. And I thought that of all people, after all he’d seen, Obadiah Stane would understand why I didn’t want to pass a legacy of blood and death on to my son.”
And the crowd went wild.