Tony felt a moment of unease as he stepped off the podium and into the surging crowd of reporters, but only a moment. Though it had been several months since he’d had to deal with a situation like the one he had just created it was none the less a familiar one; here he knew what to expect. Here he was the one in control.

,i>Yeah, right. You know that’s an illusion. It may be your name on the building but when was the last time you had anything to do with the running of Stark Industries? Why do you think they’re ignoring you now? Tony thought as the wall of reporters parted to let him through while they shouted questions at Obadiah Stane.

As he reached the back of the crowd, he glanced at Pepper and cringed a bit at what he saw. Some homecoming this was, huh Pepper. I come back from the dead and instead of saying hi, nice to see you, what‘s the first thing I do? Insist on a press conference, a few burgers and, oh by the way let me drop this into your lap. Yeah, smooth move there, Tony.

Since he wasn’t sure if the expression on Pepper’s face was shock or if she was plotting his demise, Tony decided that making himself scarce would probably be in his best interest.

Just beyond Pepper, Rhodey was stepping into the gap that had formed when the reporters at the back of the room had moved forward to get closer to the podium. He was flipping open his cell phone and his stance was stiff and tense. Tony sighed. Sorry Rhodey, didn’t mean to put you in the hot seat like that, but… He turned away and headed back to the entrance; shifting his thoughts to the first person he was going to have to deal with once things calmed down. It’s going to be interesting to hear what Obie’s got to say once he’s done doing his thing and comes looking for me. Not the first time I’ve dropped a bomb right in the middle of a press conference and left him to deal with the fallout; though this definitely qualifies as the biggest.

As he pushed open the door of the front entrance and stepped outside, Tony called out, “Shotgun.” Happy pushed away from the Rolls Royce Phantom and raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say a word as he turned and made his way around to the driver’s side.

Right behind the Phantom, the black bulk of Rhodey’s Dodge Ram was parked so close to the curb that it might as well have been up on the sidewalk. Tony sighed again; he had considered mentioning to Rhodey on the flight back that he was going to hold a press conference, but he knew the first thing Rhodey would have done after hearing that would have been to commandeer a vehicle and dragged his ass straight to the hospital once they had hit the ground. Tony knew he couldn’t let that happen-- he trusted Rhodey, as well as Obie and Pepper, too much to allow any of them time to talk him out of his current course of action.

And they might have done it too. Can’t go back now.

Dropping into the limo next to Happy, Tony let his head fall back against the seat and closed his eyes as he slowly blew out a breath between pursed lips. Happy waited until he opened his eyes again before asking, “Where to, boss?”

He thought about that a moment. “Arc Reactor building.” Happy nodded and put the limo in motion.

Nothing was said as they drove around the building housing the corporate headquarters of Stark Industries and across the back parking lot to the gated entrance separating the old headquarters from the rest of the complex. Passing through the gate, Happy brought the Phantom to a stop then switched off the engine. Tony stared at the blue light flickering across the black frames of the story high windows, then asked, “So, how much do you want to bet Pepper’s going to duck tape me to my office chair and not let me out of it until next year?”

“I don’t think I’ll take that bet, sir.” Tony smiled and looked at Happy.

Happy shrugged his shoulders. “If you want my opinion,” he said, “I think you’ve got a few days grace before she’ll feel the need to chain you permanently to your desk.”

“Ah. That‘s good to know.” Tony grabbed the handle and popped the latch as he nodded towards the building. “Tell Obie I’m in there when he gets here.” Elbowing the door open, he stepped out then leaned back in. “And feel free to take a break," he said, "this might take awhile.”

Happy nodded as he handed Tony his pass card. “I’ll let Mr. Stane know where you are.”

Tony shut the door and headed for the building. The pain killers he had taken just before they touched down were kicking in and the pain in his shoulder was now a dull and distant throb as he fingered the strap on the sling and considered all the ways he might lose the thing between now and going home.

The double set of doors slid open after a quick swipe of the card through the reader. As he walked in he waved the technician who was watching over the Reactor back to his seat. At the railing surrounding the donut-shaped power core Tony stopped and leaned against the railing to stare up at the Arc Reactor.

He had learned the story of the Arc Reactor the way other kids heard fairy tales; an upswing in production demands back during the Vietnam War had brought about a major expansion to Stark Industries in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. The old World War Two assembly plants that made up most of the west coast division had been deemed too expensive to retool though and the decision had been made to just build a new complex around the old one.

The Arc Reactor, build when Tony was around six years old, had been created as a counter to the environmental related protests that arose regarding the expansion; the official press release had touted it as Howard Stark and Stark Industries commitment to cleaner energy sources.

He probably never even thought about that. He just had an idea, whipped up some plans, figured out how to get the thing to work, then moved on to his next project without a backwards glance. Wasn’t much more he could have done with it even if he wanted to though. Would have been like trying to build an F-22 Raptor with the tools in the back of the Wright brother’s bicycle shop.

Tony glanced down and rested his hand over the Reactor hidden beneath his shirt. Lucky for me the technology finally caught up with the concept. He let out a huff of rueful laughter. All those breakthroughs? Military funding, honey.

A frown slowly formed as he continued on with that line of thought. And now that I‘ve halted weapons production, what’s next? It’s one thing to take away the sticks, but what do you with the guy who was making the stick?

For that matter, what do you do with the guy who was holding the stick? He’s just going to go looking for another one.




It was a good forty-five minutes before the doors to the Reactor building slid opened again, and Tony had yet to come up with a good answer for the questions in his head. And now Obie’s going to ask me the same thing. Great. Probably should have thought this one through a bit more.

Obadiah Stane entered and came to a stop a few feet away from where Tony was standing. He resting his fists on his hips and stared at Tony a moment before stating around the cigar clenched between his teeth, “That uh, that went well.”

Tony glanced away and looked up at the reactor. Yeah, not the happy welcome back party you were hoping to spin to the press, was it Obie? “Did I just paint a target on to my head?” Tony asked as he absently smoothed the fabric of the jacket that he had slung over the railing a few minutes earlier. Realizing what he was doing, Tony stopped and started pulling off his tie instead as he listened to Obie approach.

“Your head? What about my head?” Obie closed the distance between them then started pacing back and forth behind Tony as he asked “What do you think the over-under on the stock drop is going to be tomorrow?”

“Uh, optimistically? Forty points,” Tony answered as he draped the tie over the railing.

“At minimum.”

Tony tensed at the rebuke hidden in that statement. “Yep,” he said carefully.

Obie stopped pacing and braced a hand against the railing. He leaned in closed. Here it comes.

“Tony, we’re a weapons manufacturer--”

Tony turned to face his chief financial officer. “Obie, I just…I didn’t want a body count to be our only legacy.”

“That’s what we do,” Obie responded calmly, overriding Tony’s statement. “We’re iron mongers. We make weapons.”

Not any more. Shifting in place, feeling more like a little kid trying to convince mom and dad to let him stay up late than the head of a multimillion dollar corporation, Tony pointed out, “It’s my name on the side of the building--”

“And what we do keeps the world from falling into chaos,” Obie said, his voice firm.

Have you seen the world lately? Tony wanted to shout but he clamped down on that outburst and shook his head. “Not based on what I saw.” he said instead. Obie stared at him, putting the pressure on without saying a word. “We’re not doing a good enough job. We can do better,” Tony insisted. “We’re gonna do something else.”

“Like what? You want us to make baby bottles?” Obie’s gaze flicked away from Tony then back, challenging him for an answer.

As he met Obie’s gaze, something clicked in the back of Tony’s mind. Never break eye contact was one of the first things Obie had drilled into him once he was old enough to understand the business end of things, but Tony realized that Obie’s gaze had been all over the place during their discussion. Wait, no, not all over the place. Tony narrowed his eyes.

“I think we should take another look into Arc Reactor technology,” he said just to see what kind of response he got.

Obie shook his head. “Come on!” he exclaimed, waving the hand holding his cigar at the glowing reactor as he turned away.

And remember Tony; never turn your back on the competition.

Gotcha!

“The Arc Reactor, that’s a publicity stunt!” Obie protested as he started to pace again. “Tony, come on. We built that thing to shut the hippies up!”

“It works,” Tony stated, confident he had gained the upper hand in the conversation.

“Yeah, as a science project.” Obie paced around Tony then leaned against the rail again to look up at the Reactor. “The Arc Reactor was never cost effective. We knew that before we built it.”

Tony knew he was being stared at as Obie asked, “Arc Reactor technology; that’s a dead end, right?”

“Maybe.” And since someone apparently told you it‘s not, you’re not biting my head off right now, right?

He stared up at the Reactor as Obie pushed for a better response than maybe. “Am I right? We haven’t a breakthrough in that in what? Thirty years?”

“That’s what they say.” He turned and gave Obie a sideways look. Obie stared back at him.

Okay, cards on the table then. “Could you have a lousier poker face?” Tony said. “Just tell me, who told you?”

“Never mind who told me,” Obadiah answered instead as he pointed impatiently at Tony’s chest. “Show me.”

“Rhodey or Pepper? It’s Rhodey or Pepper.”

“I want to see it.”

“Okay, Rhodey.” He pulled off the sling and tossed it aside. As he reached up to start unbuttoning his shirt, Obie’s gaze darted to something behind him. Tony started to turn to see what Obie was looking at, then remembered the technician and turned back to see what Obie’s reaction to his Arc Reactor would be.

Once he had enough or his shirt unbuttoned, he pulled it open and felt a flash of annoyance at the quick calculating look that passed over Obie‘s face. Obie gave the technician a furtive look before stepping close to button the shirt back up.

“Okay,” was all Obie had to say.

“It works,” Tony said, an odd mix of pride and reluctance running through him as he spoke.

Obie took a deep breath as if needing to gather his thoughts, then stared at Tony a minute before wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “Listen to me, Tony,” he said, his voice taking on an authoritative but slightly condescending tone. “We’re a team. Do you understand? There‘s nothing we can‘t do if we stick together, like your father and I.”

It had been a long time since Obie had used that tone of voice on Tony and he felt a moment of uncertainty. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you a heads-up, okay? But if I had…”

“Tony. Tony,” Obie admonished softly, “no more of this ‘ready, fire, aim” business. You understand me?”

“That was Dad’s line,” Tony stiffened under Obie‘s one armed embrace, caught off-guard by the memory of one of the few times he had disappointed his father.

As if sensing he might have overstepped a line, Obie paused and took a step back, smiling briefly, before continuing. “You gotta let me handle this. We‘re gonna have to play a whole different kind of ball now.” He gestured towards the door and his tone became more businesslike as Tony picked up his jacket and allowed Obie to steer him away from his father’s Reactor.

“We‘re going to have to take a lot of heat,” Obie said. “I want you to promise me that you‘re gonna lay low.”




Tony‘s steps were heavy as he finally stepped into his home for the first time in more than three months. He was beginning to wish that he had taken Obie up on his offer to lay low right then and there in the Arc Reactor building, but he knew eventually he would have to make an appearance in his office and had decided to get that over with as quickly as possible.

Pepper had not taped him to his desk chair, but she had pinned him down with a pile of papers that needed to be signed right here, right now, that had kept him in the office for several hours.

As he walked down the hall leading to the living section of the mansion, he could hear the steady trickle of the waterfall sculpture build into the wall by the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. He wondered briefly if Jarvis or Pepper had turned it on while he was gone, or if the place had remained silent the whole time he was gone.

The lights slowly came up as he walked deeper into the living room. “Welcome home sir,” Jarvis said softly.

“Thank you kindly Jarvis.” Tony slowly pulled off his tie. Now that he was alone, he could not ignore the growing ache in his shoulder and he contemplated whether or not he should take another pill. Sure didn’t help that Obie decided to be my right hand man at the press conference and kept patting that shoulder.

“It’s been a long time,” the AI said as Tony bunched the tie up as he glanced around the room. “Based on news reports, I calculated your safe return at zero point two five percent.” Tony almost smiled at the reflective tone in Jarvis‘s voice as he settled on a footstool, set the tie down, and watched the fireplace light up.

“Yep. I missed you too.” Looking down at the table in front of him, he was surprised to see a small gift box sitting there. He leaned forward and picked it up. Inside, there was a watch and a note that said; Thank God it wasn’t your time. -Obadiah.

Nice, Tony thought as he tossed the box back on the table and stood. As tired as he was, he couldn’t fight the need to keep moving. The room was too quiet and he realized he was waiting for Rhodey to show up and tell him to get to bed.

Wonder when Pepper’ll be in to tell me that.

He suspected it would be quite a while before he wound down enough to get any sleep. He shed his jacket and tossed it on the couch on his way over to the floor to ceiling windows that gave him a view of the Californian coastline. As dark as it was, there wasn‘t much more for him to see beyond a line of lights running along the horizon.

His gaze swept over the black empty expanse of water between the coast and the mansion, then he pursed his lips together when he caught himself searching for signs of anything threatening. Like anyone’s going to be able to reach me up here, he thought. He sighed inwardly at the connotations hidden in that thought.

“You have one thousand seven hundred and thirteen new voice messages,” Jarvis said, interrupting his thoughts. The AI projected the list to the window before him, then asked, “How shall I categorize for you?”

Tony stared at the files flashing up on the surface of the window and reached up to flip through the first few messages, most of which echoed the sentiments in Obie‘s note, while the rest wanted clarification as to what exactly was being shut down. He looked at the master list and saw that the timestamps on the top forty messages were within the last three hours.

What the hell. Obie wanted me to lay low; might as well start now.

“Delete all.” He tapped the window, closing screens and shooting the lot into the virtual trash. He was surprised at how good that felt before kicking himself mentally for thinking that. Better get used to dealing with shit like that yourself if you plan on taking control of your life, let alone Stark Industries.

As he turned away from the window, Jarvis commented, “I‘m detecting the presence of an electromagnetic pulse in the house.” Tony glanced down at his chest, not quite sure why Jarvis would be pointing that fact out, then remembered that the scanners in Dubai weren’t as sophisticated as the ones here; Jarvis had been forced to rely on the video and audio feeds there to keep an eye on him.

Amusement stirred in Tony. Well, have I got a surprise for you, Jarvis. He felt a burst of energy that countered the weariness that had filled him upon entering the mansion as he said, “Boot up the scanner will you?”

He was almost to the stairs leading down to the workroom, when Jarvis said, “Sir?”

Pausing, Tony glanced up. “What?”

“You wished me to reminder you that you wanted to reprogram me.”

A small smile quirked Tony’s lips. “I did, didn‘t I. Tell you what Jarvis, since everything worked out we’ll leave the protocols in place for now. We‘ll review them if I ever get incapacitated again.” He started down the stairs and added under his breath, “Not that that’s ever going to happen again.”

“Sir, the probability that you’ll be incapacitated again is--”

“Jarvis.”

“Yes?’

“Rather not hear those numbers right now, thanks.”

“As you wish,” Jarvis said, sounding a little annoyed at being cut off before he could finish. Tony chuckled as he entered his workroom and thought about all the ways he could improve the Arc Reactor in his chest now that he was finally home.
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