III: The 10 Rings

Note: Recognizable dialogue taken from Iron Man (2008), although I have made changes to in places. I done goofed with the MCU timeline (it's soooo confusing) and have retroactively fixed Morgan's age in the interludes to reflect properly here; she's ten years old but not yet at Hogwarts.

Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas

"... Until, at age twenty-one, the prodigal son returns, and is anointed the new CEO of Stark Industries. With the keys to the kingdom, Tony ushers in a new era for his father's legacy, creating smarter weapons, advanced robotics, satellite targeting. Today, Tony Stark has changed the face of the weapons industry, by ensuring freedom and protecting America and her interests around the globe."

Loud applause burst through the room as the PowerPoint on the screen behind the podium finished by lingering on a photoshopped image of Tony Stark looking seriously off in the distance while jets flew behind him in opposite directions. A bald eagle, the very symbol of the United States and freedom, was superimposed behind Tony to link his image, and Stark Industries, to the same concepts.

Caesar's Palace was hosting a prestigious awards ceremony, with top military brass in attendance as well as important tech and weapons companies. There were several round tables throughout the large banquet hall, decorated with fine white linen and flowering centerpieces while discrete waiters topped up wines and champagne.

Behind the podium, highlighted by the blinding spotlight, a man in uniform applauded with the rest. "As liaison to Stark Industries, I've had the unique privilege of serving with a real patriot. He is my friend and he is my great mentor. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to present this year's Apogee Award to Mr. Tony Stark!"

There was more applause, and a swinging spotlight lingered on the Stark Industries table in the reception hall, predominantly the empty seat next to a slightly bulky, bald man, who made a what can you do? face.

"Tony?" asked the man at the podium again, looking around the room.

The bald man sighed, shaking his head a bit but plastered a smile on his face and rose, weaving around the tables as the applause continued until he stood next to the man holding the award at the podium.

"Thank you, Colonel Rhodes," the man said, nodding at the man, who stepped back and let him speak. "This is beautiful. Thank you. Thank you all very much. This is wonderful."

He paused, looking out around the crowd in the room as they stopped applauding. He held the award aloft, peering at it in rapture, before turning back.

He glanced down, hiding his satisfied smile. "Well, I'm not Tony Stark -"

The room burst into laughter and the man - Obadiah Stane - grinned back.

"But if I were Tony… I would tell you how honored I feel, and what a joy it is to receive this very prestigious award." He paused for effect, even sighing into the microphone on the podium. "Tony, you know, the best thing about Tony… is also the worst thing - he's always working. He's working even now, on the latest and most impressive weaponry Stark Industries has to offer the American government. Tony is a genius - and it's alright, I can admit it."

Stane held his hands up and the crowd laughed again. "I know I'm not the smartest man in the room; that's Tony. Tony gets it. He just does. And I know, because I know him, just how much this visionary award means - to him as a person, and to Stark Industries and the work we do. So, thank you. Thank you all very much."

Stane waved, bringing the award up to shake it in the air, just once. He was smiling widely to the crowd, who began applauding loudly. He then turned from the podium, as far from the microphone as possible. The smile slipping off his face as he hissed, "Where's Tony?"

Rhodey sighed. "I have a good idea."

"Woo - c'mon!"

A pair of red dice flew and landed hard on the felt green of the roulette table, bouncing a few times before landing still as the people around Tony anxiously held their breaths.

"Congratulations, Mr. Stark," the handler said as the crowd around the billionaire burst into cheers.

Tony smiled, something tight and satisfied, turning back to clap Happy on the shoulder as he did so.

"Another great job, Boss," agreed Happy, his own smirk echoing Tony's as Tony turned back around to face the table.

On either side were two scantily clad women - a redhead and a brunette - who had been trying to catch his attention all evening as he played the various tables at Caesar's Palace. The brunette leaned close.

"You're very talented at this," she breathed at him. "I bet you're... talented at other things, too."

"Mmm, you betcha," he replied absently, reaching to take the die to roll again, this time considering placing a higher wager on black-forty-two instead. The brunette then pressed against him and Tony fought back a shiver as she invaded his personal space.

A figure, radiating disapproval, pushed through the crowd and made a scoffing laugh. "You are unbelievable!"

Tony, taking advantage of the familiar voice to shake the brunette off, turned and dryly exclaimed, "Oh, no. They roped you into this?"

Rhodey's mouth turned down into a frown. "Nobody roped me into anything. But they told me… that if I presented you with an award, you'd be deeply honored."

Tony looked shocked, pressing a hand to his chest. "Of course, I'd be deeply honored. And it's you! That's great. So, when do we do it?" He turned back to the dealer, holding up a single finger. "One more round."

"There you go." Rhodey was pushing something into Tony's hands and he flinched, looking down at the heavy glass award.

"There it is. That was easy," his eyes were wide with panic and Happy sighed, coming to take the award off him. Tony turned back to Rhodey. "You know I don't like being handed things."

Rhodey levelled a disappointed look at Tony, and Tony flinched a bit in return. "I'm so sorry-"

"Yeah," sighed Rhodey. "I know. It's okay. I get you, man."

They looked at each other for a long moment before Tony turned back to the roulette table and exclaimed, "All right, ride! Give me a hand, will you?"

Rhodey glared. "I don't blow on man's hands-"

"Oh, c'mon, Honeybear-" protested Tony, then casting the die onto the table.

The die flew and began to roll just as Tony was loudly saying, "There it is! It's the Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes' roll, and…" The die flipped the wrong way and Tony lost his bet of several thousands of dollars.

Rhodey shrugged, unapologetic. "That's what happens."

Tony gave a tiny shrug himself, adding in concession, "Worse things have happened,

I think we're gonna be fine." He turned to the dealer and ordered, "Colour me up, will you?"

The man nodded and handed Tony his slip, denoting his winnings. Rhodey glanced at it and whistled. "What're you going to do with another eighty thousand?"

"Hermione's been on my case about kittens without legs or homeless dogs in India or something else recently and spamming my email with charities for the last few months," replied Tony, turning and walking from the table. The brunette pouted at his brusque brush-off, completely ignoring her as he motioned for Happy to join him. His head of security walked a single pace behind, able to hear the conversation while maintaining some distance with the other four members of Tony's security.

"Not books? I thought that was more her thing," commented Rhodey, quietly, glancing around to ensure no one overheard their conversation.

Tony barked out a quick, loud "Ha!" before continuing. "You'd think, given she's a professor at Oxford, but noooo - she's a bleeding heart for animals. Morg's the same way. Totally her mother's daughter."

Rhodey sent Tony a look. "Tones. The girl carries Honeybear around to this day. Did you honestly think she wasn't an animal lover?"

Tony made a face.

"Look, man, this is where I exit," Rhodey said, pointing a finger at his friend. "Tomorrow - don't be late."

Tony nodded. "Yeah, you can count on it."

"I'm serious!"

"I know, I know." Tony rolled his eyes. "And if you don't let me forget it, do you think J or Hermione would? I swear he loves her more than I do. She has a copy of my calendar, Rhodey - my calendar. She and Pepper team up against me all the time! They won't let me forget."

"They did a good job today," retorted Rhodey, raising his eyebrows.

"Hermione said, and I quote, that I didn't need any more validation to inflate my ego and she was okay with me skipping." Tony stared at Rhodey.

Rhodey stared back. "Fine. Valid point." He shrugged. "But tomorrow, Tones!"

Rhodey stalked off in the opposite direction while Happy directed Tony out through the main lobby and to where his car was waiting outside the hotel casino. In a v-formation behind him, Happy and Tony were able to walk side-by-side, unmolested.

"Does Ms. Granger really have a copy of your calendar?" Happy asked in an undertone.

Tony groaned. "My God, yes. And she adds all of Morgan's events to it."

Happy smirked just as Tony glanced to the side and saw, slowing down as they neared his black limo.


Happy's smirk grew, and he opened the car door for Tony. "Nothing."

"No, seriously, what? Happy, what?"

"Nothing, Boss."

Tony whipped off his sunglasses and mock glared at the man. "I can fire you, you know."


"Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark!" a feminine voice called from behind them.

Tony paused, glancing at Happy, who glanced back at the woman, an expression of quick distaste falling over his face as he recognized her, even as she breathlessly approached the limo, blocked by two large security guards.

"Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair magazine," she said, eyes intent on the back of Tony's head. "Can I ask you a couple of questions?"

Tony glanced at Happy, who shrugged. "She's cute."

"Is that so?" Tony rolled his eyes, turning around with a smile on his face. "Hi."

"Hi," she replied, and the guards let her through. She smoothed a hand down her blouse.

Tony glanced at his watch, checking the time. Eleven at night in Vegas; that was seven in the morning in London. "Yeah. Okay, go; I have some time for you."

Everhart's eyes brightened, and she held out her recorder so that she could capture his voice. "You've been called the Da Vinci of our time. What do you say to that?"

Tony scoffed. "Absolutely ridiculous. I don't paint."

Everhart's eyes then hardened. "And what do you say to your other nickname, The Merchant of Death?"

So that was a soft lead-in, thought Tony, mentally shaking his head. "That's not bad. Let me guess... Berkeley?"

"Brown, actually," replied Everhart proudly, tossing her blonde hair a bit.

"Well, Ms. Brown. It's an imperfect world, but it's the only one we've got. I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace; we'll start making bricks and

beams for baby hospitals," answered Tony shortly, turning away from her to go back to the car.

"Rehearse that much?" she called after him.

Tony spun back around. "Every night in front of the mirror before bedtime."

"I can see that, but I want is a serious answer."

Tony frowned, annoyed. "Okay, here is serious. My old man had a philosophy: 'Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.'"

"That's a great line, coming from a guy selling the sticks," snapped back Everhart, eyes narrowed.

Tony's mouth settled into a thin, tight line. "My father helped defeat Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project; on Project Rebirth helping make good ol' Captain America. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a hero."

A wry twist of her full lips had Everhart replying, "And a lot of people would also call that war-profiteering."

Tony's eyes narrowed in response. "Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we've saved by advancing medical technology? Or kept from starvation with our intelli-crops? All those breakthroughs: military funding, honey."

Everhart stared at him, slowly lowering her handheld recorder. "Wow, did you ever lose an hour of sleep your whole life?"

"More than you'd think unless you've ever dealt with a colicky baby."

Everhart stared at him. "What?"

"Nothing, Ms. Brown," sighed Tony, shaking his head and turning away. He called over his shoulder, "Take your soundbite and do what you will with it. Merchant of Death? I've been called worse. Now, if you excuse me, I have a phone call I need to make. Goodnight."

He slid into the limo, Happy slamming the door shut and then moving to sit in the front seat. Tony let his head drop back against the headrest, bringing a hand up to rub at his temples.

He hadn't had a drop of alcohol all evening, but he had a massive headache. He blindly fumbled toward the center console of his seat for aspirin, popping the lid off and taking two tablets without water. That would ease some of the headache, but the best way to rid himself of it was…

"J.A.R.V.I.S., call Hermione."

"Yes, sir," his AI's disembodied voice, hooked up through his car's system as well as watch and sunglasses, replied.

There were a few seconds of silence, the privacy wall up between the front and back, and with the soundproofing in the car, Tony was completely at ease.


Tony's mouth turned up at the corners at the sound of Hermione's voice - clear, smooth and very British - came through the speakers. "Hey, Pipsqueak. How's Morguna? How did that dance recital go last week?"

"She was brilliant, of course," Tony could hear the pride in Hermione's voice, and his own heart tightened in response. "And school is going well for her; perfect grades."

His smile widened and he slid down a bit in the leather seat. He brought an arm up to cover his eyes as he relaxed. "As if she'd do anything else. I can't believe it's her last year of primary school!"

"She is growing up quickly, isn't she?" agreed Hermione with a hum.

Tony nodded, despite Hermione not seeing him. He then asked, "Are we still on for the fourteenth?"

There was a pause.

"Oh? What's that?" asked Hermione, her voice confused.

"Don't be coy - that's what I'm supposed to do," chided Tony.

Amusement filtered through Hermione's voice. "Yeah, Tony, we're still good for Valentine's. Although I still don't know why you want to come to England to spend it with me. Don't you have some vapid blonde or busty brunette you could call up that's a bit more local?"

"But they're not you, Pipsqueak!" countered Tony. He lowered his arm and grinned at the roof of the car. "They don't have your shining qualities."

"You mean intelligence? Poor Tony, how ever do you manage to spend your time around such Neanderthals."

"Well…" Tony trailed off, laughing as Hermione spat, "Oh, gross, Tony, I don't want to hear about that!"

There was some silence on the line afterward, but Hermione broke it by asking, "Are you still doing that military presentation soon?"

"Tomorrow, actually, my time," he replied. "Then I'm flying out to do a live test of the Jericho."

He could practically hear Hermione nibble on her lower lip in nervousness. "A live test? Isn't that dangerous? You will be careful, won't you?"

"'Course I will," he replied, glancing out of the car window to see the passing lights of the Vegas strip as they headed toward the airport. "When am I not?"

Hermione paused, and Tony quickly replied, "Don't answer that, Hermione."

"You said it," she replied. Hermione sighed. "I've got a nine o'clock class, Tony, so I'm going to have to go. But - take care of yourself okay?"

"Aw, would you miss me, Pipsqueak?" Tony felt his heart pound a bit faster as he waited for her response.

"Goodbye, Tony," laughed Hermione.

"What? Don't leave me hanging! C'mon, Hermion-"

"She's hung up, sir," broke in J.A.R.V.I.S., amusement in his smooth tone, so like Hermione's British accent.

"She hung up on me? Who hangs up on me?" Tony let his mouth drop open and looked around the interior of the back of the limo for an answer. Tony huffed and crossed his arms. "Well, we both know that Morgan would miss me, don't we, J?"

"Indeed, we do, sir."

Tony glared. "Now you're just humouring me, J."

"Always, sir. Always."

Kunar Province, Afghanistan

The presentation of the Jericho missile went incredibly well for the brass who came out to watch the live demo, along with Rhodey standing off to the side, fighting a tiny grin off his face as Tony threw his Pepper Potts-prepared speech to the wind and instead waxed on about what "good ol' dad used to do."

It was rather inspiring, thought Tony, although he absolutely wanted to gag at the idea of his father being impressed with anything he stamped his name to; if it didn't bring Howard Stark more prestige, or helped him get one step closer to finding Captain America, Howard didn't have time for him. What did Tony know what Howard Stark wanted or said?

Despite how well the presentation went, and his phone call with Obie, Tony was in a bit of a mood on the drive back to Bagram Air Base, watching the amber liquid of his scotch slosh back and forth as the hum-vee hit nearly every pothole in the dirt road.

The soldier to Tony's left was young and clearly starstruck, with the way he kept glancing at him until finally, Tony's patience left him, and he spoke over AC/DC and got the kid to loosen up.

"Sir, I have a question to ask," the soldier in the front passenger seat began, turning around to face him.

Relieved, after getting the three in the vehicle with him to laugh, Tony said, "Yes, please."

"It is true you went 12-for-12 with last year's Maxim cover models?" the man finished.

Tony toasted the soldier with his drink and removed his sunglasses. "That is an excellent question. Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict, but fortunately, the Christmas cover was twins. Anything else?"

A part of Tony scoffed. Lies, it shouted in his mind. Last Christmas, he was in Oxford, as Hermione received an associate position and had moved into a cottage outside the town.

He briefly dated July, but certainly never interacted with the rest of the models despite seeing them at the Victoria's Secrets afterparty. Although the Christmas cover did include two Sokovian twins that he ended up talking to at the party; what he didn't say was that he was encouraging the one sister to apply to SI with her degree and the other to school, as they were both rather smart and using modelling to earn tuition money.

Perhaps his previous reputation was beginning to spin his non-existent social life out of control. Hmm, he thought; might have to get Pep on that…

The three soldiers laughed.

"Anything else?" asked Tony, looking around and catching sight of the young soldier to his left, Forest, inching his hand up like he was in school. "You're kidding me with a hand up, right?"

"Is it cool if I take a picture with you?" he asked instead.

"Yes, it's very cool," replied Tony, feeling a bit amused at the energy and enthusiasm the young soldier spotted as he beamed at Tony and then began to pull out his camera. Is this what Morgan might be like?

The camera was handed off to the soldier in the passenger seat, and Forest slid near Tony, who leaned in for the photo. Without looking, Tony said, in a straightforward manner, "I don't wanna see this on your MySpace page." He glanced at Forest, who nodded quickly and then saw his peace sign. "Please, no gang signs."

Forest's face fell and he dropped his hand quickly.

"No, throw it up, I'm kidding. Yeah, peace! I love peace," babbled Tony instead, and Forest grinned widely, his two fingers up in the universal peace symbol as the other soldier went to snap a picture. "I'd be outta job with peace."

But the other soldier was fumbling with the camera, due to the potholes, and his larger fingers on the tiny device, enough so that Forest was becoming annoyed at perhaps missing a chance for a photo with his hero.

"C'mon! Just click it, don't change the settings, just click it!"

Tony mentally sighed, ready to turn away, his attention gone from the publicity stunt when the car in front of them exploded in bright orange flames. The shock shook their car, and Tony's eyes widened.

"What's going on?"

The driver swerved a flying piece of metal - the bumper? - of the car and slammed the brakes. Tony slid forward and braced his hands on the back of the passenger seat, dropping his drink as he looked around in a panic.

The driver - the female soldier - shouted something, but over the roar of his own heartbeat, Tony didn't hear what she said. Instead, she pushed open her door after parking the car, her gun in her hand, only to fall face-first the moment she stepped out.

The other soldier, who was taking their picture, turned and shouted, "Jimmy, stay with Stark!"

Forest - Jimmy - reached out and shoved Tony roughly to the floor of the car, and Tony felt the scotch seep into his expensive suit trousers.

"Lie down!" the older soldier shouted, slipping out of his door and around the back of the car. He perched over the humvee's hood, firing off a few shots when there was a loud pop; the windshield was hit, a circular crack radiating out and splattered with red as he slumped to the side and then out of Tony's sight.

"Son of a bitch!" cursed Jimmy, stepping out of the car.

Tony felt his breath catch as he sat up. "Wait, wait, give me a gun!"

"Stay. Here!" Jimmy ordered through the window. As he turned, his body jerked and wiggled back and forth, and bullet holes peppered the side of the car.

Tony jumped and curled in on himself a bit, staring around as the noise stopped, only there was a ringing in his ears, and he could hear his harsh pants. The other soldiers in the two other cars not hit earlier were firing back at some unseen enemy.

I need to get out of here. I need to survive, he thought. Without further delay, Tony yanked open his side passenger door and stumbled to his feet, his Gucci dress shoes no match for the desert. He had already been sweating in his Tom Ford suit, and now everything else he owned was ruined as he brought his arms up to protect his head instinctively.

He glanced left and right, but was unable to spot anyone; instead, Tony ran through burning debris, feeling the suffocating heat from the exploded vehicle combat the dry desert air as bullets rained down on the soldiers and something whistled through the air - one of the other hum-vees exploded.


Tony dodged forward and fell against a large rock, his breath expelling violently. From his pocket, he pulled out his Stark-pager, connected to the SI satellites and J.A.R.V.I.S., beginning to type in SOS, attacked on route. HELP-

But the whistling noise he heard earlier stopped, and he glanced to his side at a loud thud - only to see a Stark Industries missile in the sand barely a meter from him.

"Fuck," he had time to mutter before the device went off, sending him flying. His lungs felt like they were on fire; his entire right side felt like acid was eating through his skin and sensitive to the touch as he lay in the sand, disoriented and dazed.

Something in his chest hurt.

Blinking, he stared up at the sun and then pulled his dress shirt back, popping the buttons as his fingers brushed something warm and wet. He could barely lift his head but saw enough through his double-vision that his bullet-proof vest did not stop whatever hit him.

He coughed and the pain in his chest intensified.

Hermione, he thought, struggling to stay conscious. I need to get back to Hermione and Morgan. I need to stay awake - I need - I need…

It was one thing to wake up in a freezing cold cave, disoriented, and it was another to realize that you had a giant magnet stuck in your chest keeping you alive. Tony was no stranger to the idea of being kidnapped, but this was the first time someone managed a successful attempt.

While he was grateful for the man who saved his life, Tony was equally disgusted by the men speaking to him with guns pointed at their heads, demanding the Jericho. Didn't they know that the parts were manufactured elsewhere and completed in a secure location? You don't just make missiles willy-nilly.

The cave was dark and dank, and Tony, still feeling out of sorts from the explosion and hash-slap surgery the fellow prisoner conducted on him, could barely focus on the demands the leader was spitting at him. Luckily, the other man seemed to understand him and was translating in a bland tone.

All Tony knew was he had to refuse. He was going to die anyway, so what did it manner? Resignation and determination warred in him. Finally taking the other man's advice, Tony began rattling off a list of things he could possibly need - not for the Jericho (he would need some rather high-tech equipment for that) - but enough to maybe cobble together something to help him escape.

Morgan. Hermione. He had people counting on him.

Eventually, he turned to the other man as the kidnappers - or terrorists, really, at this point - slammed the heavy iron door shut. He heard the lock click and a bar wrench its way across supports, an additional security measure to keep them locked up.

"How many languages do you speak?" demanded Tony.

The other man shrugged. "A lot. But apparently not enough for this place. They speak Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Mongolian, Farsi, Russian..."

Tony's eyes darted around the dank interior, his breath coming out as white puffs of hot air. His eyes lingered on the security camera watching them. "Who are these people?"

The other man gave Tony a wry smile. "They are your loyal customers, sir. They call themselves the Ten Rings."

Hours, maybe days later, the men returned with the things Tony requested. He spent the time lying on his cot, lugging around the large car battery as he wandered every edge of the cave, inspecting dark corners while the other man watched him with knowing eyes.

Finally, the two went to the workbench, and Tony and the man began working; the other man knew what he was doing, was able to keep up with Tony as he shot off directions and instructions, melting metal and making molds for it.

With Tony's hands still shaking and recovering from the explosion, the other man poured the metal into the mold while Tony hovered. It was an awkward feeling for a man who was so used to being in charge. "Careful. Careful, we only get one shot at this."

The other man grinned but didn't look up from pouring. "Relax, I've steady hands. Why do you think you're still alive?"

"What do I call you?" Tony acknowledged the rebuke as he finished pouring.

The man put down the heated pot they were using attached to tongs and looked up at Tony. "My name is Yinsen."

"Yinsen... nice to meet you."

"It's nice to meet you too," Yinsen replied. He stood straight as they moved to the next step in their procedure. "We met once; you know. At the technical conference in Bern, in 1999."

Tony paused. The night I met Hermione and George? This can't be a coincidence. His eyes narrowed. "Don't remember."

Yinsen huffed a tiny laugh. "No, you wouldn't. If I had been that drunk, I wouldn't have been able to stand, much less give a lecture on integrated circuits."

Days later, once the metal had cooled, Tony began soldering components together as Yinsen hovered, watching as Tony connected everything by wire to a circuit board. "Speaking of circuits, that doesn't look like a Jericho missile."

He pointed at the other components Tony had laid out on the worktable, the tiny beads and steel rings he was making.

With a pleased tone, Tony shook his head slightly. "That's because it is a miniaturized Arc reactor. We got a big one powering my factory at home. It should keep the shrapnel out of my heart."

Yinsen glanced at him sharply, the light from the arc reactor as Tony powered it up reflecting off his glasses and lighting their workbench area up in a gentle, soft blue.

"But what could it generate?"

"If my math is right, and it always is… three gigajoules per second," replied Tony quietly, still in awe of what he made with the crude tech he was given. If I can do this with the equivalent of a microwave, what can I do in my lab and with J.A.R.V.I.S.?

"That could run your heart for fifty lifetimes," commented Yinsen, realization slowly dawning in his eyes.

Tony nodded. "Yeah. Or something big for fifty minutes. This is our ticket outta here."

More time passed. Tony used Yinsen's razor to keep his facial hair trimmed, but his hair was growing longer, scraggly. He spent the time trying to fall asleep imagining conversations with Hermione, Morgan about his appearance and hair if only to remember the sound of their voices.

Oh, Tony! Hermione would say, sighing in exasperation while burrowing her hand in the curls, tugging lightly.

Whenever he saw himself in the tiny mirror Yinsen had strung up on a support beam, he saw more of Morgan's face peering from his dark hair, his eyes. How was his little girl holding up without him?

But then a new day would begin, and Tony was showing Yinsen his plans for the suit of armour that would get them out of the cave, layered on thin rice paper.

"What is it?" asked Yinsen, glancing at the separate components until Tony layered it.

"It's the 'Flying the Mountain' look," he replied, proud at his creation.

Yinsen breathed, "Impressive," and looked up at Tony with something different in his eyes. Whereas before Tony was the Merchant of Death, the man who brought missiles to the Ten Rings - albeit, a smart merchant - the shrewd, conflicting look in Yinsen's eyes were now warmer. It changed their relationship.

They didn't always work on the suit of armour, though. There was downtime between dedicated hours spent on the machine, doing whatever they could to fool their captors. Yinsen had been there much longer than Tony and had even accumulated some board games to play.

They were playing backgammon, passing the time with idle conversation when Tony began getting personal - the first time since they had met, in what Tony estimated was two months. "You still didn't tell me where you're from."

Yinsen glanced up. "I'm from a small town called Gulmira. It's actually a nice place."

"You got a family?" asked Tony, thinking of Hermione, Morgan; of Rhodey, Happy, Pepper. Even Obie was on that list. He was sure they were missing him, that Rhodey had everyone out looking.

"Yes," replied Yinsen quietly. "And I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?"

The question was always asked by people, rote by politeness and not from knowing him; why would playboy billionaire Tony Stark have a family - and one that was not mentioned in every interview? But Tony, who had kept Hermione and Morgan secret for so long - stuck in the dark cave with the potential of failure constantly nipping at their heels… he decided to tell the truth.

"Yeah," he croaked out, making Yinsen look up in surprise. He cleared his throat and spoke again. "Yeah, I've got… I've got a daughter."

"You do?" there was incredulous disbelief in Yinsen's voice before it disappeared, noticing how uncomfortable Tony was in his admittance. "How old is she?"

"Ten," replied Tony quietly. He frowned a bit, remembering when he and Yinsen first introduced themselves. "Actually… now that I think about it, you met her mom."

Yinsen blinked. "I did?"

Tony nodded, both thinking back.

"… Oh, yes. In Bern," breathed Yinsen, sitting back on his upturned crate. There was a look of surprised wonder in his face as his thoughts turned inward. His eyes were sharp as he turned back to Tony. "The brunette you were with. Who liked my keynote with Dr. Wu."

Tony smiled softly, his thoughts turning back to the moment when he first met Hermione Granger - her anger at him, God, even the way he was acting - Tony shook his head ruefully. "Yeah, that's Hermione. The more extravagant and complicated the discussion, the happier she is. She's a professor at Oxford, now."

There was something on Yinsen's face when he asked, "Your wife?"

Tony knew he should've expected that; that was the direction the conversation was going, but he didn't expect the sharp lance of pain it had, right where the magnet sat in his chest. He struggled to breathe for a moment, inhaling sharply through the pain as his hand came up to hover by the magnet.

Yinsen was watching him carefully, half-risen from his seat and looking like he was a minute away from launching to Tony's side.

"No. I-" Tony shook his head, dropping his hand and glancing away as his heart clenched and tightened in his chest. It had nothing to do with the magnet. He cleared his throat. "… Anyway; yeah. It's - that's a no."

"I see." Yinsen's voice was low and soft, causing Tony to strain his hearing. When he caught the other man's eyes, there was something sorrowful in them. "So, you're a man who has everything... and nothing."

He tried to swallow but there was a lump in his throat. The words were a dagger in Tony's heart - a man who has everything and nothing. It seemed that between 'Merchant of Death' and 'the Man who has Everything and Nothing,' Tony couldn't quite escape his failings.

Hermione was in the middle of a lecture when the first phone notification went off. The student in question - as she lectured for Muggles as well as Magicals on different days and on different topics at Oxford (the university shared "in the know" professors to cut back on hiring costs) - blushed a furious red and mumbled an apology when Hermione paused, fishing the phone out of their bag to silence it.

Hermione gave them a nod and continued, "So we can learn from d'Hughes Second Principle that-"

And then someone else's phone went off.

In response, Hermione exhaled loudly through her nose.

Then, someone's phone began to ring.

Bewildered, Hermione stood at the front and bottom of the lecture hall, glancing around as students began pulling their phones out of their bags and reading their messages and notifications, only to begin to whisper and mutter to one another.

Finally, Hermione turned to one of her teaching assistants who sat near the front, and asked, "What is going on?"

Her TA, a young man, looked up at his phone, his eyes wide. "It's Tony Stark, Professor Granger. His convoy was attacked and he's missing in Afghanistan. It's breaking news."

For a long moment, Hermione just stood there, at the front of the room while her students talked about the infamous Tony Stark going missing. The words barely penetrated Hermione's mind, because all she could think was: he's going to miss our Valentine's Day dinner.

Then, the utter banality of what she thought slammed into her and she struggled to breathe, leaning over her podium at the front of the lecture hall, her hands clenching the edges so hard that they turned white from tension.


"Class dismissed," gritted Hermione, staring at the warped wood of the podium and not raising her eyes. She knew her TA heard her. "Lewis - tell them. Class dismissed."

Her TA muttered something, but she heard him speaking loudly to those remaining in the lecture hall until the students began to file out.

"Professor, do you need help? Are you okay?" he asked, hovering near her.

"I need to -" Hermione broke off. No one knew that she and Tony had a history, but there was someone she could speak to. She dove for her mobile phone, something Tony insisted she have and waved Lewis out of the hall as she frantically thumbed through her contacts until she reached the Ps.

Pepper answered on the first ring. "Hermione -"

"I just heard," the witch barked into the phone, grabbing her materials and spinning on her heel to Disapparate. There were no cameras in the lecture hall, so there was little risk of being spotted. The phone went weird for a moment, losing the signal as she magically moved from Oxford to her cottage outside the city.

"Hermione? Hermione, are you there?" Pepper's voice rang worriedly across the line.

"I'm here."

"Tony went missing officially seven hours ago," began Pepper, her voice clipped and business-like. "Rhodey suffered minor scrapes and bruises and is already out with the US military looking for Tony. We'll find him, I promise you."

"I know," replied Hermione, her voice firm despite the tremble in her hands as she looked down at the one not holding the phone, standing in her living room. "But what do I tell Morgan?"

"You tell her the very best people are working to bring Tony home," replied Pepper, conviction in her voice.

"You'll keep me updated?"

"Whenever I can, with whatever I learn."

Hermione gave a watery sigh. "Thank you, Pepper."

"Of course, Hermione."

Hermione hung up, the phone falling to her couch from a limp hand. Time passed without her realizing it, her thoughts inward as fear and worry clutched at her, her thoughts back on Tony and the stupid conversation they had early yesterday morning regarding him being safe. If she believed in divination…

A sharp crack of Apparation, diluted only by the windowpanes, broke through Hermione's self-reflection. She looked up, unaware of the streaky tears left on her cheeks and the shallow look on her face as Harry burst through the door, eyes wide and hair messy with his wand out.

His emerald eyes focused on her, sitting motionless on her couch. Worry seeped out of every part of him as he went, "Oh, Hermione…"

She promptly burst into sobs.

Harry was at her side in an instant, words falling from his mouth as his arms tightened around her. "I sent Ginny to pick up Morgan from school, she's with us now. Stark will be okay – he's a scraper. Gets out of most messes, you know?"

"I spoke to Pepper," muttered Hermione against Harry's chest.

He stilled. "What did she say?"

"Seven hours," she said. "It happened seven hours ago. They don't know who took him or if he's dea—" her mouth stopped and her breath hitched.

Harry tightened his grip.

"We'll bring him back," he promised, taking a hold of Hermione's chin and bringing her to look at him. "After everything you've done for me, it's my turn. I'll bring him back. I promise."

"I really hope so, Harry," replied Hermione, and no more words were spoken that evening.

Days later, Hermione had to find some excuse to stay home – she eventually used a family emergency, which was true, but it was only Ashtonbury who knew the truth, the Master of Ceremonies from Hermione's convocation and Dean – and was granted leave.

Morgan was pulled from school, for homeschooling to keep her busy more than needing the education and was often kept company with Victoire as Fleur and Molly helped keep both Hermione and Morgan eating.

From Harry's end, he contacted Kingsley, who kept Hermione updated with the little news the British government could glean from the American counterparts regarding Tony's kidnapping. They learned he was alive, and that he was taken by a terrorist group known as the Ten Rings, but little else. It was mildly frustrating, as despite Kingsley's contacts as the Minister for Magic, that the men knew nothing.

George and Maya tried to keep Hermione's mood up, running interference with Pepper and Happy when both deigned to let Hermione know what was happening; it was mildly annoying, George would later remark to Maya, at how Hermione was kept from the loop.

It was Morgan who found a solution that the adults missed.

"Where's Daddy?" she asked, a few weeks later.

Hermione's face fell and her eyes, red-rimmed, filled with tears. "We don't know, darling - your daddy is missing - something went wrong on a business trip-"

"Is Uncle Rhodey looking for him?"

Hermione nodded. "Him and the rest of the United States military."

"What about Uncle Harry? Can Uncle Harry and the Aurors help?"

Hermione blinked, looking a bit startled. Then, the next thing, she leaped to her feet and was heading to the fireplace, shoving a handful of Floo powder into the fire and shouting, "Harry Potter, Head Auror's office!"

At first, Harry didn't want to help – refusing to state his reasons, but there was some mumbling regarding "misappropriated funds," and "gross abuse of power" – but eventually, he saw reason. He made a few mumbled promises about contacts with the British Muggle Ministry, and, a weeks later, he returned to Hermione's tiny cottage.

"I have news," he said, grimly.

Hermione, sitting on the couch, looked up at her best friend.

"Colonel Rhodes has been slowly knocking off quadrants of the Afghanistan desert. There are only a few left, but I could probably help track and knock the others off quicker if I go and use magic. Kinglsey's given me permission and a short leave of absence, so I'll be leaving tonight."

"Leaving?" echoed Hermione.

Harry nodded. "I'm going to go, pretending to be part of a British attaché. A few confundus will help quell any other questions."

"You'll find him?" asked Hermione hopefully, clutching a ripped and wrinkled tissue.

Harry stared at Hermione for a long moment and then sighed. "Yes."

Hermione stared at Harry. "You don't want to go."

"Not particularly, but he's important to you."

Hermione looked down and admitted, quietly, "He is."

Harry sighed. "And that's why I'm going. I'll let you know if we find him. Probably before Potts or Hogan do."

Hermione slowly stood from the couch, going to hug Harry. He let her, sighing again against her shoulder. "It'll be okay, Hermione. I promise."

"Thank you," she whispered against him. "Thank you."

Not even five days later, Harry's stag Patronus burst through the same living room window, coming to a rest in front of Hermione. Her heart leaped into her throat.

"We found him," Harry's voice came from the stag's head. "Colonel Rhodes has already contacted Potts and Hogan. You'll be getting a call soon – get ready to go to the States."

The Patronus nodded once at Hermione and then burst into thousands of tiny stars as the spell dissipated, glitter reflecting the afternoon sunlight.

"Thank you, harry," whispered Hermione. She took a deep breath and then turned, calling loudly, "Morgan! Morg! Pack a bag! Accio suitcase – your dad has been found!"

It was by unanimous decision that Hermione and Morgan would remain at the Malibu house when Tony arrived in California, with both Hermione and Tony overriding Pepper and Happy's worried fears that their arrival would upset Tony's recovery and health.

While Hermione would've preferred seeing Tony immediately, when he landed, she knew that the whole point of keeping Morgan safe and away from the public played a large factor in them greeting the Stark heir privately.

But, as Rhodey admitted, over a crackly line, fed through J.A.R.V.I.S., it was also a safety measure: Tony was targeted specifically, and if whoever took him knew about Hermione and Morgan, well - suffice to say the words Rhodey used ranged from "it wouldn't be good," to "utter devastation for Tony."

And Hermione agreed.

So, she sat with Morgan cuddled against her, clutching Honeybear in her tiny arms, as they watched the live CNN broadcast of Tony's return and his press statement. Tony looked tired in it, and despite his nice pinstriped suit and silky brown shirt, the marks on his face, the scabbed cuts, merely highlighted that he had been a prisoner.

Tony's arm was in a blue sling, keeping it still, and Hermione recognized the Stark Industries lobby as people milled about and cameramen jostled for a good view of the makeshift stage. Tony sat in front of the podium, Obadiah Stane behind it as he began mumbling in the microphone.

"Alright, let's get started," the older man began, bracing himself on the edges as he looked out into the crowd of flashing cameras and mutters.

Then, Tony was calling loudly over the crowd. "Hey, would it be alright if everyone sat down?" He raised his good arm, waving it a bit to catch their attention - although he already had it. He then pulled out a wrapped burger from his suit pocket. "Will you sit down? That way you can see me, and I can… A little less formal…"

He took a large bite.

"What's Daddy doing?" asked Morgan, looking from the television to Hermione, who pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes.

"I don't know, Morgan," the witch replied, not moving her eyes from the screen.

From the reporters in the crowd, they watched as they all sat, listening to Tony's instructions until they were kneeling or cross-legged in front of him in a semicircle, like preschoolers in front of their teacher for a reading circle.

Obadiah, used to Tony's antics, had an amused smile on his face as he copied the crowd and sat next to the CEO. Tony's head lolled a bit as he turned to face him, head-on, and the camera's failed to pick up the audio between them, although Hermione saw their mouths move.

Then, Tony turned back to the crowd. "I never got to say goodbye to my father."

The silence held by the crowd as Tony spoke was riveting; Hermione couldn't remember a time when even Harry held that same sort of control, as the Boy-Who-Lived or Man-Who-Won; even Dumbledore would've been hard-pressed to control a crowd with the ease Tony managed. But there was something off about Tony's demeanor, the way he spoke and how he began his speech.

"Mum?" Morgan's voice tried to pierce through Hermione's whirling brain.

Tony hates speaking about his father. He only invokes Howard's name when he speaks about the company… Hermione's breath caught as something occurred to her, but the thought disappeared just as quickly and she unconsciously leaned forward, closer to the television.

"There are questions that I would've asked him. I would've asked him how he felt about what his company did… ...if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts." Tony wiped his mouth with a cloth handkerchief, pausing after each sentence to increase the tension. "Or maybe he was every inch of a man we all remember from the newsreels."

Ouch, thought Hermione, as he finished on that and held a long pause. She knew, at that moment, Tony was thinking of Morgan, and how their daughter would've handled things if Tony had never been found - her father taken from her far sooner than he had been.

There was a long-eyed stare that Tony held as he looked out at the crowd; his hair was stringy, unwashed despite his impeccable facial hair, and his face a bit more sunken than previously. Hermione's heart clenched.

"I saw young Americans killed… by the very weapons, I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability."

That seemed to spark something in the reporters, and one brave soul raised a pen, stuttering, "M-Mister S-Stark-"

Tony glanced at him gave a tiny dip to his chin and went, "Yeah?" softly.

The same reporter breathed, "What happened over there?"

The question was on everyone's mind - what happened to Tony Stark, the Merchant of Death, that would cause him to say that he became part of the very system that destroyed?

"I- I had my eyes opened," said Tony, rising to his feet and beginning to walk around the podium, his voice carrying loudly across the silent lobby. His finger wagged in emphasis on certain words. "I came to realize that I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that-"

He stopped, standing behind the podium and looking out at the crowd. "-is why, effective immediately, I'm shutting down the weapons manufacturing division-" he began to raise his voice to speak over the clamouring of the reporters as they shot to their feet, shouting questions, and just as Obadiah raced to Tony's side. "-of Stark International… until such a time, as I can decide what the future of this company will be-"

Obadiah tried to break in, a placating hand out to the crowd as he wrapped the other around Tony. "Okay, okay-"

"-What direction it should take, the one I'm comfortable with-"

"Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark!"

"-And is consistent with the highest good of this country and the world," Tony finished, walking away from the podium, Obadiah pushing him a bit, so he was away from the microphone. Tony kept walking down the path made for him by reporters, many who didn't know if they should follow Tony or stay with Obadiah, who stood at the podium.

"What we should take away from this… is that Tony's back!" Obadiah tried to silence the crowd, bringing their attention back on him, but even Hermione could tell he lost the crowd as Tony walked away.

"Mum? Mum, what does Daddy mean? If he shuts down SI's weapons manufacturing -"

Hermione turned to Morgan, looking down at her and seeing Tony's round, brown eyes looking at her from beneath her curly hair.

"I- I'm not sure what that means, darling," answered Hermione, finally, a bit bewildered. Whatever happened to Tony, it was life-changing. "I think we'll just need to wait and talk to your dad when he gets here."

"And when's that?" Morgan's lower lip pouted and stuck out a bit. She turned back toward the television and asked, louder, "J.A.R.V.I.S.?"

"Yes, Miss Morgan?"

"When's Daddy going to be here?"

"Mr. Stark is still at Stark Industries, Miss Morgan, and has yet to leave the premises," replied the smooth, British tones of the AI. "I predict that, following his conference, he will speak to Mr. Stane and then make his way here within the next hour."

Tony did arrive, just over an hour and sometime later, a grumpy look on his face that visibly brightened when he stepped through the door and Morgan shouted, "Daddy!"

The girl raced across the sunken living room, practically flying off the couch to slam into her father.

Tony braced himself but still rocked by the force the little girl exhibited, a muffled "oof," expelling from his lungs.

Hermione stood slowly from the couch, the tv now muted thanks to J.A.R.V.I.S., watching their daughter with her eyes suspiciously moist. Tony glanced up, above Morgan's bushy hair - that was all Hermione, unfortunately - and met Hermione's eyes.

"Hey," he mouthed.

"Hey," she mouthed back, biting her lower lip. With Morgan hanging off him, Tony was unable to move more than a few steps, partially laborious. Hermione, seeing this, gently called, "Morgan - your father is hurt. Let him breathe."

Morgan released her tight grip on Tony quickly, almost like an electric shock ran through her, and took a few steps back, her brown eyes staring up at him in fear. "Did I hurt you, Daddy? Are you hurt? Is it because of me?"

"Oh, no, Morguna," sighed Tony, unaware he was listing to the side as he made his way toward Hermione and the couch. "It wasn't you, baby."

Eventually, Tony made it to the couch, and Hermione reached forward to help ease him down, inwardly wincing as the billionaire sighed in relief as he sunk into the plush cushions. Morgan hesitantly slid onto the couch by her father's side, eyes fixated on him.

"Morgan, darling, why don't you tell your father about your recent test, hm?" began Hermione, sinking onto the couch on Tony's other side, curling a leg underneath her as she did so.

The young girl nodded and then launched into a vivid description of the past few months, cataloging everything that Tony had missed since February in detail and breathless, run-on sentences, eerily reminiscent of her mother's own recitals.

Tony let his daughter's voice wash over him, exhaustion finally catching up with him as his eyes met Hermione's. She had stretched an arm behind Tony and was running her fingers slowly through his lanky hair. The motion relaxed him, and with a sigh, he muttered, "Thank you," to his ex-lover quietly.

Hermione's lips twitched into a smile, but the worry in her eyes belayed the motion. Her other hand reached forward and caught one of his, on his lap. Tony tangled their fingers together, and let his eyes close, comforted by the sound of his daughter's voice on one side of him, and the scent of Hermione on the other.

Hermione and Morgan remained with Tony in Malibu for several weeks following his return, celebrating Tony's birthday at the end of May in a quiet, "hurrah, I'm alive," way with just the three of them.

Morgan would only be staying a little longer, having missed the routine of school and so Hermione decided to send her back to England to stay with Bill and Fleur until the end of June, in which Hermione would return to the UK.

In the meantime, Tony would fall into funks, disappear into his lab for hours at a time. Hermione would keep Morgan entertained during that time, while the girl's brown eyes – identical to her father's – would widen and she'd ask, her voice trembling, "Is Daddy mad at me?"

It was hard to explain to a ten year old that their father experienced a terrible event, and was trying to get over it without going to therapy or talking to anyone, but Hermione did her best for her child and her child's father, silently supporting one and playing with the others to keep her entertained.

Eventually, Tony admitted to needing to change out the arc reactor he made while in Afghanistan and that he didn't want Morgan around in case something happened. And so, the girl was sent back to the UK, amidst tears and cries, the lights flickering as something hit the electricity grid and the reactor in Tony's chest hummed as his heartbeat sped up.

The day after Morgan left, Tony was in his lab. He was so engrossed in his plans - the holographic displays spread across his workshop tables; there was a full-blown, human-sized schematic for the armour he was working on, separated by pieces so he could see the individual plates from a variety of monitor screens - that he didn't hear Hermione, nor did J.A.R.V.I.S. announce her presence in the lab.

"What are you doing?"

Tony jumped, his hand going straight to his arc reactor and hovering above it as he spun, his heart racing and pounding in his chest. He gasped, "Hermione? Shouldn't you be sleeping?"

Hermione was dressed in her pajamas, long flannel pants and had wrapped a shawl around her upper body, clutching it to her as she stepped barefoot further into the lab. A wince told him that his concrete floor was a bit too cold for her, but she pressed gamely on.

"I was," she admitted, frowning and narrowing her eyes as they roamed the displays, clockwise "I got up for a drink and wanted to check in on you-"

Tony winced. J.A.R.V.I.S. was a tattletale if Hermione knew about his nightmares.

"-when J.A.R.V.I.S. mentioned you were in your lab," she finished. She came to stop near his shoulder, peering up at the arc reactor display. "This is your-"

He nodded. "The arc reactor."

"And the rest of this?"

Tony swallowed and flicked his right hand, sweeping it left as the arc reactor hologram before them swished away, bringing his suit to the forefront. He glanced down at Hermione who was peering at it curiously, nibbling her lower lip as she thought.

"Obie said we're ironmongers," said Tony quietly, turning away from Hermione to stare at the armour schematics. "That we're a weapons manufacturer and deviating from that… it won't do Stark Industries any good."

"What did you say to that?"

Tony's shoulder tightened. "We can do better."

He risked a glance at her, and his shoulders loosened at her proud smile and the shine in her eyes. Tony let out a low, near inaudible sigh of relief.

"So how does this factor into that, Tony?" she asked, stepping up at his side, looking over the schematics as well. "Is this the armour Happy and Rhodey told me you were found in?"

"Kind of," replied Tony, answering to both her questions. "I think the key to everything is the arc reactor technology. It's a source of completely renewable energy that has an output beyond anything else out there. A mini-core powered the suit I used to escape the Ten Rings-"

Hermione's mouth pulled down into a deep frown.

"-and I think, using what I have available to me here, I can replicate the suit, but… better," he finished with a tiny shrug. "Obie said to lie low as he dealt with the fallout of me announcing the shutting down of the weapons manufacturing, so… I figured a self-imposed break was permission to work on this."

Hermione scoffed. "Like you need permission to do anything."

Tony flashed her an easy grin.

"Well, if you're going to do this," began Hermione, crossing her arms and leaning back a bit, to tilt her head and look up at him, "You're going to need to replace that, first." She tapped gingerly on the mini core in his chest.

"Oh, I think that'll be the first to do," replied Tony, swiping his hand and showing her the improved, mini arc reactor he had planned. "Say, you've got tiny hands - wanna help?"

The look Hermione gave Tony made him laugh.

Later, after a rather disgusting realization of the inner workings of the older battery in Tony's chest and his mild cardiac arrest, in which Hermione was about ten seconds away from Apparating him to Saint Mungo's, magic secrecy be damned, Tony, in a rather relaxed fashion, began talking Hermione through the Mark II armour.

"I've stripped down the heavier plates from what I'm calling the Mark I, when I was with my -" Tony cleared his throat, "With my hosts, those months ago."

"What'll that do?" asked Hermione.

Tony was wearing a black vest, leaving his arms bare as he moved around the holographic display, collecting parts from bins that DUM-E and U were pushing and moving around the basement lab. He would pick something up from the bin - some type of sheet metal - and then discard it easily enough before moving on to the next.

Hermione leaned against the holographic table, marvelling at the display and wondering why the magical world didn't have something like this - she was determined to bring it to George and Harry's attention at the next Weasley dinner.

California in August was warm, and despite the air conditioning in Tony's Malibu house, she wore shorts and a light blouse to hide her forearm scar, and a pair of strappy sandals with one sliding off her foot as she crossed them behind her, leaning in and zooming in with a pinching motion on one part of the display. "Is this running on the arc reactor you designed?"

"Mmhmm," replied Tony.

He returned and began rotating the display for Hermione to see. "It'll have the same thrust and capabilities that the Mark I had, only… you know, better. Like - in weapons, in flight, in maneuverability."

Hermione shot Tony a look. "You're going to fly?"

He grinned. "Pretty cool, right? Human flight, all down to me. It'll be something for the history books, for sure."

"Tony, why are you building this?" Hermione asked quietly, standing up straight as she surveyed him. "You could've just left things when you returned from Afghanistan; you didn't have to shut down the weapons division, nor did you have to return to the design of the suit that saved you. You could've continued doing what you did before…"

Tony bowed his head a bit, sniffing. He then looked up at Hermione, something hard in his eyes as he focused with intensity on her. "I could've, sure. But people died, Hermione. Those soldiers, they died because of me-"

"They died because some terrorists decided to kidnap you-"

"To use my weapons!" Tony shouted over Hermione, furiously. His hands clenched at his side. "My weapons, Hermione! Stark weapons! They used Stark weapons to kill people, people my weapons were supposed to protect. It was to get to me to make them the Jericho to kill more people. That's on me."

Hermione watched him carefully, before speaking. "I read an article by a reporter before you left. She wrote that peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy. She was paraphrasing you and your father's words."

Tony groaned. "Everhart."

"Yes, that was her," agreed Hermione quietly. "You said something about weapons being needed in this world to ensure peace. Is that what the Mark II is? The bigger stick?"

Tony grimaced, turning back to the hologram. "I - no. I don't think so…"

"What are you going to do with it when you prove successful?" asked Hermione, pressing gently.

Tony glanced at her. "When? You don't think I'll fail?"

Hermione laughed. "Tony, you'll fail a thousand times in making the Mark II, and eventually it'll all come together because you're a stubborn arse that won't stop. You'll make sure it works. So, yes - when it works, what will you do with it?"

"Probably have a party to celebrate," he quipped, "You, me, some of my closest hundred friends, some vodka and G&Ts. Maybe the Mark II could serve the drinks-"

"You're being flippant," sighed Hermione.

Tony fell silent. "I was thinking of going to Afghanistan."

"You'd go back?" the incredulous tone in Hermione's voice shifted quickly. "You'd go back for a reason…"

"I wasn't alone," he admitted, quietly, looking away. His arm muscles flexed as Tony reached out and gripped the edges of the table, focusing his eyes on the display and losing himself beyond it to avoid Hermione's eyes. "When the Ten Rings captured me, I wasn't alone."

Tony risked a glance at Hermione, but she was watching him patiently, without any emotion on her face. He swallowed and continued, "Do you remember Dr. Yinsen…?"

"Yinsen," muttered Hermione under her breath, "Yinsen… from… Bern? All those years ago?"

"You remembered him quicker than I did," replied Tony with a flashed grin at Hermione before he sighed and looked back at the table. He released it and stood straight, but his shoulders bowed a bit. "He was there."

"But - why? He was… he was a doctor, not a scientist!" protested Hermione in confusion.

Tony shrugged. "Dunno. But well, he helped me make the Mark I. But he… uh…"

Unable to continue, Tony tried clearing his throat, but Hermione reached forward and awkwardly hugged Tony from the side, trapping his left arm against her.

Unbidden, tears welled in Tony's eyes, but he refused to let them fall, blinking quickly and gruffly saying, "Anyway. I thought I'd go back and... liberate his village. For him."

"So, you're making the Mark II to fight," murmured Hermione against his shoulder.

"I guess so," he laughed weakly, wetly. "I guess I can take the weapons out of SI, but I can't take the weapons from a Stark."

Hermione hummed thoughtfully, still not moving. "And once you save his village?"

Tony shrugged, but only his right side. Still, Hermione felt the movement through his body. He wasn't one for planning.

"It makes you feel better, doesn't it?" she murmured instead.

"What? What does?"

"Having the ability to fight back when it was taken from you before."

Tony froze.

"The Mark II means you're in control," continued Hermione, her voice low and quiet and nonjudgmental. "That whatever weapons they've been using before, without your consent, in your name - this is you taking that back and showing them that they're wrong. That Stark weapons don't kill; they protect."

"I - I guess -" Tony stuttered for a moment. "I - yeah." He sighed. "I don't want this winding up in the wrong hands like the Jericho could have, or my other missiles did. Maybe… maybe if the Mark II is in mine, well… this weapon? It could actually do some good."

"Didn't I tell you that you are a good man?" chuckled Hermione, releasing him. She reached out and placed a palm on his stubbly cheek, turning Tony's head to face her. She waited until their eyes made contact.

"I don't like the idea of you going to fight." Tony's body tensed under her touch. "But I understand the need to reclaim control, probably more than you realize. Not that you need my permission, but you have my understanding and support."

Tony narrowed his eyes. "But…?"

"There's no but," said Hermione, rolling her eyes and stepping back, taking her hand with her as it slid from Tony's cheek.

Tony didn't remove his eyes from her. "Uh-huh."

"There's not!" protested Hermione, pulling back, affronted. Her hand slid to her shorts pocket, "But…"

"There it is!" crowed Tony.

"I was wondering if you integrate this into your design?" finished Hermione crossly, as she fished out a tiny loop of something from her pocket. It was stringy, frayed brown twine mixed with red and yellow and a few plastic beads.

Tony frowned. "What is that? Good God, it looks like something a cat vomited."

Hermione scowled. "Morgan was making friendship bracelets with Teddy and Victoire, and she made you one."

"It's wonderful," Tony quickly backpedaled, eyeing the bracelet as Hermione placed it on the hologram table. "Beautiful, and absolute stunner and work of art. Morgan will go places if she pursues this as a career-"

"Shut up, Tony," sighed Hermione.

"Yes, dear," the words slipped out quickly and he grimaced.

Hermione sent him a look, one that read I'm onto you.

Tony sent her an easy grin in reply, moving back toward his table and a workbench littered with parts and pieces. He quickly went back to organizing them, becoming absorbed in his work.

In response, she sighed and began backing out of the room. "Just… don't do anything stupid unless I'm here to help. Okay, Tony?"


Hermione sighed again.

"Okay, let's start mark… half a meter back of the center. DUM-E, look for light. Stand back for fire safety. U, roll it."

There was a pause.

"Activate hand controls. We are gonna start up nice and easy, raising 10% thrust capacity to achieve lift."

"Ten; really, Tony? Why not 1 or 2%?"

"Sweetheart, does fortune not favour the bold? Anyway, and three, two, one. Up two? Alright, step back…"

And Tony went up and over his workbench, crashing into the low, sloped ceiling.

Hermione shrieked, something sounding like Latin and the impact Tony was expecting as he flopped back to the hard cement floor was - smoother, comfier - than he was expecting.

He groaned as he lifted his head up. "Maybe 1% to start…"

"What's this now, Tony?"

"This is a flight stabilizer. It's completely harmless."

He flexed his hand and light burst from the circular half-dome in his palm, far more intense and furious compared to a stunner or spell, sending Tony flying backward, as Hermione was becoming to expect.

Tools scattered everywhere, metal clanging as Tony slowly clambered to his feet, hair in disarray and his eyes wide. He looked around the room until he focused on Hermione, standing off to the side, near the door with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed.

"I didn't expect that."

"I'll bet," she retorted.

Tony cleared his throat. "Day eleven, test thirty-seven. Configuration two-point-oh. For lack of a better option, DUM-E is still on fire safety." He glared at the large robotic arm. "If you douse me again, and I'm not on fire, I'm donating you to a city college."

Hermione sighed from off to the side, where she was sitting on top of one of the cleared worktables. "That's because you don't trust me with the extinguisher."

"Hermione, I've seen what Morgan can do to a toaster. And your reaction. It's safer in DUM-E's hands."

Hermione scowled.

Tony released a nervous exhale. "Alright, nice and easy. Seriously, just gonna start off with 1% thrust capacity. Better, right?"


"And three, two one…" the thrusters engaged, and Tony began to lift with a loud sizzle and crackle of energy bursting from the domes on his palms and the heels of the silver boots he wore.

"Tony, you're doing it!" cheered Hermione, gasping from the table. "That's brilliant!"

Tony flashed her a grin. "'Course it is. Again, let's bring it up to 2.5%." Tony began to flail. "Okay, this is where I don't want to be…"

He quickly stabilized himself, and laughing weakly, he said, "We are fine. Okay, we are getting there."

He turned to Hermione, beaming at her. "I can fly!"

She beamed back. "Yeah. You can fly."

The darkness around Tony's face was suffocating, and he was nervous, but he injected as much confidence as he could into his voice. "J.A.R.V.I.S., are you there?"

"At your service, sir," the disembodied voice of his AI replied, just as the darkness receded and a blue-and-gold tinted display popped up as the electronics engaged; the helmet Tony had on came to life, showing the workroom and a nervous Hermione wringing her hands in front of him.

"Tony?" she asked.

"I'm okay. I'm here," he replied, eyes darting around the interior screen. "Engage the head-up display - Check. It works." He laughed. "Import all preferences from home interface."

"Will do, sir."

Grinning behind the mask, Tony looked around, flexing his armour-encased hands. "Alright, what do you say?"

J.A.R.V.I.S. replied. "I have indeed been uploaded, sir. We're online and ready."

Tony nodded. "Start the virtual walkaround."

"Importing preferences and calibrating virtual environment."

"Do a check on control surfaces," ordered Tony.

"As you wish, sir."

Around Tony, panels opened and closed with hisses and the sound of pneumatic power systems. Hermione stared wide-eyed from a few feet from Tony, watching as the panels revealed lines of wire and a blue-tinted sheen underneath, the same colour as the arc reactor.

There was a moment of silence, and then J.A.R.V.I.S. said, "Test complete. Preparing to power down and begin diagnostics."

"Ah, yes... tell you what. Do a weather and ATC check. Start listening to ground control."

Hermione stilled in front of him, beyond the scope of the blue display, noting the terrain beyond the Malibu mansion, the weapons, and systems checks. "Tony…"

At the same time, J.A.R.V.I.S. hedged, "Sir, there are still terabytes of calculations needed before an actual flight."

With a put-upon sigh, Tony ignored her and began, "J.A.R.V.I.S.…"

"No, seriously, Tony. Don't," said Hermione tersely, throwing her shoulders back.

The armour turned its head toward her, and Hermione tried not to shiver at the odd blue light reflected in the eyes. Tony's voice, slightly tinny, emerged. "C'mon, Princess. Sometimes you gotta run before you can walk."

Hermione scowled. "I don't care. Stop being such a… such a Gryffindor!"

"A what?" Tony shook his head. "Never mind. J, ready? And three, two, one…"

Tony placed his palms parallel to the floor with his arms straight along the side of his body as the armour began to gently lift, causing him to hover. Then, he tilted forward and the thrusters engaged, and he was racing out of the lab, along the garage, and up through the garage entrance, Hermione's scream of "TONY STARK" slipping behind him.

Tony let out a shrill cry of delight as he burst up and out, going straight up into the dark Californian sky.

He began spinning, doing aerial acrobatics, pushing the system to its limits. The display kept him abreast of all his systems. Then, a tiny icon appeared at the bottom right, with Hermione's face.


The icon increased in size and then Hermione's irate voice erupted around his helmet.

"Tony Stark-!"

"Hi, sweetheart… um, are you calling me right now?" Tony glanced to the side. "J, why did you let that go through-"

"How else am I supposed to yell at you?" she retorted sharply.

"How about congratulating me instead? The armour works!"

Hermione sighed, some of the ire falling from her voice. "How does it feel, Tony?"

Tony grinned. "It feels like a dream."

"Great, now get your feet back on the ground," instructed Hermione.

"In a minute," replied Tony. "Let's see what this thing can do while I'm here. What's the SR-71's record?"

J.A.R.V.I.S.'s voice broke across both connections, with both Tony and Hermione hearing him. "The altitude record for fixed-wing flight is 85,000 feet, sir."

"Tony, no!"

"Records are made to be broken, Hermione," replied Tony as he flew up, higher and higher. "C'mon!"

Then, suddenly, there was lag and the display he created began flashing red warnings. "Sir, there is a potentially fatal build-up of ice occurring."

Tony swore. "Keep going! Higher! We're iced up, J.A.R.V.I.S.! Deploy flaps."

There was no reply.

"…. J.A.R.V.I.S.? C'mon, we gotta break the ice!"

He swore again as the power cut and he began to plummet, warnings shrieking around him. He began a mad spiral and flail, plummeting through the atmosphere as his heart raced and thundered in his chest.

Hermione's going to kill me, he thought, but then the displays evened out, the cold and ice began to recede, and the thrusters came back online until Tony could take control, bringing him back to his mansion where he hovered above the roof.

With his heart pounding, he ordered, "Cut power," and as the armour went dead, he crashed through the flat roof, the support beams, and crashed into the piano in the living room, and then kept going until he slammed hard into one of his roadsters, denting the car's frame and shattering the windshield. The two cars on either side wobbled from the force of displaced air, and their alarms activated.

Hermione spun from where she was near his worktable, watching a replica of his display from her end, a stick in her hand that she hastily put away as Tony groaned. "Tony! Mer-Jesus, don't do that!"

He flailed a bit trying to roll off the car. "I'm fine, I'm fine. See? J.A.R.V.I.S., note: the main transducer feels sluggish at plus 40 altitudes. The whole pressurization is problematic. I'm thinking 'icy' is a probable factor."

J.A.R.V.I.S.'s dry voice echoed around the lab as Hermione raced forward to help Tony stand straight. "A very astute observation, sir. Perhaps if you intend to visit other planets, we should improve the exo systems."

"Visit other planets, my arse," muttered Hermione while Tony shook his head and retracted the helmet. "That's not happening while I'm around."

"Connect to the CISCO, have it reconfigure the shell metals. Use the gold-titanium alloy from the Seraphim tactical satellite. That should ensure the fuselage integrity while maintaining the power-to-weight ratio. Got it?"

"Yes, sir. Shall I render using proposed specifications?"

Tony grinned, leaning heavily on Hermione as they staggered to the table. "Thrill me."

Around the table, the holographic display changed from blue to a coloured rendition of the armour, with J.A.R.V.I.S. announcing, "The render is complete."

Hermione stared. "Little ostentatious, don't you think?"

Tony vaguely agreed, staring at it as well, but his voice was more sarcastic as he spoke. "What was I thinking?"

"You're usually so discreet," sighed Hermione in irony, looking at the all-gold armour paint that hid the silver from the metal.

Tony snorted. "Tell you what... throw a little hot-rod red in there."

"Yes, that will help you keep a low profile, Tony," said Hermione, nodding sagely. "Now you really are a Gryffindor."

"You keep saying that…"

"The render is complete," announced J.A.R.V.I.S. overtop of them.

The image changed, showing a red suit of armour with gold accents on the arms and legs and helmet, marrying the two colours together nicely, offsetting the blue of the arc reactor core.

Tony slowly grinned. "Yeah, I like it. Fabricate it and paint it."

"Commencing an automated assembly. Estimated completion time is five hours," announced JAVIS, before pausing. "And, Sir? Dr. Granger? Mr. Stane is upstairs."

The two shared a look, Tony still supported by Hermione while holding himself up on the table with the silver armour hand.

"What's he want at this time of the night?" muttered Tony, while Hermione reached forward and began to help DUM-E unbolt and pull the armour pieces off the billionaire.

"You won't know until you go up and ask him," replied Hermione, dropping the heavy plates as she pulled them off.

Tony winced. "Granger, careful. That's a thousand dollars right there."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Sorry." She didn't sound it at all.

When Tony was finally free of his armour, he looked around and said, "Stay here, please," to Hermione, striding away from the lab and up the stairs to his living room, where Obadiah stood, staring at the crushed piano in confusion and amusement. He had a box of pizza in his arms.

Upon hearing Tony, he looked up. "Tony! Just the man I wanted to see. What happened there?"

"I'm getting bored, so I began redecorating," came the flippant reply. "Why're you here?"

"To tell you about the meeting…?"

"Meeting?" Tony stared blankly at the vice-CEO and then remembered. "Oh. How'd it go?"

Obadiah grimaced.

"Oh, went that bad huh?" Tony sighed and walked toward his bar, untouched from his earlier destruction.

"Just because I brought pizza back from New York doesn't mean it went bad," replied Obadiah with his own frown as he followed Tony, setting the box down on the bar top.

"Sure doesn't," sighed Tony, opening the box and taking out a slice. He bit into it and said happily, "Oh, boy, how'd you know I was craving a supreme?"

Obadiah stared at Tony, hands in his pockets. "It would've gone better if you were there."

Tony shrugged. "You told me to lay low and that's what I've been doing. I lay low and you take care of all the…" he waved a finger around in the air.

"Hey, c'mon," replied Obadiah, taking his hands out and trying to placate the Stark heir. "In public, the press…" Obadiah's mouth formed into a line. "This was a Board of Directors meeting."

Tony paused in bringing the slice back up for another bite. He echoed Obadiah in surprise. "This was a Board of Directors meeting?"

"The Board is claiming Post Traumatic Stress. They are filing an injunction."

Tony spun around to stare at Obadiah, pizza forgotten. "A what?"

"They wanna lock you out," explained Obadiah patiently.

Tony scowled. "Why, cause the stocks dip forty points?"

"We knew this was gonna happen," said the vice-CEO calmly, "And it was fifty-six and a half."

"It doesn't matter, we own a controlling interest in the company-"

"Tony, the Board has rights too," sighed the older man. "They are making the case that you and your new direction isn't in a company's best interest."

"I'm being responsible!" protested Tony. "That's a new direction. For me…" He stopped at what he slipped. "I mean, for the company."

Obadiah stared in surprise.

Tony, a bit wide-eyed, stuttered, "I mean, me on the company's behalf being responsible for the way that…"

At the look Obadiah gave him, Tony bitterly laughed, picking up the pizza box and walking away, toward the lab. "Oh, this is great!"

"Oh c'mon, wait! Tony, Tony!"

"I'm busy, Obie."

Obadiah strode forward quickly and caught up with Tony near the end of the living room, catching his arm and pull him to a stop. "Hey, hey, Tony, listen. I'm trying to turn this thing around, but you gotta give me something. I don't begrudge you spending time with Dr. Granger - you've been, uh, special friends, since the beginning, but c'mon. I need something to pitch them. A new weapon-"

Thunder flashed across Tony's face. "No. No. Absolutely not. Forget it. And don't speak about her like that."

Obadiah let go of his arm. "Alright, well… I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. It's your life."

Tony stared at his vice-CEO for a few moments. "Is there anything else? No?"

The other man shook his head.

"Go on, here, you can have a piece. Take two," offered Tony, pushing the box toward Obadiah. "I'll take the rest."

The other man pursed his lips, looked at the box, and then reached in and politely took a slice. "Thank you. Do you mind if I come down there to see what you're doing? I have some time before-"

Tony paused. "Before what?"

There was a strained smile on Obadiah's face. "It's nothing, don't you worry about it."

He began to back away until he was at the lip of the sunken living room, moving toward the door.

Tony frowned, but called, "Then goodnight, Obie," watching until he left, closing the door behind him. The frown was still on his face as he entered the lab minutes later, the pizza box growing cold in his arms.

Hermione looked up. J.A.R.V.I.S. had connected the house's security system for her and she had been watching. "What was that about? Where's he off to? I thought he'd push more to see the lab. He always struck me as a pushy one, ever since he went after George that first meeting…"

Tony shrugged, putting the box down. "Dunno. And he can't help it; it's a businessman's acumen."

"Businessman's acumen?" Hermione raised her eyebrows at stared at her ex-lover. "Tony, please. That man is a shark."

The man scoffed. "He's harmless, a little baby fish, not a shark. He's a pufferfish. A carp. Guppy."

Hermione stared back. "He might not be a shark, Tony, but he's no fish. He's a piranha."

"Oh, come off it, Granger - he's not. I'll prove it," Tony turned away from her. "J.A.R.V.I.S., what's on Obie's schedule? You can hack his blackberry, can't you?"

"Is that a question, sir?"

Tony sent Hermione a smug look as J.A.R.V.I.S. continued, but it quickly faded. "… it's the third annual benefit for the Firefighters Family Fund. The one you started as part of your mother's list of charities to continue."

"I - J.A.R.V.I.S., did we get an invite from them?"

The AI paused. "I have no record of the invitation, sir."

Tony's face shuttered for a moment, and Hermione reached a hand out. "Tony…"

But there was something fierce in Tony's face as he strode away from her and the lab, yanking at the neck of his shirt and pulling it up and over his head in a smooth movement, letting it drop as he called, "Don't wait up for me, honey."

Happy pulled up outside the building with a slow crawl. "You sure you wanna do this, boss?"

Tony, decked out in a suit, frowned. There was something bothering him about Obadiah's visit and Hermione's comments, and this was the only way he knew he could learn what that feeling was telling him.

"I'll be fine Happy," he said instead. "Go circle the block a few times. I doubt I'll be that long."

He exited the car, ignoring the flashes of camera lights and shutter noises, walking the red carpet to where he spotted Obadiah talking to a cluster of men. A few people noticed him, their murmurs increasing in volume as Tony approached the men.

"The weapons manufacturing is…" Obadiah stuttered, pausing as he caught sight of Tony from the corner of his eyes. "-Only one small part of what Stark Industries is all about…"

Tony grinned as he stopped at the vice-CEO's side. "What's the world coming to when a guy's gotta crash his own party?"

Obadiah chuckled, clasping Tony on the shoulder and squeezing tightly. "Look at you! Hey, what a surprise!" he turned to the men he was talking to and said, "I'll see you inside. Gentlemen?"

He steered Tony away, muttering as they walked. "Listen, take it slow, alright? I got the Board where I really want them."

Tony fought back shrugging the man off, giving him a tight smile in response. "You got it. Just cabin fever, I'll just be a minute." He eyed the bar as Obadiah waved him off, heading directly to it as he surveyed the room with the white tablecloths and people in fancy dress. "Give me a scotch, I'm starving."

"Mr. Stark?" the other man at the bar turned with a genial smile toward him.

Tony stared, picking up his drink. "Yeah?"

"Agent Coulson," the man said.

"Oh yeah, the guy from the…" Tony trailed off.

"Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division."

Tony looked away, taking a sip of his drink and then shaking his head a bit. "God, you got... you need a new name for that."

Coulson gave a bland smile. "Yeah, I hear that a lot. Listen, I know this must be a trying time for you, but we need to debrief you. There's still a lot of unanswered questions, and time can be a factor with these things."

Tony took another sip, not wanting to reply.

"Let's just put something on the books. How about the 24th, at 7 p.m. at Stark Industries?" continued Coulson.

Across the room, Tony spotted a redhead in a low back blue dress; he blinked and realized it was Pepper. What's she doing here? She's my assistant, shouldn't she have told me about this?

Distracted, Tony muttered while extending a hand for Coulson to shake, "Tell you what... you got it. You're absolutely right. Well... I'm gonna go to my assistant and we'll make it a date."

He then strode off, leaving Coulson standing at the bar.

Approaching his personal assistant, he decided between a surprised reaction and decided on something a bit more serious. "Pep! I didn't recognize you."

Pepper turned around, blinking in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"Avoiding government agents," retorted Tony, narrowing his eyes a bit. "What about you? How come I didn't know about this?"

Pepper ignored his questions, looking over his shoulder and around. "Are you here by yourself? Is Hermione here?"

Tony frowned. "No, she's back at the house."

Pepper's eyes turned to her boss. "Why? Are you hiding her from the press, too?"

"Ouch," said Tony, his voice low in warning. "That was mean."

Pepper's eyes widened

"Am I making you uncomfortable?" asked Tony

"No, no-"

He continued blithely. "You look great, by the way. I'm supposed to say that, right? Hermione gets on my case when I get rude-"

"Oh, God," Pepper muttered, looking around with wide eyes.

"-But I could fire you, you know, for what you said, if that'd take the edge off," continued Tony, letting her know he didn't appreciate her comments. "We've talked about this. They're off the table for conversation with me, Miss Potts. So, let's discuss why I didn't know about this party. Isn't it your job to tell me these things?"

Pepper grimaced. "Mr. Stane implied you were too busy tonight-"

"And that's where you got Hermione," sighed Tony. "Still, Pepper, you should've said something. Although I suppose, I can do without you."

Pepper narrowed her eyes. "I actually don't think that you could tie your shoes without me."

Tony grinned, but it was a bit dark as he brought his tumbler to his lips to take a sip. "I'd make it a week."

"Really? What's your social security number?" asked Pepper, eyebrows raised.


"Five? You're missing just a couple of digits there. The other eight?"

Tony paused for a moment, letting the banter fall between them. "That's why I got you, for the other eight."

Pepper let out a gusty sigh in relief. "Oh, good job then. Seriously, though, Mr. Stark-"

"Tony." The man ordered, but a familiar blonde caught his eye, now in Coulson's vacant spot at the bar. She reminded him of something, something Hermione had said...

Pepper continued. "Tony. Why are you here?"

Tony turned back to Pepper with a slimy smile that she hadn't seen on his face for some time. "Drink, Pep? I would like a drink. Like… right now. It's very important."

Sighing, Pepper replied, "I think I'm good, Tony. But… best of luck to you. For whatever reason, you have to show up here."

She then turned and walked away, moving in the crowd and leaving Tony to turn back to the bar, a hard look on his face that he masked as he approached the blonde. He overheard her order as he arrived.

"I would like a vodka martini, please. Very dry with olives, lot of olives, like at least three olives," she was saying.

"How specific," grinned Tony, leaning against the bar as he caught the bartender's attention. "Two vodka martinis, extra dry, extra olives, extra fast. Make one of them dirty."

The woman turned around and Tony's elbow nearly slipped off the bar as he realized who it was. "Well... Tony Stark!"

"Oh, hey! Fancy seeing you here…" He paused, scrunching his face up. "Carrie."

The woman's face tightened. "Christine."

"That's right, Berkeley."

"Brown. And you have a lot of nerve showing up here tonight." The reporter leaned forward a bit, showing off her cleavage. "Can I at least get a reaction from you?"

Tony grimaced. "Annoyance. I would say annoyed is my reaction."

Christine's eyebrows went up as she leaned back, crossing her arms. "I was referring to your company's involvement in this latest atrocity."

Tony, sighing, waved his hand between them. "They just put my name on the invitation, I don't know what to tell you-"

Christine spoke over him. "I actually almost bought it, hook, line, and sinker."

Something tightened in Tony's chest. "I was out of town for a couple of months, in case you didn't hear-"

Instead, Christine held out a few small photographs on glossy paper. "Is this what you call accountability?" she demanded, shaking them a bit. "t's a town called Gulmira. Heard of it?"

Tony froze, looking down at the photographs in her hands before taking them. He missed the look of surprise on Christine's face as he did so, flicking through one after the other.

"When were these taken?" he demanded, finally looking up.

"Yesterday," she replied, a bit taken aback.

Tony's mouth tightened. "I didn't approve any shipment-"

"Well, your company did," retorted Christine.

Tony scowled at the reporter, tucking the images to the inside of his jacket pocket. "Well, I'm not my company. Excuse me."

He then began walking quickly through the crowd, eyes searching for Obadiah's height and bald head until he finally found him, near the steps leading out of the building. He barely registered that Christine, the reporters, was following him. There were photographers around him, their lenses bobbing under the weight as Tony approached and the men jostled one another for better angles of the two men.

Obadiah scowled and tossed a hand at them as he said, "Please, do you mind?"

Tony ignored the press - he was used to it - and instead demanded in a low voice, "Have you seen these pictures?"

"What's going on?" sighed Obadiah, glancing at Tony and drawing him away from the cameras. They kept their backs to them as they spoke.

"This!" Tony shoved the photos at Obadiah, who glanced at them and sighed.

"Tony, you can't afford to be this naive."

"I was naive before when they said: Here's the line, we don't cross it, this is how we do business!" the CEO of Stark Industries scowled and muttered lowly. "If we're double-dealing under the table... are we?"

Obadiah stared at Tony for a few, long moments, before turning him around and saying, genially, "Let's take a picture. Come on. Picture time!"

The crowd before them on the steps raced forward, taking their pictures and snapping their shutters as flashes exploded around them. Obadiah kept one arm around Tony's shoulders, pressing the younger man tight against him as they faced the crowd.

Then, the older man leaned close as Tony began his usual 'press smile,' saying, "Tony... who do you think locked you out?"

Tony's smile slipped off his face as Obadiah continued.

"I was the one who filed the injunction against you. It's the only way I can protect you."

The patted Tony's shoulder and then strode down the steps, his bodyguards falling into step behind him as he moved toward his car at the end of the red carpet.

"I'm sorry," he heard Christine say from behind him, but the words barely registered in his mind through the roar in his ears and the haze before him.

Then Happy was there, muttering at him, his hands on him and then he was in his car, and the lights of Los Angeles were pinpricks and starbursts through the tinted windows of the vehicle until he was back at his Malibu home, in the middle of his living room with a worried Happy hovering around him and Hermione before him, her cold hands on his face as she said something to him.

"-ony? Tony? What's wrong?"

"He-" Tony's breath caught high in his throat. "He - he locked me out."

"Who? Who did? Happy, what happened?"

"I don't know, Dr. Granger-"

"It was Obie - Obadiah." Tony cleared his throat and his vision stopped being narrow, allowing him to focus on Hermione's pinched, worried face and the feel of her hands on him. "He made the board kick me out. I'm no longer the CEO of Stark Industries."

Happy swore behind him.

Hermione's eyes went wide. "What?"

Tony nodded, slowly. "I - I lost the company. I lost Stark Industries. I lost my family's legacy…"

He felt his knees go weak and Hermione and Happy helped his sink onto his couch, Happy disappearing to his bar right afterward as Hermione gingerly sat beside him. She was staring up at him.

"The reporter… she showed me images…"

"Of what?" asked Hermione.

Tony pulled the photos from his jacket pocket and handed them to Hermione, who quickly browsed through him, her mouth a tight line until she put them aside. She breathed heavily for a moment or two, staring down at her hands, before looking at him.

"What?" he asked, catching her eyes.

"Well, what is your plan?" she asked in reply. There was something fierce in her eyes.

Tony frowned. "Plan?"

"You're not just going to sit here and wallow, are you?" asked Hermione, eyes narrowing on him. "I didn't think Tony Stark considered himself a loser."

Happy, by the bar, paused in his rummaging to slowly turn around and stare at Hermione.

Tony's mouth dropped down. "I - what?"

"Are you a loser, Stark?" challenged Hermione with a knowing glint.

"No!" Tony struggled to sit up on the couch, mouth agape at Hermione. "What the fuck-"

"If you're not a loser, then how do you plan to fight?"

"Fight?" Tony blinked as he echoed Hermione. "I-"

"Tony," she implored, leaning forward. "This is your company. Your family's legacy. You don't want to make weapons anymore? Good for you. But if you want to make a difference, then what are you going to do about it?"

"I - how, Hermione? How am I supposed to fight?" he asked.

"It's your company, it's yours by right and birth. So, take it back, Tony." Hermione's voice was firm. "You want to make things right? Start with Gulmira. You said that before. You have the means. Now, do it."

"I-" Tony's mouth closed as he soaked up Hermione's words. His self-pity and wallowing in impotency were being shoved aside for anger. Anger at Obadiah, anger at the Ten Rings, anger at the photos Christine Everhart handed to him.

With resolution on his face, Tony stood up and purposefully strode to his basement, Hermione on his heels. Happy, standing by the bar, was left to ask an empty room, "what just happened?"

In the basement, suspended from cables as two robotics arms finished with the paint job, hung his armoured suit. The red and gold gleamed in the low light of the basement, compared to the concrete around it.

"I didn't want to make more weapons," admitted Tony as he stopped in front of the armour, staring at it.

"Maybe it's not about who has the weapons," replied Hermione quietly. "Maybe it's about how we use them and why."

"And this? Is this not going to make me the Merchant of Death?" asked Tony, turning to Hermione, gesturing to the hanging armour.

"You're not selling, Tony," replied Hermione, shaking her head. "Merchant? Ha. Why not be an Angel of Death instead, delivering justice?"

Tony scoffed. "I'm no angel."

Hermione peered at him curiously. "Then what are you?"

"Let's find out," replied Tony, his voice hard.