Chapter 1: Christmas 1991
There are Christmas songs playing on the gramophone, the music echoing down empty hallways.
The staff’s gone – Tony gave them Christmas off. Those who didn’t think it was a good idea to leave, he fired.
He’s standing in his father’s office. There are boxes on the floor and desks, half-packed, ready to be shipped out and stored. Obadiah’s been going over the contents of this room with a small army of assistants, in the aftermath of…
Tony swallows. He can think about it. Hell, he can talk about it, too. It’s not like it’s going to kill him.
The irony burns, but not as badly as the scotch he poured himself a while ago. There’s no one left to tell him what he can or cannot do, whether it’s getting stupidly drunk on his father’s expensive liquor on Christmas Eve or pushing everyone away so soon after his parents’ deaths.
“They’re dead,” Tony says, because he can. He’s proving a point. “They’re not coming back. Ever.”
He watched them being interred. Shook hands and accepted murmured sympathies from people who don’t matter to him.
People who probably mattered more to his dad than Tony ever did.
There needs to be more alcohol, he decides. Way more. The large house is locked up, there’s no one coming in – not even Obie, although the man kept telling Tony that they could spend Christmas together. Tony wasn’t going to accept charity, so he put his foot down, telling Obie to have a great holiday and that they would talk business after New Year’s.
Tony’s eyes roam over the liquor cabinet, trying to decide what he wants. Then again, he can have it all, so why choose? He starts picking up bottles and soon decides he can’t carry them all, so he picks up one of the boxes instead, turns it around to make its contents fall out on the desk and then crams as many bottles as he can into the cardboard box before worming his fingers beneath it and gingerly carrying it down to his workshop.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he calls out when he enters.
“Merry Christmas, sir,” the faltering voice replies, and Tony grins. He’s been tinkering all week, and now that he has the house to himself, he can dig into the walls, do the wiring, and see whether his AI is actually working or not.
A week ago, his project was still confined to his own room and workshop. Well, his father would have probably been furious if he knew that Tony had actually wired an Artificial Intelligence from his workshop to his room, but what his father didn’t know wouldn’t hurt anyone else. Now, though, the house was his. He was the last Stark standing.
His hand finds a bottle and a glass, filling the crystal container to the brim. He has to sip carefully, to not spill any on the floor, but he manages alright and feels the tell-tale buzz starting, numbing the anxiousness he’s been feeling ever since he got the news.
“Let’s get to work,” Tony decides. “It’s time you get to see the world outside this workshop, J.”
“I have also seen your room, sir. It is a very nice room,” the AI responds. Still not as smooth as Tony wants, small gaps in between the words, but it will get better. So far, the coding is a masterpiece, if he does say so himself, and J.A.R.V.I.S. is growing more intelligent and responsive each day. A few years from now…
Tony loses himself in that thought for a moment. Last week, he hadn’t really thought about what his future would bring. Maybe working for Stark Industries, on some challenging-enough project. It wasn’t as if he had been groomed to take control of the company in the foreseeable future or anything. Now, it was only a matter of time, paper work, and sealing the deal.
He decides to let that thought go for now, and instead moves over to a computer terminal, house blueprints thrown across the table next to it. Tony has all of Christmas break to get this done. He has nothing but time.
As he makes calculations about sensor placement, wire lengths and speaker adjustments, Tony keeps drinking steadily. It isn’t as if his mind isn’t occupied, but drinking has become an obsession by now, a backdoor he can utilize at will, and before he notices, he can’t actually stand straight without swaying.
“Sir, perhaps you should eat? There is food upstairs,” J.A.R.V.I.S. suggests.
“You don’t know that yet,” Tony points out.
“You said so, earlier.”
“Yeah, but what if I lied? You don’t know there’s food. You don’t know anything,” Tony mumbles. “I’ll fix that. Everyone should be able to learn, and explore, and I’ll make sure you get to do that, okay, J?”
“That sounds very nice, sir.”
Tony nods and makes his way towards the table where he left the box full of liquor. He tries to hold onto his glass as he leans onto any sturdy object for support, but in the end he stumbles and drops the glass, shattering it all over the floor.
“Sir, I have calculated the limit of alcohol consumption for a person of your age, weight and condition. I believe you have crossed that limit.”
“I’m fine,” Tony says – or slurs. Come to think of it, he doesn’t want to stop. He knows he’s had too much, that he hasn’t eaten, and that this will end badly with no one else in the house; if he gets alcohol poisoning or something like that, there’s no one who can help him. J.A.R.V.I.S. isn’t connected enough to make a phone call, and…
“Dummy, clean up!” Tony calls out instead, and his robot moves from the far corner where Tony had him sorting out tools for later. Dummy turns his camera eye towards Tony, snapping his claws, then looks at the floor and the mess of shattered glass.
The bot heads out towards a closet while Tony resolutely selects another bottle, the weight of it slipping from his fingers once before he manages to carefully lift it out of the cardboard box and onto the table, then wonders if he has a glass or some kind of mug down here. From the side, he hears a sound, and J.A.R.V.I.S. makes a sound equivalent to clearing his throat.
“Sir, could you assist DUM-E?”
Tony looks, and the bot is trying to open the closet door without success. He rolls his eyes and makes his way over, leaning heavily on Dummy’s arm as he wrenches the door open. A broom falls out and smacks Tony in the face, making him start. “Fuck,” he mutters. “You always have to do it yourself, don’t you?” he goes on, shoving the stubborn cleaning tool back inside the closet but it keeps falling back out. Frustrated, Tony steps forward, to force the broom to stay still or he’ll break it in two, he swears – and then he feels something push at his back.
It’s not a shove, exactly, but it makes him stumble forward, into the closet – and then the door closes behind him with an audible snap. Tony struggles to turn around in the dark, brushing against items on the shelves and making several fall to the floor, something hard hitting him on the head. He reaches out, finding the door, and tries to shove it open, but it won’t move.
“Dummy?” he calls out. “Did you park yourself in front of the door?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. says, his voice muffled through the door.
Tony frowns, not getting it. Why is J.A.R.V.I.S. sorry? Something whirs outside the door – Dummy – as if the bot is sorry, too. “What’s going on out there?” Tony asks.
“This is for your own good, sir. I cannot intervene, but I have asked DUM-E to keep you in the closet until you agree to stop drinking.”
Tony, briefly, considers this act of mutiny. “What? You can’t do that, J.A.R.V.I.S. Dummy, move! That’s an order. Let me out.” He tries to open the door again, pushes his weight against it and feels more cleaning stuff fall to the floor at his feet, tangling between his legs, threatening his balance, but the door remains shut. “Someone’s going on a diet after this,” he mutters, although he knows Dummy is as lightweight as he’s ever going to be. It’s all about positioning his mass on the other side of the door, to keep it shut, and short of breaking down the door, Tony’s stuck.
For a moment he contemplates this, and tries to remember the emergency codes to shut J.A.R.V.I.S. down. That he doesn’t remember means he’s drunker than he thinks – or he didn’t get around to installing those codes yet. After all, his AI is still in baby boots. One thing seems to be operating just fine, though: J.A.R.V.I.S.’s primary function, which is to protect Tony at all costs.
Tony never considered it would activate so soon. “Let me out,” he asks again.
“I cannot let you hurt yourself, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. states, sounding apologetic.
Tony punches the door, which hurts his hand, and eventually he shuffles over to sit on the floor, which is cramped, and filled with stuff that keeps piling up on top of him even though he shoves it aside. After a while he can make out a sliver of light beneath the door, which makes the closet seem a little less dark, and perhaps he’s getting more sober – or rather, the distractions are no longer there.
He’s starting to feel really lonely, sitting in the dark, confined space, on Christmas Eve in a quiet house. The gramophone’s no longer playing upstairs, and even if it is, the sound is locked outside Tony’s workshop. It’s just him, J.A.R.V.I.S. and Dummy. His presents for his mother and father sit on his bed in his bedroom, where he placed them earlier, just because it seemed appropriate.
There’s no Christmas tree in the living room.
Sure, Tony’s 21 years old, he doesn’t need all that childish crap and the Christmas traditions in the Stark family were more about Howard getting drunk and Maria wanting to flee the scene to some social event than what those idealistic Holiday movies attempt to portray.
Tony can’t remember the last Christmas he actually enjoyed, but right about now he would prefer his father drunk and unhappy, his mother complaining about something trivial in the décor, and Tony wanting to hide in his own room because his life would be so much better without them.
He wants them back.
The first sob takes him by surprise, but then the floodgates open and he draws his knees up and shakes, chest convulsing. All his Christmases are going to be like this: a lonely house, quiet hallways, no presents, no lights, not even a chance to pretend that they might actually be a family for just a few days. Tony’s all alone, and he didn’t even get to say goodbye.
There’s a series of rasping sounds from the other side of the door, and then it opens, letting light in. Dummy shifts backwards, dragging the closet door open, and then rolls forward again, tilting his head, letting out a soft whirr. Tony looks up at the bot, his vision blurry with tears. Dummy backs away, and Tony just stares after him, trying to hold any further sobs in.
“I miss them,” he finally confesses.
“I know, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replies.
“But you don’t understand,” Tony argues.
“Perhaps… you will teach me how to understand,” the AI responds, kindly, awkwardly, but at least he’s there.
“Why would you want to learn about… this?” Tony asks, a bit angrily, then starts as Dummy reappears – this time with an oily rag in his claws. Tony stares at it, and the rag is pushed closer to him, in clear offering. “What am I supposed to do with that?” he snaps.
Dummy let out a sound and lowers his arm, then very carefully brushes the rag across Tony’s wet cheek. They stare at each other, Dummy’s camera and Tony’s eyes that threaten to overflow again, because…
“You are not alone, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. tells him.
Dummy tries to clean his face, jabbing him painfully in the nose and Tony quickly takes the rag before he loses an eye or something. “I should probably decorate,” Tony muses, blowing his nose on the oily cloth.
“It is Christmas,” the AI agrees.
“But then I won’t have as much time to install you in the house,” Tony debates.
“You can do that after the holidays.”
Tony guesses that is true. Dummy keeps looking at him, and Tony supposes that he’ll look good with a goofy party hat. Maybe he’ll whip up a present for the bot, too, because who else is he going to give presents to this Christmas?
And maybe, when he isn’t feeling as drunk and ready to puke out the contents of his stomach, he’ll bump up J.A.R.V.I.S.’s server and learning capacity. Just in case the AI still wants to learn the concept of loss, although Tony thinks that’s the crappiest possible lesson to start with.
Maybe they’ll work on holiday cheer instead.
to be continued…
Author’s note: A fraction of this chapter follows/uses a deleted scene from Iron Man, called “Tony Comes Home” (and some of “Tony Begins Mark II”).
Chapter 2: Afghanistan
Tony’s world is readjusting, slowly and painfully.
After the pumping adrenaline faded and he thought he would die in the desert after his miraculous escape from the Ten Rings… after the unbelievable fact that Rhodey had finally found him… after finally coming home and deciding to be a man of his word, to keep his promise to Yinsen… after all that, the complicated stuff rotates and morphs into a rather simple thing: pain.
Tony refuses to see a doctor. Rhodey forced an Air Force medic on him on the way home, because his shoulder was busted and there were scrapes that needed cleaning, but Tony won’t let anyone close to the device in his chest. Those who tried triggered an instantaneous and thorough panic attack, spiced up with an urge to fight since he couldn’t flee.
Needless to say, it didn’t go over well.
So, Tony’s home now, after everything, and he’s never been so broken in his life.
While everyone’s still coping with his statement at the press conference, he’s left alone to deal. That’s how he prefers it, needs it.
The house is dark when he enters. He refused to let anyone come over, making the very valid claim that he would be fine, that they would see each other tomorrow and he just needed a moment right now.
It’s not as if he’s truly alone at his home, anyway:
“Welcome home, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. calls out even before the lights turn on. The house is quiet, just the trickle of water from the waterfalls echoing off the walls, and its sets Tony’s nerves on edge.
He dismisses it for now, focusing on the familiarity of his AI’s voice: “Thank you kindly, J.A.R.V.I.S.”
“It’s been a long time,” J.A.R.V.I.S. muses. “Based on news reports, I calculated your safe return at 0.25%” It’s cold and calculating – all things Tony programmed the AI to be, but at the same time, it’s probably the most honest welcome he’s gotten so far. This is on his own terms. There are no lies or deception.
“Yeah. I missed you, too,” Tony responds. The fireplace ignites automatically, giving the room a little light, and everywhere else lamps and LED lights are slowly coming to life.
He sits at the table, whereupon he notices a package waiting for him; a watch. A note says:
Thank God it wasn’t your time.
It’s unoriginal and a bit tasteless. Tony takes it in stride, knowing how hard of a time he’s giving Obie right now, then moves over to the window, staring out into the night, and waits for J.A.R.V.I.S. to move on, to get back to the routine. As expected, there are almost two thousand voice messages, which the AI loads onto a screen that appears on the window’s surface – all of which are unimportant, when Tony thinks about it. He deletes them and waits for the final punch-line:
“I’m detecting the presence of electromagnetic energy in the house.”
Tony glances at his chest. The motion hurts, just a little, and he hums, then begins to turn. “Boot up the scanner, will you?”
He goes downstairs, into the workshop. It feels like home down there, more so than it ever did in their family home in New York City, and the bots raise their heads, moving off their charging stations.
They do the scan, which is quick and painless. Tony sits down afterwards and gets down to business; as the computer calculates the inner workings of the arc reactor in his chest and finds more suitable materials for it than he was able to put together in the cave, Tony takes a moment to just stare at the image of it slotted in the middle of his chest, sinking in where there should be only flesh and bone. Even as he looks at it, his breaths seem more constricted. If it weren’t for the fact that it was keeping his heart beating by preventing the cluster of shrapnel from getting too close, Tony is pretty sure it would be killing him.
He types in a few commands, but J.A.R.V.I.S. has already calculated all the necessary data, so all that’s left is the physical work. “Shall we start machining the parts?” Tony asks, and he hears machinery switch on behind him, lights coming on, pieces moving. Now all he has to do is wait and put the final product together – a new, improved arc reactor, more powerful and steadier in every way.
Enough to keep him alive until the end of his days.
The thought rattles inside his head, just like he imagines he feels the shrapnel rattle inside his chest. After he decided he wasn’t going to die in the cave, he found himself fighting for his life. All his focus had been aimed at escaping, and now that he has accomplished that… now that he is home… what comes next?
There are a dozen things he wants to do. Most of them have nothing to do with what other people want him to do, at this tender junction where he no longer knows where his company fits in with his newfound beliefs.
But it’s not the company he worries about. His thoughts turn selfishly inwards, to what he, Tony, wants. Having one’s eyes opened is a game-changer, but what comes afterwards? He reached his goal. He needs another. A new arc reactor is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough. How does he get from here to the loosely painted images he had in his head while wandering around the Afghan desert? What did he plan on doing if he survived – and were any of those thoughts realistic?
From the desert, he remembers, more keenly than any hopeful wish, the agonizing pain. Also, the taste of blood in his mouth, the throbbing in his shoulder, the grinding of sand between his teeth… But the pain is still there, and it attacks him as he sits there, still staring at the screens without actually seeing them, stealing the air somewhere between his throat and lungs. It’s like someone stuck a handful of coals inside his chest, the nerves burning without any apparent reason, and he cannot breathe.
It’s like the first days in the cave, when he was awake enough to feel it – well enough to move around and trigger a slight shift of the crude device implanted in his chest. It doesn’t matter whether he’s in his workshop or the cave, the desert, or waiting in the plane on the way home for the mind-numbing pain meds to take effect and transport his consciousness so far away he can no longer feel any of it.
His body goes limp and he slides uncomfortably off the chair and onto the floor. His shoulder protests, his right foot bent uncomfortably beneath his weight, but he can’t move, breathe or think, and by the time it either stops or his brain just can’t register it anymore, he’s crying.
Dummy and You are hovering, and Tony presses the side of his face against the cool leg of the table. He wants to wipe the wetness from his face but he can’t move yet, not that much. You rolls away, then returns a while later, a bottle of water in hand. Tony wishes there was something stronger there instead, but he takes it, fingers clenching around the weight of the cool plastic, dragging it into his lap and trying to work it open without looking down.
Looking down means seeing the persistent blue glow in his chest, the bump where there shouldn’t be one, too sharp to pass over for ribs. Glancing down might also start another wave of agony if he moves the wrong muscles, so he just struggles to open the bottle without moving his head, and then drinks carefully.
It gets better after a while.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. prompts, perhaps not for the first time, but Tony’s ears didn’t pick it up before.
“Your bio feed suggests you are in pain.” J.A.R.V.I.S. isn’t stupid, but he knows when to play dumb. Not always, but this time Tony feels like his AI is attempting to approach the subject in a way that won’t set Tony off.
“It will get better with the new chest piece.” It won’t, he knows that. The damage is still there, and he can’t fix it. Not that he’ll let anyone else try, either, because… just no. Never again.
J.A.R.V.I.S. doesn’t comment. Why would he? There’s no reason to doubt him, unless J.A.R.V.I.S. can do the math, somehow, and he doubts it.
Dummy, however, looks at him almost skeptically, and when Tony finally wrestles himself back to an upright position, he flicks his fingers against the metal casing of the bot’s head. “You know something I don’t?” Tony asks Dummy, then starts to move across the lab – only to feel it start all over again, the burn that licks deeper and deeper and makes everything ache from his neck to the base of his spine, front and back.
He falls, cries out – maybe cries again, he isn’t sure. It wasn’t this bad before. It has no right to be like this, now that he’s finally home, finally safe, finally free to make amends.
It isn’t fair.
Well, it isn’t fair Yinsen died, either.
It isn’t fair that the man managed to save Tony, when Tony should have died. He wouldn’t have to live with this if he had died on the operating table; wouldn’t have made a difference, after all, because Yinsen died even after Tony built the suit, and if the Ten Rings had killed Yinsen for failing to save him… well, different version, same outcome.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. is saying, louder, to get through to him. “Is there something I can do?”
No! is Tony’s first thought, but then he re-thinks it. “Yes,” he manages. “Open the valves on the nitrogen tanks.”
“Sir, that is not recommended –”
“Just do it,” Tony commands. He’s sweating from the pain. He shouldn’t be here, lying on the floor, his chest on fire. He doesn’t have to be, either. In the enclosed space, the nitrogen will eventually displace oxygen and voilà! No more pain. No more anything, for that matter.
“I cannot do that; it conflicts with my programming,” the AI argues. The programming Tony created – the programming that won’t allow his AI to aid Tony in killing himself. “Would you like me to call Ms. Potts?”
“No!” He doesn’t want Pepper to see him like this – nor does he want J.A.R.V.I.S. to inform her as to why she needs to come over in the middle of the night when Tony said he would be just fine on his own until morning.
He lies still, thinking it over. He’s fairly certain he doesn’t want to die, after all he’s been through. It would make his survival pointless – not to mention Yinsen’s last plea. “Don’t waste it,” Tony mutters, and closes his eyes. He stirs, slightly, when something drags along his body, and he sees Dummy tugging a blanket over his shivering body.
“It will be alright, sir. The new chest piece will be completed in approximately 3.2 hours, taking into consideration your condition.”
Tony just nods, lying on the floor while Dummy and You go back to their business of tidying things up – or, moving things around in a way Tony might want them to be moved. He isn’t sure what he wants anymore, because one moment it’s one thing, and in the next it’s something else.
He may not want to live, but he’ll do so anyway. He owes it to certain people.
Tomorrow, he’ll have the new arc reactor finished and installed, and when Pepper comes over, like she no doubt will, Tony will be bustling with energy and new ideas on how to raise his company from the depths he just helped sink it to.
Easy as breathing.
If only breathing weren’t so hard these days.
to be continued…