By Stephensmat.

Disclaimer: The following is entirely unauthorized. It is strictly a fan-work. I do not own the characters or the movie, and I am making no money off it at all.

AN: One or two sections of this were taken from an earlier story of mine, which was inspired by the movie trailer. If there are and flaws in the dialogue or action sequences, please bear in mind that this was done largely from memory after seeing the film. One or two scenes were added to give some background or added storytelling, and these sequences are entirely my own creation as well.

This is a fan novelization of the film, so obviously there are spoilers.

I hope you enjoy, and look forward to reading your reviews.

When Rhodes had found out the Ceremony would be at Caesars Palace, he had left strict instructions with Happy Hogan that Stark be there on time and wearing pants.

Las Vegas was not the most dignified place to hold an award banquet, but the city knew how to entertain.

Entertainment was on the minds of many present at the Apogee Awards Ceremony, but Rhodes was not one of them. Benched though he was from front line duty, Colonel Jim Rhodes was still a career soldier. He had open to him opportunities and prospects that others in his profession could not hope to achieve, but it was because of nights like this that he sometimes wondered if he had been promoted from Air Force Colonel, to CEO babysitter and Press Agent.

As the lights came down, Rhodes allowed himself to slouch at little in his seat, once nobody would be looking. He found himself hoping that Pepper had written the video montage that would introduce the Awards presentation.

Whatever the situation, Rhodes knew that Tony would at least fake a measure of decorum. Most of the time. When it suited him. The whole banquet was organized to give Tony a prestigious award, which was likely the only reason he'd attend. With a little luck, Tony would let that be enough to satisfy his ego.

The voiceover began dramatically as an image of Tony Stark came up on screen. "Tony Stark, Visionary, Genius, American Patriot."

So much for that. Rhodes thought to himself without the slightest surprise.

"Even from an early age, the son of legendary weapon developer Howard Stark, Tony quickly stole the spotlight with his brilliant and unique mind," The voiceover continued dramatically.

The video montage showed a few images of Howard Stark. Rhodes had never met him personally, but his work was required learning in every branch of the Armed Services; and Tony spoke about him often.

"At age four his built his first circuit board. At age six, his first engine. And at seventeen he graduated summa cum laude from MIT."

Rhodes craned his neck and saw the image of a young Tony Stark next to a robotic arm. Tony had built two of them. His prize winning project, now his household assistant. As Rhodes watched, the montage transitioned from the graduation picture to the scan of a familiar headline, reporting the stock drop as Tony's father died. Mr. and Mrs. Stark killed in tragic road accident.

"Then, the passing of a Titan. Howard Stark's lifelong friend and ally Obadiah Stane steps in to fill the gap left by the legendary founder." The image shifted to Forbes Magazine, with an image of Stane, now a good bit older, with a beard and bald head, standing over a globe of the earth.

"And at 21, the Prodigal Son returns to and is anointed the new CEO of Stark Industries." The image on the screen was of a younger Tony, sans his usual mustache and short beard, on the cover of Forbes.

Rhodes inwardly noted that Stark was never a Prodigal Son. He and his dad were great together.

"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 industries, by ensuring freedom, and protecting America and her interests around the globe."

The screen closed the presentation with a long image of Tony looking heroically into the distance, with the flag waving behind him in a brilliant patriotic breeze.

The audience applauded wildly, as the spotlights focused on the table next to the podium.

Rhodes stepped up to the podium, with the silver and glass statuette in one hand. "As liaison to Stark Industries, I have a unique privilege of serving with a real patriot. He is my friend, and he is my great mentor." Rhodes wouldn't have added that last part, but Pepper had written the toast. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to present this year's Apogee Award to Mr. Tony Stark!"

The audience applauded wildly, and the spotlight swung away from Rhodes to the main table, at an empty seat. Rhodes felt his heart stop. Tony, not again...

Next to the empty seat sat Obadiah Stane, the Chairman of the Board for Stark Industries. At least that was what his business card said. Rhodes had been working with Tony Stark and his company long enough to know that Stane's real job was to beat the rest of the shareholders and Board of Directors into submission while Tony made them uncounted millions. Such a job gave him money, practical authority, and very little recognition to those who weren't in the know. Except for nights like this of course.

The audience applauded and Rhodes sighed as Stane came up to the stage took the award off him.

"Thank you, Colonel. This is beautiful. Thank you all very much. This is wonderful," he posed with the award for a moment, and then nodded, as if admitting a great secret. "Well, I'm not Tony Stark," he said in a false-modest manner, as if letting them all in on a private joke.

Amused laughter from the audience.

Stark just can't be counted on, Rhodes seethed, and not for the first time. Rhodes didn't really mind that part so much because he was a civilian, and a damn brilliant one at that. But if Tony had been a soldier, he would have been bounced from the Armed Forces pretty fast.

Stane continued easily. "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."

The fact that Tony didn't mind making fun anybody at all was amusing most time; making fun of Rhodes and the army, Stark's own bread-and-butter, was irritating, but Rhodes had known Tony long enough not to take that personally.

But even Rhodes couldn't believe that Stark was missing his own awards ceremony.

As if Stane read his mind, he shrugged elaborately. "Tony, you know, the best thing about Tony is also the worst thing-he's always working."

The audience laughed and nodded knowingly. Rhodes did too, but didn't bother looking like he knew what Stane meant.

Always working. Rhodes scoffed. Working the high roller tables at CaesarsPalace.

Rhodes did a quick scan of the floor. Poker required patience. Roulette didn't give the opportunity let the tension build for all those watching. Slot machines were cheap and easy, and Blackjack was played sitting down, somewhat limiting the number of women you could have clinging to you while you gambled.

Rhodes ran this checklist through his head and headed for the craps table, glancing at the small signs near each croupier for the maximum allowable bet at the table, quickly bypassing anything with less than three digits, occasionally glancing overhead in search of directions to the High Roller Parlor.

And sure enough, there he was. Tony Stark himself, with security ringing the small crowd of supermodels, celebrity watchers, and fellow gamblers. Stark himself was holding the dice with his left hand, and a movie star with his right. Rhodes had seen her in something popular before. Typically, she looked like a Million Dollars.

"Baby, be my good luck charm," Stark said to her, and she playfully blew on the dice just as Tony noticed Rhodes coming up on his left. "Hey! Rhodey, don't tell me they roped you into this thing?"

Stark rolled the dice, and up popped a sweet eleven. The watching mass of adoration cheered.

"I'm supposed to be presenting you with the award tonight," Rhodes said with thinly veiled frustration. "They told me you'd be honored."

Tony still didn't look away from the craps table. "I am, I am, I will be. When are we doing that?"

Rhodes handed him the statuette. "Congratulations."

Stark didn't even blink before taking the statue and striking a pose for the movie star. "Deeply honored and touched."

The movie star chuckled without taking her hands off him. What was her name? Rhodes was pretty sure she'd won an Academy Award at some point...

"Let it ride!" Stark said to nobody in particular and the woman purred at him as she blew on the dice.

"Six hundred thousand," the croupier reported.

Stark held the dice out to Rhodey, who gave the billionaire his most withering look. "C'mon!"

"I am not blowing on your dice," Rhodes said darkly.

Stark gave him a wounded look, which got him nowhere. He held out the dice to Rhodes again and had his hand batted away. Tony opened his hand at the right moment and grinned. "Rhodes' roll!"

Snake Eyes.

Everyone looked disappointed. Except Rhodes and Stark.

Tony pointed at the table. "See what you did?" he accused. "Ah, well-that's the worst thing to happen, we're O.K.," Then he turned to the croupier. "Settle me up!"

The croupier swept up the pile of chips that Tony had just lost. Stark tossed him a loose chip and left his adoring throngs staring slack-jawed as he walked away.

"Six hundred thousand dollars?" Rhodey couldn't help but repeat as he followed Stark away from the table. It was more money than a career soldier saw in a lifetime.

"I don't know what's better," Stark grinned as he walked off. "The fact that I won that high, or the fact that I don't care I lost it."

Rhodey calculated the odds of making Tony see the light about attending his own award ceremony and decided to use the opening to move on to new business. "Good luck runs out, Tony-sooner or later you've got to take something seriously. Like, for instance, going to Afghanistan tomorrow. I know you don't care, but the US Army is paying a few convoys of soldiers to play bodyguard so that you can demonstrate your new weapons systems. Two-Star Generals are actually going to be in a hot zone for this, and if you don't show up, there will be a bunch of Generals..."

"Pay back Caesar's things to Caesar; I get it!" Tony promised, and demonstrated the noble spirit of the sentiment by promptly giving his Apogee award to a nice man by the slot machines in a sequined toga. The man took the statue with a confused look.

Rhodey couldn't help but smirk. Only Tony Stark could make the guy dressed like Julius Caesar seem confused without trying. "Seven thirty, tomorrow morning, I'll meet you at the plane."

Tony was already waving him off. "Till then."

Stark headed for his car. Happy was already holding the door open for him.

"Mr. Stark?"

Tony didn't turn. His security had already blocked her. "Tony Stark! Christine Everheart, Vanity Fair magazine," she called out.

A reporter. He glanced over at Happy, who nodded briefly. "She's cute."

"She is?" Stark turned and took quick stock of the woman behind that voice. She looked like she had just stepped out of a catalogue. Young, blonde, preppy. Worth his time.

Tony walked back to meet her. "Hi, yeah O.K., go."

Christine took a second to collect herself at being face to face with him "You've been called the DaVinci of our time; what do you say to that?"

"That's absolutely ridiculous, I don't paint," Tony was quick with the modesty.

Everheart's face changed and Tony suddenly realized he'd been baited. "And what do you say to your other nickname, the 'Merchant of Death'?"

Tony grinned lightly. She had spunk. "That's not bad," He looked her over again, and the disdain on her face increased. "Let me guess? Berkeley?"

"Brown, actually," Everheart shot back.

Same difference. "Well, look, Miss Brown..."

She rolled her eyes again.

Tony didn't even bother to react. "It's an imperfect world. The second weapons aren't needed to keep the peace; I promise you I'll start manufacturing bricks and beams for baby hospitals."

Everheart was unmoved. Somehow the disdainful, predatory look worked for her. "Rehearse that in the mirror much?"

Tony didn't hesitate. "Every night before bed."

"I'm sure."

"I'd love to show you."

Everheart rolled her eyes in disgust. "All I want is a serious answer."

Tony moved on to his next piece of pre-prepared sound bytes. "A serious answer? No problem. My father had a saying; 'peace means carrying a bigger stick than the other guy.'"

"Funny, coming from the guy who's selling the sticks."

Next time I come to a casino, I'll have to bring my shield and sword. "You know my father helped stopped the Nazi's. He worked on the Manhattan project. Some people, including your professors at Brown would call that being a hero."

"Some would call it war profiteering," Everheart shot back.

Tony was actually interested enough to take off his designer shades. "Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we've saved with our medicals advancements? Or kept from starvation with our intelli-crops? All those breakthroughs? Military funding."

"You've never lost a moment's sleep in your life have you?"

"I love to lose some with you."

Everheart rolled her eyes in disgust. Again. Does he really think that he's gonna get anywhere with that routine?

It was a four hour drive from Vegas to LA. Plenty of time for an interview.

The trip only took three hours when Hogan was driving.

Not long after that; Stark and Everhart were back at his place, in the middle of a very explosive make-out session, with her on top, forcing him down into the bed underneath her.

It seemed to Tony that Everheart was aggressive in many different ways.

Rolling both of them off the bed was the most effective method of getting her to relax that he could think of. He was right, it made both of them laugh like teenagers.

Christine woke up the next morning, reached over, and found she was alone. She kept her eyes shut and briefly entertained the hope that maybe the night before was just a very sexy nightmare.

"Good morning," The voice of an impossibly cultured English butler said.

Christine woke up fully in a hurry and pulled the sheet up to cover herself. The whole room lit up, as the walls themselves turned transparent all around her, revealing they were actually polarized windows. One of the windows suddenly had a TV signal projected onto it from somewhere and started playing CNN. The window next to it projected a touch screen computer with a list of appointments and house climate controls, with a few personal photos running on a loop.

"It is nine am; it's 72 degrees in Malibu, with scattered clouds," The butler's voice continued. "Surf conditions are fair with waist to shoulder high lines; High tide will be at…"

Everheart tuned it out when she realized there was nobody in the room. In fact there was nothing in the room. The bed was the only piece of furniture; which seemed completely in Tony's character.

But for the technological wonders of the windows; it was the view that floored her. How had she not noticed this on her way in? The house was at least three stories, set into the cliff with ocean views and LA across the bay.

Everheart couldn't quite bring herself to admit it, but she was impressed by the house. Stark Industries had its technical and production plants in California, and the business side of it, including the offices and administration were closer to the money in New York. Tony had told her on the way here in the limo that he had the industrial complex here in California because he lived here; and he found New York too cold to find attractive sunbathers all year round.

But of course, Christine hadn't found that to be charming at all.

Her clothes were gone. A fact that made her skin crawl slightly; but mainly because she was certain she had them when they came into this room the night before.

His shirt was the only thing within reach, and she quickly put it on. The windows were probably opaque from the outside, but she felt stripped naked enough without dressing in front of a view like that.

The entire top floor was the bedroom, and Christine padded downstairs to the main house. "Tony?" She called.

No answer. She wondered where a girl could get some breakfast in this place. Maybe she could track down the butler that voice belonged to. Still no sign of her host.

Christine tiptoed past the loveseat, (which she remembered vividly) then past the indoor water feature, (which she simply couldn't believe as it sat right next to the downstairs staircase) "Tony?" She called again, getting nervous now. She still despised him and everything he stood for, but there was still no sign of anyone. In a way, that was almost stranger than having house servants in the bedroom bringing her coffee and newspapers. Isn't that how wealthy people lived?

Over to the left of the hallway, opposite yet another stunning view was a panel that Everheart didn't recognize. It was lit with a blue glow, and had something that was either a dial, a button or a speaker on one side. Christine figured it must be the house intercom and slowly approached it, trying to figure out how to use the thing. She was beyond embarrassed at how the evening turned out by this point and just wanted her clothes back.

"You are not authorized to be in this area!" Snapped the butler voice; it came from everywhere and Everheart jumped back from the panel.

"That's just Jarvis."

Everheart jumped and spun in the same movement. A slim woman, in a good business suit, with light-red hair, had come into the room silently behind her. "He runs the house," She continued. "I have your clothes here, dry-cleaned and pressed, and there's a car and driver waiting outside to take you anywhere you want to go."

The way the woman dealt with Christine was professional and purely routine; and Everheart felt her pride stung again. This was clearly just another day working for Tony Stark. The red-headed woman was known to anyone who knew Tony Stark personally. Everheart had noticed her in some of the pictures in the bedroom. And even if her face wasn't familiar, the Bluetooth headset under her somewhat messy bangs and the dry-cleaning bag over her arm would have been a fair indication.

"You must be the famous Pepper Potts," Everheart said, slipping back into unimpressed reporter mode.

"Indeed I am."

The disdainful look was firmly in place again. Maybe it lost something given her current outfit. "All these years and Tony still has you picking up the dry-cleaning?"

Pepper didn't flinch. Inwardly she had as much disdain for the reporter as Everheart seemed to have for everything; but she fought to keep from laughing in the woman's face. Blondie, She said to herself. It takes a very special kind of arrogance to stand there after getting caught by a complete stranger wearing nothing but my boss's shirt and still managing to look down your nose at the woman holding your only clothes.

Keep it professional, Pepper. "I do anything and everything Mr. Stark needs me to do...occasionally that includes taking out the trash." Well, mostly professional. She smiled sweetly. "Will there be anything else?"

Everheart flushed and took the dry-cleaning bag off her with a grimace.

Pepper waved her out of the room and went downstairs the private stairwell behind the fountain to Tony's workshop.

Everheart darted back upstairs; found the bathroom and seethed. She took a moment to get her footing again. She still despised Stark and everything he stood for and made money from. In fact her opinion of the man hadn't changed in the slightest during the entire night. If Stark thought she was going to be more favorable to him in her article just because...

Everheart suddenly realized that she had clean forgotten about the interview. Oh hell, how am I going to explain this?

Virginia 'Pepper' Potts went down the stairs to the workshop door, and keyed in the code at the keypad projected onto the glass. Before she even got to the door, she felt her eardrums vibrate from the heavy metal music playing. She scanned through the glass wall and door halfway down the stairs. As usual, the boss was studying a schematic on a touch screen.

"Give me the exploded view please," Tony said to Jarvis while keying some commands into the 3D sketchpad.

The screens showed the engine design open, and make each part visible. "There is still low pressure in cylinder three," Jarvis reported.

Tony sighed and started tinkering, when the workshop door opened and his music switched off. "Don't stop my music," Tony said without turning around from his design pad. He already knew who it was. There was only one person other than him that had that code.

"You are supposed to be halfway around the world," Pepper told him.

"You trying to rush me out of here?"

"Your flight was scheduled to leave an hour and a half ago."

"That's funny. I thought with it being my plane and all; that it would just wait for me to get there."

And so begins round three thousand two hundred something of the ongoing fight between Tony 'Tiger Shark' Stark and 'Pepper Spray' Potts. Pepper reflected internally. "Tony, I need to speak to you about a couple of things before…"

"I mean, doesn't it kind of defeat the purpose of having your own plane if it departs before you arrive?" Tony continued, shutting down his 3D sketch pad.

Pepper sighed and moved on as he stood up and headed to the other end of the garage; keeping in step beside him. "There are a few items I need you to-"

"You trying to rush me out of here?"

"Larry called," Pepper pressed, trying to keep him focused. "He said that there's a buyer in the wings for the Jackson Pollock, do you want it yes or no?"

"What did you think of it?" Tony put the question to her, mostly to see if she'd react. "Is it a proper representation of his Spring period?"

"Well, actually the Springs is the neighborhood in East Hampton where he lived and worked, not 'Spring' like the season, and um...I think it's a good example, I think there are others that are better representations of the..." Pepper floundered. "I think it's ridiculously overpriced," She finished.

It was a Jackson Pollock. For someone with as much knowledge of the art world as Tony, one piece of impressionist art was indistinguishable from the other, but Tony had not quite been able to impress on Pepper that 'ridiculously overpriced' was rich folk code for 'better than the other guy.' "I need it. Buy it. Store it."

Pepper sighed and moved to the next item on her list.

"The MIT commencement speech-"

"Is in June!" Tony shot back, remembering that one. "Don't harangue me about that."

"Well, they're haranguing me, so-"

"Then absorb and deflect don't lay it all on me."

"So I'm saying yes. Now there's-"

Tony made it to the espresso machine against the far wall, grabbed a cup and glanced over his shoulder at her. Her usual standard of banter was off today. "Why are you trying to rush me out of here?"

"I'm not, it's just-"

"What, you have plans?" He was more interested than he should be, but he wasn't really sure why...

"As a matter of fact I do."

"I don't like it when you have plans."

"I'm allowed to have plans on my birthday," Pepper protested.

Stark blinked. "It's your birthday?" he said before he could help it. "I knew that," he covered, and knew she wouldn't buy it. "Already?"

Pepper flushed. It's not like he had any reason to remember. He probably would have forgotten his own more often than not if it wasn't for the fireworks display. "Yeah, isn't that funny? It's the same day as last year."

Stark's poker face was back in place. But inwardly he felt panicked for a reason he couldn't really place. Omigod! I forgot! "Well get yourself something nice from me," He said aloud.

"Oh, I did," Pepper said blandly.

Stark relaxed. It wasn't just that Pepper was the only woman he kept on speed dial, and it wasn't the fact that she had been in his life longer than anybody else, and it wasn't that she alone had the power to send him to Antarctica for a month with nothing but sunscreen in his luggage. He was glad she wasn't mad at him. "And?"

"It was very tasteful, very elegant," Pepper blushed, a little shy suddenly. Her voice hadn't lowered shyly when faced with the mostly naked woman upstairs but now it did. "Thank you, Mister Stark."

"You're welcome, Miss Potts," Stark returned in the same quiet tone, more relieved. He always had the best taste in birthday gifts when Pepper did his shopping. He tossed back the espresso and gave her the small cup. "I have a plane to catch."

Pepper briefly wondered if he'd run into the reporter when he got dressed to go. But then, Tony hadn't even asked about her.

It's because he's already forgotten her name. Pepper thought, not even noticing the look of relief on her face. Same as always.

Rhodes was standing at the door to Stark's Private plane, checking his watch for the fourth time in as many minutes, when he saw the silver Audi come screaming up from the other end of the airport.

At least he has the decency to look like he's in a hurry. Rhodes thought, when the black Rolls Royce from the night before came charging after it.

The Audi was belting at a pretty good clip, hugging the ground like it was on rails, even when it spun into a perfect slide.

Both cars came to a halt about fifteen feet from the plane, the silver car at least five seconds ahead of the Rolls Royce.

Rhodes got the point and made his way down the staircase to meet them as both cars' drivers' door opened. Tony was driving the Audi, and his chauffer 'Happy' Hogan was driving the Rolls.

"I thought I lost you there about ten minutes ago!" Stark whooped.

Hogan was laughing too. "You did sir, I got blocked by the lights; had to cut down Mulholland Drive."

"Three hours late?!" Rhodes snapped.

"I got caught doing a piece for Vanity Fair," Tony explained, ever so reasonable.

"For three hours?"

"I'm here now, let's go."

Rhodes sighed darkly as Hogan handed Stark his bag; and Tony led the way up the stairs and into the plane.

Tony sat down in one of the four seats the private jet had, and Rhodes too the seat opposite him as the plane's engines spooled up for takeoff.

Twenty minutes later, the stewardess was bringing around hot towels and drinks. Tony took one easily.

Rhodes sighed in disappointed disgust without looking up from his paper.

"What you reading, platypus?" Tony asked.

Rhodes shook his head without meeting Tony's eyes. "Nothing."

"C'mon sour patch," Tony prodded. "Don't be mad."

Rhodes kept shaking his head. "Don't do that. I told you: I'm not mad, I'm indifferent."

"I said I was sorry!" Stark protested. He turned to the Stewardess. "Really! I told him I was sorry."

The Stewardess dutifully nodded in agreement.

"I mean you don't respect yourself, so I know you don't respect me."

"I respect you!"

"I'm just your babysitter, so hey; you need your diaper changed, let me know and I'll get you a bottle O.K.?" The stewardess brought around the tray of hot towels and Rhodes took one without losing stride.

"Heat up some Sake would you?" Tony called after her.

She nodded and went back to the front of the plane.

"We're not drinking, we're working right now!" Rhodes hissed. "And you are constitutionally incapable of being responsible."

"What?" Tony said as Rhodey glared at him. "It would be irresponsible not to drink now."

Stark meant it too. They were going to be in the air thirty hours and it was going to be noon the whole time.

Rhodes waved off the young woman as she offered him a drink. Rhodes was a military man. Discipline and duty were the keys to his entire way of life. Having a private plane with two passengers and three flight attendants was laughable. Racing two cars to get to a flight you were two and a half hours late for was disagreeable. Drinking hard liquor before ten am was frowned upon. And in the military, 'frowned upon' was code for 'don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.'

Stark shook his head wearily. Rhodey needs to loosen up for his own good. Why does it always fall to me to make it happen?

Then again. Stark noted. Since when do I need a reason?

An hour later, Rhodey was merrily drunk, and reflecting on how brilliant Tony was to have a retractable dance pole and a disco ball in the plane. The Stewardesses seemed to think so too. Tony had been feeding them liquor at about the same rate as he drank it down himself, and they were more than enjoying the party.

Still, Rhodes felt it to be his responsibility to teach the man that there were such things as boundaries. To that end, he was drinking a beer, and not hot Sake; no matter what Tony said, he'd had one beer after another in open defiance. He also needed to teach the man a few things about responsibility. "Look Man, like I told's like I said...When I put this uniform on, you know what I think; it means every guy who ever put on-Are you listening to me?"

"You aren't just a little bit interested in the show going on right now?"

Rhodey was, but still, there was a principle at stake.

In the clarity that came with being pleasantly smashed, Rhodey noticed that Stark Stewardesses sounded like a great name for an escort service, and then he became aware that there were three such lovely ladies dancing around in front of them. A blonde, a brunette, and a redhead.

Tony always did like to have his collections complete.

"Hey-y-y-y Tony?" Rhodey said happily over the 70's disco music.

"Yeah Rhodey?" Tony slurred back; more interested in the show going on in front of them.

"Did you design the uniforms too?" He said pointing at the stewardess of the left of the pole.

Tony chuckled. "Nah-h-h-h. You'd be amazed how easy it is for a flight hostess' uniform to look like a stripper costume once you put them next to a metal pole," He leaned over and whispered conspiratorially. "It's the little hats."

Rhodey cackled, finding that hilarious. "Confess man, these girls have never worked for an airline in their life have they?"

The stewardesses found that to be as hilarious as Tony did.

Stepping out of a climate controlled airplane to the middle of the Afghanistan summer sun was always a shock. Rhodes felt sweat break out across his back.

Stark was wearing an actual three piece suit and tie, plus a bullet-proof vest underneath, and if he even noticed the temperature it didn't show.

Rhodes could never believe it when this happened. In the space of time it took to step out of the plane, to the moment he reached the bottom of the stairs, Tony Stark became crisp, professional, precise and impossibly persuasive, even when shaking hands with Generals and Afghani Peacekeepers.

Rhodes was struggling with a hangover every time he finished taking a trip with the man, the three Stewardesses still hadn't woken up after the party; but Tony knew when he was 'on'.

The consistent ability to come to attention with almost military efficiency was one of the very few reasons Rhodes had yet to shoot his friend.

Stark always was spectacular at selling his own greatness.

"Is it better to be feared, or respected?" he had put the question to the assembled military brass at the test site. "And I say, 'is it too much to ask for both'? With that in mind, I humbly present the crown jewel of Stark Industries' freedom line. It's the first missile system to incorporate our proprietary repulser technology. 'They' say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon that you only have to fire once. That's how dad did it, that's how America does it," He waited for a perfect beat as the General's swelled about a size. "And it's worked out pretty well so far," he finished.

With a flourish he directed their collective attention to the Tri-Missile Launcher.

"Find an excuse to fire off one of these, and I personally garuntee you that the bad guys will be too scared to come out of their caves," he nodded at Rhodey, who hit the button and one of the Three Missiles roared to life and soared into the air.

The Missile arced high, and every eye followed it. Stark did not. He was counting down in his head.

Right on cue, the Missile fuselage splintered into two dozen smaller pieces, and glided into perfect formation, a straight line of micro-missiles, with the centre massive charge still on target.

"For your consideration..." Tony raised his voice dramatically, and he spread his arms, as the missiles detonated against the ground behind him in a perfect row of fire and smoke. "The Jericho!"

Tony bowed his head without lowering his arms, taking a bow, just as the shockwave hit them, blowing the soldiers caps off.

The blast was impressive, he delivery perfect, and the missile was big. Tony already knew that he had them.

Some of the soldiers had bottles of champagne with them. Tony wasn't about to drink it. He waved over a large weapons case, and flipped the latches open. A wave of dry ice rolled out into the desert heat. "Throw one of these in with every 500,000 purchased," He quipped to the generals, as he pulled out a tumbler full of scotch on the rocks. "To Peace," he toasted lightly.

Tony's Sat-Phone rang, and he answered it. Obadiah was on the vid-phone screen; still in bed, barely awake.

Stark did the math in his head and figured out the time difference. "Obie, what're you doing up?"

"Wanted to see how it went."

"I think it's gonna be an early Christmas."

"That's good," Stane answered, already putting his own handset down. "See you when you get back."

"Stane?" Tony asked, making the other man pause. "Why aren't you wearing the pajamas I got you?"

Stane hung up on him.

By that time, Stark had made it to the convoy. Three soldiers were waiting in the Humvee already. Tony got into the back, tumbler still in hand, and shut the door. Rhodes was running up to catch them before they left him behind.

Tony stuck his head out the window. "Oh I'm sorry; this is the 'Fun-Vee'," He waved his friend off. "The 'Hum-Drum-Vee' is back there."

Rhodes would have been outraged, but had to admit that a few hours with the 'Tony Stark Show' in front of his subordinates would probably be enough to drive him nuts.

Stark saw the same thought behind his friend's eyes and grinned. "See you soon."

An hour later and Tony felt like he was in an isolation chamber. 'Back in Black' by AC/DC was playing from the CD player that somebody had brought, but it still felt like suffocating silence. His guards were not talking, to him or each other. They were all largely identical to each other. In a tailored three piece suit and tie, to say nothing of the scotch, Tony stuck out like a sore thumb. The soldiers were all bundled up in heavy combat gear, standard issue and somewhat disconcerting. The one on his left, probably all of nineteen, with a GI Joe helmet that didn't really fit and 'Forrest' on his nametag was sneaking nervous glances at him...What had the other soldier called him on the way in? Jimmy?

Tony understood that soldiers in Hot-Zones were pretty tight-knit, and the sudden inclusion of an outsider, a civilian no less, and for that matter a billionaire, wearing clothes worth more than any of them got paid in a decade had to be a cramp in their usual style. Tony figured they were keeping it professional around the civilian, and made a scene of studying his tumbler; letting them get used to his presence. A fine film of frost had collected over the glass, the result of coming out of a chilled case into the Afghanistan sun.

"He doesn't sweat," Pratt, the soldier directly in front of Tony whispered over to the driver. "I never saw anyone who don't sweat. The ice in his glass isn't even melting!"

Rameirez, the driver, shushed him as quietly as possible. They were the first words spoken in almost an hour.

Tony caught Pratt's eye in the rearview mirror, and took a long sip of his tumbler.

Pratt looked hard at the dashboard suddenly, embarrassed that he'd been caught.

For crying out loud, what am I the school principal? Tony thought in disbelief. These guys are worse than Rhodey. "I feel like you're driving me to court martial. This is crazy. What did I do?" Silence. "I feel like you're gonna pull over and snuff me. What, you're not allowed to talk?"

"No, we can talk," Forrest said, next to him, and then looked embarrassed that he had dared to speak.

"Oh, so it's personal then?" Tony pressed. One or two smirks.

"Nah, you intimidate them," Ramirez volunteered from the drivers seat.

"Good god! You're a woman!" Tony exclaimed in apparent shock. "I'm mean; I honestly could not have picked that."

Even Pratt chuckled this time. Rameriez seemed tickled too.

Work the opening Tony, work the room. "I mean, I would apologize," Tony continued. "But isn't that what we're going for here? I thought of you as a soldier first."

More smirks, a little stronger this time. Ramirez fought for professionalism again. "I'm an airman."

"Well you actually have excellent bone structure there," Tony started laying it on thick. "I'm having a hard time not looking at you now. Is that weird?" He batted his eyes at her dramatically.

It was enough. They all burst out laughing and the atmosphere in the Humvee relaxed instantly. Tony took another sip, proud of himself. The gang was relaxed, chuckling, making jokes with each other.

Pratt finally gave in and turned around in his seat. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Yes!" Tony said, pleased. "Please do."

"Is it true you went twelve for twelve with the Maxim cover girls last year?"

"That is an excellent question," Stark had to grin. Almost everyone had asked him that one at some point. Even Pepper wanted to know, though for her it seemed to be disgust and not awe. "Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict, but the Christmas cover was twins."

Jimmy on his left had slightly raised his hand.

Stark gave him a perturbed glare. "Are you kidding me with the hand raised here?"

Jimmy grinned. "Is it cool if I take a picture with you?"

"Yes," Tony said without any hesitation. "It's very cool."

Jimmy Forest slid over next to him, and handed a digital camera forward to Pratt.

"I don't want to see this on your MySpace page," Tony told him firmly.

Forest nodded and put up a Peace Sign.

Tony and Stane had spent a good amount of time chuckling that the Peace sign was originally a war slogan. V For Victory.

"Please, no gang signs," Tony told him sternly, and Jimmy very quickly dropped his hand. Tony smirked. The kid was still a little on edge. "No, I'm kidding, put it up!" He joshed. "Peace. I love peace. I'd go out of business for peace."

Jimmy grinned and raised the V again.

Pratt was having trouble with the camera. It was Stark Industries issue, but Tony waited patiently while Jimmy warned his friend about hitting buttons and changing settings...

An instant later, the jeep in front of them exploded.

Tony felt his eyes bulge. The soldiers were stunned too, but they snapped to work.

Ramirez worked the wheel, but the wreckage in front of them was blocking the road too closely.

"CONTACT LEFT! CONTACT! CONTACT LEFT!" Screamed Ramirez, but into a radio or two her passengers was hard to tell.

"What's going on?" Tony said, and couldn't hear his own voice.

Ramirez opened her door, rifle first, and was cut down before even getting a foot on the ground.

Ramirez was dead. Ramirez was the driver.

The driver was dead. The Humvee had stopped.

"Jimmy; Protect Stark!" Pratt snapped and suddenly there were rifles everywhere.

More explosions, this time from behind them.

Gunfire, fast and harsh.

Pratt was out of the Humvee, crouched behind the hood, firing steadily, when suddenly his face disappeared and the windshield shattered in the same instant.

Jimmy saw this and worked his rifle again. "Sonofabitch!" Jimmy hissed.

Tony caught a glimpse of himself in the rear-view mirror. Who's that? Oh. That's me. Is that me? I don't look like that, do I? My mouth is hanging open; my eyes are too big and round...

"Get down!"

Tony ducked as the last of his escort had to join the fight.

Wait! Don't leave me! Don't leave me alone! He could hear the terror in his thoughts, and a second later in his voice. "Jimmy! Waitwaitwait!"

"Stay! Here!" Forrest yelled at him as he slammed the Humvee door shut.

He stepped out of the Humvee, guns blazing.

And instant later, Jimmy and the wall of the jeep had been ventilated by a spray of bullet-holes that came right through the Army Vehicle like it was made of paper.

Get out of the Humvee. The thought came to him. Get out of the Humvee!

Tony got out of the Humvee fast. He didn't know where his legs were going, he didn't know down from up…

The whole convoy had stopped, they were firing like mad at something, but Tony couldn't for the life of him figure out what.

More gunfire. Smaller arms this time. The jeep mounted weapons weren't firing any more.

Tony backed away from the jeep as fast as he could, off the trail, to the rocks.

He threw himself behind a rock and yanked out his Sat-Phone. Obadiah's number is pre-programmed. Or Pepper! Call Pepper and tell her-


Tony spun at the sound. A Mortar shell had dug itself into the sand near his rock. It was a smooth cylinder with two rounded ends...

Tony actually had to step closer, disbelief and adrenaline shutting his brain down. It had the Stark Industries logo etched on the side in plain English.

A low electronic whine came from the mortar.

Stark Industries anti-personnel mortar. Tony thought. Works from a timer, instead of exploding on impact. Drives the target out of hiding before the blast throws shrapnel-

Appropriately, the mortar shell exploded right as that thought hit him.

Tony felt his body get picked up by half a dozen tiny agonizing pins, and suddenly Tony was airborne...

He didn't feel himself hit the ground. He looked down at his chest and saw holes in his shirt. He clawed his shirt half open to see if the bulletproof vest held.

As blood bubbled up from underneath the vest he passed out.

In a nightmarish delirium he was aware of his body being cut into again and again. He screamed hysterically from the agony and the panic as some people tied his body down and somebody else was screaming orders.

A cloth covered his nose and mouth and a foul smell made the world spin.

Only half conscious, and feeling the room spin, Tony felt cloth over his face. He would have panicked, but he was too out of it to move, when whatever was covering his face was removed, and Stark was suddenly staring into bright lights.

There was a camera in front of him, and Tony could feel his entire upper body weaving back and forth, punch drunk from the trauma and the chloroform.

There were people surrounding him, they were armed.

My personal stylist must be present at all interviews. He thought distantly, confusing this nightmare with an old negotiation regarding an interview with People Magazine.

The shouting continued, and the bag got put back over his head, and Stark passed out before he was able to wake up enough to be sure this was really happening.


Tony Stark awoke to pain, delirium wiping out the memory. How had he come here? He remembered there was fire, he remembered there was darkness. His chest hurt like he was having a continuous heart attack.

Tony gasped for air, got nothing, choked and gagged on nothing. His hands flew to his face on instinct and he choked again. His arms hurt like they were in fire. His hands touched something that didn't belong, and he grabbed it. His mind was too fogged to remember his own name, but he knew that there shouldnt be a tube up his nose; and he started pulling.

He gagged again, at least twice as he pulled the plastic tubing from his nostrils. The tube was much longer than it should have been. How long have I been out? Tony wondered. They're feeding me through a tube going up my nose and down my throat.

With the tube gone, Tony started gulping air. It was a bit easier to breathe now. Just the pain stopping him now, and he collapsed backwards against the cot.

There was a calm, almost cheerful whistling noise coming off from the left, incogrous with the dark Hell Stark found himself in.

I'm dead. Tony thought. I'm dead, and I'm in hell, and there isn't a single appropriately attractive immoral woman to be seen.

No. Not hell, it was far too cold. Every panicked breath created a cloud of steam.

His fingers were painfully numb.

There was a mug with water on it next to his cot. He reached for it, but his arm spasmed and he knocked it onto the ground.

He reached over further and felt a tug on his torso stopping him from turning over. There was something attached to his chest.

The merry tune being whistled was punctuated by a light buzzing noise.

Two wires were hooked up to the bandage over his chest, and Tony followed them to a car battery.

Horrible images of torture by eletrocution filled Stark's mind, and he reached for the wires.

His chest hurt like he was having a continuous heart attack. His fingers clutched at his torso, and he pulled at the wires.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

He fought to turn his head. An older man, impeccably neat, was shaving with an electric razor. How could anyone be clean and neat in this place?

Stark returned his attention to the bandage and pulled at it, the thin material parted under his nails...and his fingers touched metal. He ripped his shirt open. A round metal plate had been cut into his skin, just beside his heart

Tony felt the panic grabbing at him again, and his steamy brath came faster. What had they done? They had cut him. Cut into him.

The thought got stuck in his head. They had gotten to him. They had cut their way into him. Inside him. He couldn't escape because they had put something in him. Bomb? Tracking device?

The thought ran around his head endlessly, and after a while Tony had exhausted himself with the terror. He fought to sit upright.

The old man was still across the cave, and Tony took a look at it. The room was large, filled with benches and assorted debris that he couldnt begin to guess at.

His companion in this place was tall and thin, with close cropped hair and a neatly shaved face. This clothers were neat and clean but clearly the only ones he had, for the colours were faded and there were rips at the seams. Nonetheless, the man carried himself with utter calm and poise.

Tony didn't much care however. He sat upright on his narrow bunk, tracing the circular lump of metal that had been foced into his chest.

"What the Hell did you do to me?" Stark gravelled. He could barely make his tongue move.

The old man was stirring a pot with some kind of stew in it, over to one side of the cave, where a hollow had been cut into one of the rock ledges and a fire lit inside. Until Stark spoke, he had been whistling merrily, and Stark almost hated him for appearing cheerful. "What I have done is to save you life," He said easily. "I removed all the shrapnel I could, but there's a lot left and it's moving into your atrius septum," He pulled a small diry jar out of his pocket. "Here, wanna see? A souvinier!" He tossed the jar to Stark.

Tony looked in the jar and winced. The pieces that weren't shattered and broken were triangular shaped, and had grooves cut into the flat sides. He recognised the design. He had been the one to design it. He wasn't hallucinating then; it was a Stark Industries Mortar.

"I've seen many wounds like that in my village," The old man continued. "We call them the walking dead, because it takes them a week for the barbs to reach the vital organs."

Tony remembered. He had come up with that innovation for urban warfare. Civilians and friendlies would go to a doctor, escaped enemy combatants who did not turn themselves in would be...

Tony stopped thinking like that. "What is this?" he pressed, tapping his chest.

"That, is an electromagnet, hooked up to a car battery. And it's keeping the shrapnel from entering your heart."

The scientist in Tony was impressed. The engineer in Tony started laughing. He could have made this better.

The prisoner in Tony saw a small red light up above and followed it to a CCTV camera mounted in the corner.

The old man saw the direction of Stark gaze and nodded agreeably. "That's right. Smile." He said cheerfully.

There was a quiet moment as the surgeon stirred the pot. Tony could feel his stomach growling, but was acutely aware that there weren't likely to be any cows or chickens or sheep nearby. The meat he could smell coking could have come from any number of things, and the more possibilities Stark came up with, the less he felt like eating it. He also knew that if the old man didn't offer him any, he fight for it.

"We met once you know. At a technical conference in Bern," The man said.

"Don't remember," Stark mumbled sullenly.

His doctor found that amusing. "You wouldn't. If I had been that drunk, I wouldnt have been able to stand, much less give a lecture on integrated circuits."

"Where are we?" Stark interrupted again, calculating how long it would take Rhodes to find him.

A hatch opened in the door suddenly, and an order was shouted at them in a foreign language.

The old man rushed over to Stark. "Do as I do!"

The older man put both hands on his head in a classic surrender pose, and Tony mimicked it with great difficulty.

The door opened, and in came a somewhat heavyset man, with a neatly trimmed beard, and a guard on either side. His manner was flamboyant, and the way he spread his arms too wide and grinned too widely made Stark think of the way Genghis Khan must have been. Even so, his men glanced back and forth at each other as he flaunted himself, rolling their eyes slightly.

But Stark had focused on the weapons they were carrying. He recognized the scopes on top and the barrels as his own design. "Those are my guns," He whispered harshly. "How did they get my guns?!"

Kid-Khan, as Tony dubbed him, whoever he was, made his way to Stark, and spoke in some rapid-fire language that Tony couldn't hope to follow.

Fortunately, the old man could. "He says welcome, Tony Stark. America's most famous mass-murderer."

More rapid fire orders, and the old man started giving a simultaneous translation. "He is honored. He wants you to build him a missile you were demonstrating. The Jericho Missile. For him," Kid-Khan handed him a photo. It was a promotional line photograph; exactly like the ones he had told Rhodey to send his Generals.

Tony's eyes flashed. "I refuse."

The veneer of over-the-top joviality dropped from Kid-Khan's face with impossible speed.

It seemed like only seconds later, when Tony was being taught the error of his reasoning.

Stark once discovered that dunking his head in a bucket of water was the fastest possible way of waking up in the morning. Having his head held under the filthy water in this cave was enough to make him swear off ever doing it again.

He was held down a bit longer than expected and freaked out. Thrashing to raise his head got him nowhere.

Panic! No oxygen!

For a second, he thought he heard a woman call him name. She sounded familiar.

The terrorist let him up enough to give him half a gulp of air; before straight back down under the water again. They shoved him down too far and his head slammed against the bottom of the tank and his mouth opened in reaction.

Panic! No oxygen!

For a second, the thought his was seeing spots before his vision, but they resolved themselves into shapes. He saw his chest plate, a memory from when it was being put in his body. He remembered the operation. The chest plate being burned around the edges to cauterize the wounds...He could make it better.

They let him up for a gulp of air; giving him just long enough to scream; before shoving him straight back down under the water again.

Panic! No oxygen!

Power. The word floated up into his mind. They have the power. I have no power. I have the power of a car battery that will only let me live a week. I need more power, give me back my power!

And with that, came the idea.

A moment later he was upright, and a bag was put over his head. He felt something pushed into his hands. It was the car battery; and he clawed at it, clutching it to his stomach madly. If he dropped this thing he was a dead man.

The two guards who had his arms in their grip were dragging him down a stone corridor, and he stumbled along with them, blind inside his mask, but squinting through the burlap, he could see light ahead. Go into the light, huh? No, that only happens at the end if you were a good boy, so at least I know I'm not dying right away…

Several feet later his arms were released, and the bag was yanked off his head. Tony fought not to scream in the bright Afghanistan sunlight after feeling his way around the cave.

Someone batted him forward, and the old man was there, helping him walk forward as Tony's vision cleared. They were in a cleft between two stone mountains. The entrance to the caves was right at the back, far from the narrow canyon out, wherever that led.

Between the canyon and the caves was the rest of the camp. Everything in the open was covered by camouflage netting. Tony felt his chances sink. Finding this place from the air would be very hard. Fining it from the ground would be impossible. Sandbags, mounted guns, at least fifty guards, a few vehicles...

And everywhere he looked, he was surrounded By Stark Industries weapon crates.

Tony felt the pit of his stomach go cold. They were in possession of some very lethal toys. The sort of things that were marked military only...

Kid-Khan was talking spectacularly again. The Surgeon translated. "He wants to know what you think."

Stark was thinking many things at that moment. Most of them violent. He opted for honesty. "I think you've got a lot of my weapons."

"He says you'll have everything you need to build the Jericho missile. He wants you to make a list of materials. He says for you to start working immediately and when you are done, he will set you free," The older man translated.

Stark gave a relieved smile, held out a hand, and shook the man's hand like a blood brother. Abu smiled at the agreeable American.

"No," Stark said to his translator in English, still smiling. "He won't."

The surgeon was smiling too. "No, he won't."

An hour later, Stark was at the lowest point he had ever been. He was going to die. He, Tony Stark, a man on the top of the world, was going to meet his end at the hands of terrorists, in a cave at the corner of 'no' and 'where', killed by his own weapons.

The old man said he'd seen a lot of wounds like mine. Tony thought. Now I know where.

"What do you say to your other nickname, The Merchant of Death?"

Tony shut his eyes. What have I done? Tony closed his eyes. I should be dead.

And nobody would have missed me would they? Tony considered. Tony had the majority of the company's stock. Once he was declared dead, they would all be up for grabs. A drop in the stock prices. A bidding frenzy over the company. That would be it. The board would find some kid they could control and declare victory. Stane would try to keep a lid on it, but ultimately his loyalties would be to the company itself. The Stark name, not the Stark heir.

The rest of the people he knew were either soldiers who cared little for him personally, or socialites and CEO's who lived and died by the most pointed question there was. 'What have you done for me lately?'

Pepper. She'd be going nuts. Stane would back her. Hogan wouldn't give up, but wouldn't have much influence over things. Rhodes...He didn't even know if Rhodey was alive.

Stark was sickened to realise that he only had three or four friends.

"I'm sure they're looking for you, Stark. But they will never find you in these mountains," His doctor was saying. "Look. What you saw out there? That is your legacy. Your creations, in the hands of those murderers. Is this the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark?"

Tony heard not an instant's sympathy in that voice as his own thoughts echoed back at him and responded with the only thing that came to mind. "What does it matter?" He heard his voice say, weak and timid. "We're both dead in a week."

"Then this is a very important week."

Tony couldn't believe his calm nature. Is that how you survive here? You just find a place in your head where they can't reach? A way of doing things that give you a centre and they can't stop?

Tony, you've got very few people to count on. You've got very little to hope for. You've got nothing left to believe in.

But at least he had something to do.

Just buy yourself time Stark. Rhodes and the others will be looking for you. Buy yourself time, co-operate with their demands, stay alive, don't antagonize your captors; wait for rescue. That's what you do. You're a hostage, and that's how you save yourself. Tony told himself firmly. But on the other hand...nah.

The surgeon was immediately next to him holding the car battery close enough that Tony could stand, right up in his captor's face. "I will cooperate, if you can give me the tools to do it correctly."

Kid-Khan apparently didn't need the translation and agreed, smiling broadly. He started to say something to that effect...

Tony pounced the second Kid-Khan spoke, clapping his hands together. "All right!"

What followed was the most flawless negotiation that Tony had ever undertaken.

"This will be my workstation," With the sweeping movements of an over dramatic orchestra conductor, Tony took off at a fast stride, circling the cave room. Holding the car battery, the old man hurried to keep up. Struggling to follow what he was saying, Kid-Khan and his guards rushed after him as he waved at each and every item in the room with impatience. "I will need all that removed, I will need these cots over to the far side, away from the forge, I need a smelting cup, and the ..."

He kept up the running litany of demands, the old man rushing to translate, and Kid-Khan snapping the orders out at the same pace. The move was perfect. His captors weren't asking what he wanted it for; his captors weren't considering what else it could be and everyone in the room was rushing to obey his slightest whim and command. Tony felt his fragile plans hardening as the room responded to his control again.

Work the opening, Tony, work the room. "I need workman's gloves, a miner's jacket; I also need welding equipment, acetone or propane, I don't care. I will need a welders mask, I will need precision tools, needle nose pliers, I will need electrical cable. I will require small munitions; I need more light and a working generator to run it."

Kid-Khan actually looked a bit overwhelmed, and he was rushing to keep up with what his prisoners wanted. Tony came to a certain realization as he quietly watched. Kid-Khan, whoever he was, was used to taking orders.

Once, while on business in Reykjavik, Tony got himself completely drunk. Pepper knew that he wasn't going to make it to the next public appearance on time, so she had given his speech to Hogan, and told the Russian hotel staff that he was Tony Stark. Hogan had screeched in horror at the thought but Pepper had a way of convincing Happy to do these things.

Once Tony had regained consciousness he had taken over, claiming security concerns as a reason for the decoy.

Pepper had been bought a new car not to tell anyone. Hogan had been given Tony's hotel room and the specifically requested hotel staff for the entire stay. But for over six hours that day, Hogan's name had been whispered with some level of anticipatory fear by those in the know.

Tony recognized the tone. One word had been whispered back and forth, and every time it was mentioned, someone would glance at the prisoners.

"Quickly," Tony whispered to his surgeon. "What does 'Raza' mean?"

"Raza?" The older man seemed surprised. "It is a name. Why?"

Tony glanced over at Kid-Khan. "Because I don't think it's his."

Stark suddenly decided that he had enough to start with and ordered everyone else out of the room.

Even the surgeon was startled by how fast the room vacated. Apparently their captors had figured out that if you wanted Stark weaponry, it was best not to interfere with Stark the weapon-eer.

Stark went straight to one of the missile pallets and picked up one of twelve Guided rockets from the stack. He started unscrewing the top of it with laser focus.

His doctor licked his lips as Stark causally started throwing huge sections of the missile over his shoulder, working his way deeper through the components, till he got to the guidance system. Then he picked up a pair of needle nose pliers and started fiddling.

"Pretty good with the languages," Stark observed, not for the first time, but for the first time out loud.

"Not fluent, but enough for this place," The doctor answered him. "They speak Farsi, Urdu, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, English, Persian…"

Too many languages to be a military faction, Stark mentally noted. "Who are they?"

"They are your loyal customers," The old man explained, with neither malice nor pity. "They call themselves The Ten Rings," The doctor had spent the entire operation standing and staring at him. "We might be more productive if you let me in on what you were doing."

Stark didn't hear him, or at the very least didn't answer. He threw the rest of the device lazily over his shoulder. "Don't need that."

The older man came over, and looked at the small computer chip in the pincers. "What's that?"

"That," Stark said calmly, "is palladium. About 1.6 grams of it, but we need 12.9 grams at least, so would you mind unscrewing this other ones?"

The operation didn't take too long, and soon the small computer chips were all in a stone cup over open flame. They melted into a mercury mess. Stark was making a mould in a small bowl out of sand. Once he had the sand packed tightly enough, he started slicing out a precise circle, six inches across. Satisfied, he set the mould down, and went over to the forge with a set of grips, and froze as he faced the small problem of how to pick up a cup full of melted metal, when he had to carry the car battery, and shaky hands and legs. Finally, he had to turn to his companion, who got the point without a word and picked up the grips himself.

"Careful," Tony told him. "We only have one shot."

"I have steady hands," He chortled. "It's why you're still alive."

Tony couldn't help the smirk. "Right."

The older man started pouring the molten metal into the mould, creating a flawless ring.

"So what do I call you?" Stark asked quietly.

"My name is Yinsen."

"Nice to meet you."

Another three days passed, and Yinsen had come to the conclusion that he was out of his depth. Stark had incredibly nimble fingers. He would have made a fine surgeon, but Yinsen had no idea what the man was working on.

It was circular, about two inches high by six inches wide. In fact, the dimensions were pretty close to the electromagnet that Yinsen had scavenged and put in Stark's chest. As if to demonstrate that point, there was also a thin electrical cable extending from the base.

The ring of Palladium was apparently the centerpiece of this small construction. Once it was done, Tony had connected it to the rest of the mechanism, and almost immediately pulled his hands away.

The small device suddenly lit up with a glow of clean and pure light, flaring into brightness in the dark firelight of the cave. Stark leaned back to admire it; apparently finished in his task.

"That doesn't look like a Jericho Missile," Yinsen observed.

"That's because it's a miniaturized Arc Reactor," Stark told him, leaning close enough to fill his face with the glow it let off. "I have a big one powering my factory at home."

"What is the output?" Yinsen asked curiously.

"If my math is right, and it always is, about three gigajoules," Tony responded. "Per second."

Yinsen leaned away from the device instinctively. "That could power your heart for about fifty lifetimes.'

"Or something really big for about fifteen minutes," Stark said with pure iron in his voice.

Yinsen sent his fellow prisoner a glance, looking worried for the first time. What was the weapon-eer up to?

Performing the surgery on Stark had been a relatively simple task. The housing for the electromagnet was smooth and solid, so Stark had actually been able to talk him through it. Angling his body so that the camera could not see the Arc Reactor going into his chest had been largely a symbolic gesture. The reactor was the first thing anyone noticed when they looked at Stark.

Another two days passed, and Stark continued to work day and night. At times, Yinsen wondered if he was always like this, or if it was the circumstances that made him so driven. After a while, Yinsen had stopped asking what he was doing, and after a longer while, stopped offering food.

At these times, he also wondered if Stark had created the Arc Reactor for no other reason than to give himself a personal headlight dead centre in his chest. Its glow was unending. The guards had inspected it thoroughly, and Stark had patiently explained that a Jericho missile was very complex, and would take longer than a car battery would give him.

Kid-Khan, rather than admit that he had no clue what the thing was, simply told Stark that his deadline had not changed, but at least he could work by his own nightlight now, and walked out.

Stark had paused to eat only twice, and Yinsen's role had changed from making sure the man lived, to making sure the man stayed alive. The Arc Reactor had needed a few adjustments with regards to its housing, lest it slip out when Stark leaned forward, and for all the attention that had to be focused on the shrapnel in his chest, Stark had been pretty close to the blast. Enough so that he had damage done to his body all over the place. With the exception of his liver, he was in good shape, but around day six his hands were shaking.

It had taken Yinsen a while to notice the effect it was having on Stark's blueprints, and another day to realize why.

Stark hadn't had a drink in almost two weeks...

Yinsen had no way to prescribe anything to help but nevertheless, the Detox had served to force Stark into accepting help.

And so it was that at the start of the second week in captivity; that Stark put both of them in the camera's blind spot and laid out the seven sheets of thin paper over each other. Each page had a design for various components, to which the untrained man would never be able to guess. It could be a missile. It could also be a washing machine.

But with the pages laid over one another, the pieces came together to demonstrate a complete design.

Yinsen's first thought was that it was a robot. But he looked a little closer and saw the controls, all of them internal.

Stark was building a suit of armor.

Yinsen considered it. Clearly the man was insane.

Then he looked again. The components were all diverse and confusing. Their watching captors would not understand what they were looking at until it was fully constructed, and Stark had the power source to make the thing move implanted in his chest for all to see. Their captors had already studied at and declared it safe to keep.

If they could make it, it could work.

"Not bad," Yinsen admitted.

It took another few weeks for the shakes and the nausea to pass. If Stark had learned anything about his life or his habits from the detox process it hadn't changed his personality or his plan at all.

But the weeks in question had not slowed the work.

Yinsen had never even made an attempt at metalworking. But surgeons learn things fast, especially things that required working with their hands, and he had taken up welders and pliers in place of scalpels and sutures.

Stark in the meantime took his mind off his body and its betrayals by focusing his energies on the larger aspects of the project. One did not need a steady hand to hammer iron in a forge, and Tony went to work on that.

The constant exercise sped the detox. Living off little food and water, sweating out over the fire, developing muscle with hammer and iron, the final product came together.

In separate components, of course.

Tony's first personal design was to rework the engine in his father's Hot Rod. His father had taught him all about the engine specs, and Tony knew in a heartbeat that he could make an engine that would work much better.

The magazines said his first engine was made at six, but personally, Tony didn't think that counted, since it was only for a soapbox derby car. His first real engine was for the Hot Rod.

He was just a kid at the time, barely eight years old, and was supposed to be working on getting thrown out of an exclusive private school in England. His father had shown him the car when he was on a brief vacation between semesters back home in New York. His father had taken off for a business trip, and Tony was meant to go back to school. But he couldn't let the thought go, as happened with supremely intelligent, good looking people, (or so he had told his dad) and he had spent weeks in the garage.

After a while, that arrangement was inefficient, so he dragged the couch into the garage and slept there. When he started the car for the first time, the engine had come to life with a roar, and then promptly exploded, coating everything in fumes and smoke. Horrified and expecting disaster, he had spent hours trying to clean up, then another few hours trying to find a mechanic that could put the engine back the way it was, when he looked at the clock, and realized it was Four in the morning.

Then he looked at the TV, which had been set to CNN the whole time, and discovered that it was Thursday.

He had worked in the garage for almost a week, and hadn't stopped for anything but short naps when his vision started blurring, and food from the refrigerator, which was now empty.

Tony had spent another few hours debating phoning the school and making an excuse of some kind explaining why he hadn't shown up after break, and phoning his father, throwing himself on the mercy of the court.

His long and nerve-wracking ruminations, led him back to the engine, wondering what had gone wrong. He had taken the engine apart and made new filters from scratch completely, and it had blown up in his face, literally. But it was easier to think about the engine that what his father would say, and after a wile Tony realized he was starving. Ordering food gave him another half hour to think it over, and he brought the takeout Chinese back to the garage. He was halfway through an order of sweet and sour shrimp when he suddenly realized what had gone wrong.

He had left the meal half eaten on the couch and ripped the destroyed motor out of the car with his bare hands and went straight back to work with an almost manic intensity.

The next time he noticed his surroundings, it was Saturday morning, and his father was looking at him in shock from the garage door.

Tony stammered out the whole story, and his father looked into the engine, got into the car, and started it up. It purred like a contented tiger, and his father waved him into the car. He had driven them to the nearest restaurant. Tony was starving. He got his first sip of champagne to celebrate; and then was promptly told that he was expelled from school. The next day his father had patented the new engine design in his only son's name.

This was the maniacal focus with which Tony had thrown himself into his new project.

Tony had almost forgotten the current circumstances. He had thrown himself into the simple process of completing the task, not even thinking of what would happen once it was actually finished. Working while hungry wasn't anything new. Working while filthy wasn't anything new.

"Stark, you need to eat."

"Not hungry, Pepper," Tony said over his shoulder, and then looked up, suddenly aware where he was.

Yinsen was looking at him in amusement. "We don't have any pepper. No salt either I'm afraid."

"Sorry," Tony smirked. "Thought you were someone else,"

"Eat," Yinsen said. "This is your doctor talking."

And, having further flashbacks to feisty arguments with a certain redhead he really missed, Stark gave in and set down his tools.

An hour later, Tony and Yinsen were hunched over a makeshift Backgammon board, using washers for pieces.

Tony had put his finely honed dice skill to use for the first time in months; and they came up 6 and 5.

Yinsen smirked despite himself. It wasn't the first time. "Good roll."

"Sheesho Besh," Stark said easily, glancing at his new friend. The phrase was one that Stark had picked up on a demonstration in Israel. It was Persian slang in backgammon attributing to a roll of 6 and 5. 'Sheesh' was '6' in Persian and "Besh" was '5' in Turkish.

Yinsen smiled wider. He got both references.

He speaks a dozen languages, but not fluently. Enough to talk to displaced Middle Eastern patients. Stark realized. "So where you actually from?"

Yinsen didn't look up from the game. "Small town called Gulmira."

Tony wondered briefly what his father would have thought of this. His dad had created the Arc Reactor, and now Tony had made another, in a cave no less. His father would be impressed by that. His mom had a strong sense of empathy. She was the one that had pressured his father to take up more humanitarian causes. She was the one that had come up with the School Refit program. She would have liked Yinsen.

"You got a family?" Stark asked without thinking, surprising himself.

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

Tony Stark felt lonely suddenly. "No," He said quietly.

Yinsen actually had a look of pity on his face for the first time. "So you're a man who has everything, but nothing,"

And presented with the life he had now, Tony admitted that Yinsen was hitting closer to the bone than was comfortable.

For some reason, Pepper came to mind right then. He remembered last Christmas, Tony had sat at the head of the table for the office Christmas party, made a toast, and then ditched them all, disappearing back to his office with Pepper, Hogan, Stane and Rhodes. The little sub-party had lasted half the night with them exchanging anecdotes about each other. It was nice.

It was a sobering realization. He had millions of dollars; he ate in five star restaurants and drank sixty year old scotch, almost by the pint. But take them away, and he was eager for tepid ground water and Yinsen's goat-and-rat meat stew. He had a private plane, drove sports cars and classic Hot Rods. Take them away and put him here, he would have given his left arm for a horse and a ten minute head start. He slept with supermodels and actresses. Take that away and put him here, and he was glad to have Yinsen just to talk to...

His father had never flaunted his millions for his son. His mom had stressed that point with them. In fact, Tony could remember plenty of occasions when his dad would blow off work to work on some project that Tony had come up with.

Tony had a private workshop that almost rivaled the MIT Engineering department. Take that away and put him here, and he still threw himself into his work obsessively.

If he wanted it all back, he'd have to fight for it.

Watching two men do things that nobody could understand twenty four hours a day for three months was one of the most tedious things a soldier could think of.

And so it was that for the majority of that time, these four men who had been tasked with watching their prisoners movements, actually spent most of that time watching in rotation, and playing cards the rest of the time.

But a poker game was better with four players, and having the same four players over and over required as many interesting elements as possible.

"What're they doing?" One man asked after a while.

The one nearest the camera glanced at the screen. "Working."

And that was the end of the conversation till the door opened, and in strolled someone else.

The guards were watching the CCTV camera very intensely all of a sudden.

This new man came into the room, and looked at the screen with them. Stark had something wrapped around his foot. As he slowly tapped his foot up and down, a lever on the table followed the moments precisely.

Nobody quite knew what that had to do with building a missile, but it looked like the machine was under Stark's direct physical control.

The hatch on the door opened; and the command to prepare for their entry was shouted.

Stark and Yinsen had been ingrained to obey this one without thought. But inwardly, Stark seethed. He knew that testing the motion transistor was risky when the camera was there, but he and Yinsen had gotten away with more. Their sentries were clearly losing interest in their prisoners.

They had pushed it too far, as the door opened, and in marched more guards and guns than Stark had ever seen.

But what caught Stark's focus was that Khan was not standing in the lead, he was standing dead centre, looking as worried as the rest of them. Heads were going to roll today it seemed, and every flunky in the place was terrified it was going to be theirs.

Then a new man entered and the crowd parted for him. It was the one that Tony had noticed weeks before when they were soaking his head...the bald man with the humongous jeweled ring...

He stepped forward, in no particular hurry. Every eye followed him. Even the guards. Nobody thought for a second to tell him anything.

When he spoke English clearly, Tony was sure.

This was the man in charge. This was Raza.

"Relax," Raza said easily.

Raza slowly circled the cave, taking in everything. Unlike Kid-Khan, he didn't waste any effort pretending he knew what he was looking at; he merely went through the work in progress. He stopped at the plans, and picked up the pages, flipping through them. If he had held them a little tighter he would have seen the suit design.

Tony didn't move, but sent a glimpse over at Yinsen, who was typically unflappable.

Raza spoke again, calm and collected. "Once, a bow and arrow was the pinnacle of weapons technology," He said. "It allowed Genghis Khan to rule everything from the pacific to the Ukraine. An empire four times the size of Alexander the great. More than twice the empire of Rome," he turned back to the prisoners. "But now, anyone who owns Stark Industries latest weapon will rule," His half-smirk was very pointed. "As it will soon be mine."

And then Raza turned to Yinsen. "What is he making?"

Yinsen didn't flinch. "A Jericho Missile. It's taking some time. It is very complex."

Raza took measure of the doctor, and glanced at two of his guards, who grabbed Yinsen and shoved him skull first into one of the workbenches.

"What's going on? What's happening here?" Tony could hear the worry in his voice and he hated it. He felt like he was back in that convoy watching Jimmy get killed right in front of him.

Raza had gone over to their furnace and reached in with the blacksmith tongs, pulling out a small round coal.

The two of them spoke in a language that Tony couldn't place...Arabic maybe? Mongolian?

"Open your mouth," Raza told Yinsen, who refused.

Raza brought the coal closer. "What is he building?"

"A Jericho missile," Yinsen maintained.

"What is he building?" Raza repeated harshly.

"A Jericho missile," Yinsen maintained.

"WHAT IS HE BUILDING?" Raza suddenly screamed.

Yinsen jumped. "A Jericho Missile!"

They weren't speaking English, and it was driving Tony mad, not knowing what was being said. Raza was playing this perfectly, trying to separate the two fellow prisoners without even putting them in different rooms, trying to goad Tony into snapping and revealing something.

Talking in different languages didn't cinch it. The hot coal inching toward Yinsen's face did.

"What do you want!? A Delivery date?!" Tony yelled and took a step forward. Every guard pointed a gun, except for Kid-Khan, who held out a hand. They all shouted warnings; worried that if he acted out of turn they were going to get the blame.

Tony froze. Raza had stopped moving the coal forward.

"I need him," Stark said finally.

Raza and Stark were staring at each other.

"He's a good assistant," Stark volunteered finally.

Raza believed that and gestured to his men. Yinsen was released.

But the warlord was not mollified. "You have until tomorrow to finish my missile."

And everyone stormed out.

Left alone, Yinsen and Stark traded a look. They did not speak. They didn't have to. Jig's up. Time to get out of here.

There were very few sections of the suit that could not be pre-prepared, until final assembly. The head piece was one of them.

Obadiah Stane was fond of saying that the weapons trade was one of the oldest and most innovative in the business, it had been creating new things since the days of Agincourt.

But now, removed from his home and taken back to the options of cave tech, Stark was left to the most basic and honest methods of weapons manufacture for three hundred years. Blacksmithing.

His arms and shoulders had become heavily muscled from the hard labor in this place. Two men trying to do the work of twelve. He brought the heavy hammer up, over his shoulder, and down hard against the Iron. Over and over.


The lump of Iron was becoming real, becoming new. The metal was smelted and every impurity burned off, till the result was stronger, cleaner, harder, and under Tony's hands, it was given form.


Looking down at the iron as it formed, Tony caught a reflection of himself in the water bucket. Three months in this place and his shoulders had broadened from the labor; the sweat pasted his hair down, and his face gave a look of absolute calm. Every distraction had been burned away, every flaw in habit and unnecessary affectation had been beaten out of him, and pure efficient serenity was left.


If a new prisoner had been thrown in here, sobbing from fear, Tony would have been able to whistle a tune from the irony alone.

Like Yinsen. Like the iron.


The metal had every flaw, every dent, and every impurity beaten out of it, burned away to nothing, forged in a white hot flame.

Tony smirked and smashed the mask into the water bucket. A cloud of steam rose from the surface.

A moment later he pulled the tongs out and brought the mask over to Yinsen, placing it before him.

An iron face gazed up at the doctor from the table.

Raza came in and looked hard at the screen, scattering the card game again.

Yinsen did not care about his men being derelict too much. Giving the American a deadline had forced both his hand and his prisoners'. If Stark had been building the missile this whole time as he claimed, then he would be working feverishly to meet the deadline. If he had been wasting time, or trying to deceive his captors, then this would be his moment to take a chance and try escape.

And yet his men were not smart enough to realize that on their own; and increase their vigilance.

On the screen, Yinsen was clearly visible. A large piece of equipment was mounted on an upright framework, with a large metal shape, and several other metal shapes nearby. Yinsen was fitting one piece into another.

In fact, it looked like the missile was being constructed in entirety at last; except for one thing.

"Where is Stark?"

The four guards all studied the screen and agreed that their leader was indeed correct. Stark was not visible on the screen.

Raza sighed. Terrified underlings never showed any initiative. "Well, go and look!"

Stark was in the metal framework, suspended upright as Yinsen put together all the connections for him, putting the suit together around the pilot. The boots and leggings were already on, and the chest piece went next, now that the iron supports were on. The welded sections met in a hollow circle around the centre, and the Arc Reactor glowed in it.

Stark couldn't move. The suit was a hundred pounds of welded together iron until it had power.

"Say it again," Yinsen commanded him; like a coach making sure his star quarterback knew the play.

"Thirty Five feet to the central corridor," Tony recited. "Turn left; forty feet to the entrance. Remember, you stay behind the checkpoints till I clear it out."

The hatch on the door slid open loudly, and orders were shouted in.

"Answer them," Stark whispered quickly. "Stall."

"They're speaking Hungarian!" Yinsen hissed. "I can't speak the..."

"Give them something!" Stark hissed back.

Yinsen yelled out something, but the look on his face made it clear that it wasn't going to get them much.

And it didn't. A second later, the hatch closed and someone tried to open the door.

The door opened, and the propane tanks from the welders' equipment, and the trigger line attached to the nozzle were opened with it.

The explosion blew the door and everything on the far side of it. Everything down that hallway for about fifteen feet was immediately caught in a blast of flame.

Yinsen raised his head from where he had taken cover behind Stark's new metal body, and kept working, attaching the leads to the Arc Reactor, and he fitted the arms to the torso section.

The plan had turned to dust in Tony Stark's hand. Raza's men had tried to force the door too soon.

"Start the power-up sequence," Stark ordered, trying to keep the game plan moving.

Yinsen rushed to the laptop computer. "Tell me how!"

"Ctrl-I to Ctrl-Enter!" Stark ordered, and Yinsen's nimble fingers started tapping out the keys quickly. "Tell me when you see progress bars!"

Yinsen was sending worried glances down the now visible corridor. Voices were floating in toward them. "They're coming…"

"Tell me when you see progress bars. There should be one!"

"They're coming…" Yinsen stepped back from the screen so that Stark could see. The power readouts were scrolling on the screen. Very slowly.

There was noise. Footsteps, yelling, guns being loaded.

"We need more time," Yinsen hissed.

Tony saw where the man's mind was going and shook his head fiercely. "We've got a plan. Stick to the plan!"

Yinsen picked up the rifle. "I'm gonna go buy you some time."

"Yinsen! No, what are you doing?!"

The older man had seen more guards coming and fired a burst of gunfire over their heads.

Stark seethed. The plan been tossed already. He strained to see the Laptop screen. 54 Percent and rising slowly.

Come on! He urged the machine. Come on!

Yinsen had snatched up the nearest rifle and fired a burst just above their captors. He was under no illusions as to what was coming. He was no soldier, and he was vastly outnumbered. Add to that the fact that he wasn't even firing at his opponents, but rather over their heads, driving them away from Stark and his weapon.

Not used to having someone shooting back at them in these caves, put on the defensive by the explosives at the door, the two guards were content to run for it.

The chase went on through the entire main corridor, with Yinsen blasting the air after them, howling like a lunatic. Until at last they entered the chamber which led to the outside, and the guards posted there.

Over ten of them. Including Raza.

Yinsen could have fired and killed a few.

But Yinsen was not a killer.

Tony heard the gunfire and felt his stomach leap into his throat. Idly, he wondered how it got past the metal tube next to his heart.

The progress bar finally reached the end of its loading cycle.

His suit was powered up.

The lights went dim before dying in respect. The rules of the game had changed completely.

Gears worked, circuits sparked...

And Tony Stark stepped down from the harness, raised a massive arm over his head and pulled down the faceplate. An Iron Knight; ready for war.

With one of the two prisoners dead, five of the guards went charging back toward the last room in the cave to finish the off other one.

The sudden drop in lighting worried them. This last prisoner was Tony Stark, tools of death and destruction was his trade, and he had already slain three of them. Who knew what booby-traps he might have worked up?

One of the guards had realized this, and sent the other four ahead of him as the stone walls around them became dark and scorched.

Once they got to the door, they paused. There was no sign of him. It was entirely possible that Stark had been killed by his own booby-trap on the door.

One man, closest to the door, inched his way in.

He came to the worktable. The machinery parts had been taken away. He edged around it. There was no sign of a body. He made his way past the forge, toward the living space, further from the camera. There was the sound of machinery, and something swung into his midsection with enough force to explode his ribcage and send him flying across the room.

The other four had seen their scout hurled across the doorway and opened fire in unison, filling the room with bullets.

The shooting stopped. Silence.

Then there was movement.

It was a heavy metallic thud.

A second thud. Closer to the doorway.

The guards glanced at each other.

A third thud, they were coming faster, and it suddenly became clear to them all what it sounded like.


And out came a monster.

It was not a man. It was machine.

It was a huge figure, built like a linebacker, seemingly carved out of grey metal. It was humanoid, its head seemed strangely small on its shoulders but it had an unmistakable form. Two eyes, mouth, invisible inside, completely inscrutable. At the centre of it's chest glowed a fierce white light.

For a frozen beat, everyone in the tunnel just stared at it. Had Stark built a robot?

Gears whirred, pneumatics hissed, and a huge metal arm came up, and slugged the nearest guard, very nearly folding him in half.

The sight of one of their own being knocked down hard, spurred the others into action. Six AK-47's lifted, pointed at him, and fired.

It took the sound of gunfire, the flares of the muzzle-flashes to even make the Iron Man aware he was under attack.

Three steps, and another guard was knocked halfway through the stone wall. Another two steps; slow but balanced.

The guards were still firing, backing away as the Iron Man's steps came faster, till it was marching toward them purposefully.

They finally broke and ran, rushing down the hallway to the cross corridor, slamming the interior steel plated doors shut.

One of the four didn't make it through.

He hit the closed door and started screaming to be let out at the iron behemoth moved in on him.

On the other side of the door, the three survivors had regrouped, taking up positions against the walls, guns ready, as the one that didnt make it screamed for help.

Then there was a metallic cruch and there was silence.

The three of them were breathing hard, gripping their rifles desperately.


Everyone jumped. Something hit the door hard enough to actually bend the plate metal out.


A second hit, the door frame was starting to break.

Surprise wore off, terror took over.


And the Iron Man was charging them again.

The guards opened fire. Sparks flew off the impenetrable skin.

The first two dropped almost instantly. The third knew that running was a temporary escape and moved in close, too close to reach with the Iron fists.

The Iron Man took a step back to get room and swung. Nothing. He jerked hard, and nothing happened. He had to turn half his upper body to see. His arm was caught in the stone wall. He had swung too hard and dug himself into the stone.

The attacker saw his opening, drew his handgun, and pointed it pointblank at the metal head.

The gun went off, and ricochet, straight back at the shooter, cutting him down.

Stark hadn't felt so charged in years. The suit worked perfectly. Even as he moved he felt the razor sharp instincts coming to bear! Engrained responses that made him one of the most sought after designers and engineers in the business were quickly giving their attention to this perfect merge of intellect given form.

Reaction times too slow. Stark noted. Plating is strong, but heavy. Visual range far too small.

Even as he pulled his arm free of the wall, he was already redesigning the suit, making modifications, drawing blueprints.

There was daylight up ahead. and a body on the ground. "YINSEN!" Stark yelled.

Impossibly, the old man was alive, and looking at Stark, and the corridor to daylight behind him. "Look out!" he shouted hoarsely.

The Iron Man spun and saw Raza himself, with a RPG launcher aiming at him.

The grenade screamed toward him, and Iron Man threw himself to the left.

Inside, Stark reflected ruefully. 'Threw' is not the correct term.

But it was enough. The grenade flew past his head and into the tunnel, where it exploded, spraying debris everywhere.

You keep saving my life Yinsen. Tony reflected, and hit a button on the inside of his wrist guard. As much as he would have loved a suit-of-armor glove, he had to setle for the thick leather gloves for dexterity and longer wrist guards for protection. A small missile ignited on Tony's forearm, and whistled toward Raza. He missed by about two feet, but the explosion was enough to clear the entrance to the outside, and knock Raza down. The entire left side of his face was shredded.

Tony checked. He couldnt tell if Raza was breathing. Bending down would probably topple him permanatly...

Yinsen was the priority now. Stark would have liked to finish Raza for sure, but with his friend wounded, the math had changed. He flipped up the facemask and stepped over to Yinsen.

Yinsen was still breathing. Tony clung to that, trying to make the older man focus. "We gotta go. Come on, move with me," Yinsen didn't so much as lift an arm. "We got a plan, and we're going to stick to it," It was already over and Stark knew it...they were still surrounded by enemies. The suit didn't make Stark fast, and wouldn't protect Yinsen while moving...and there were still bad guys around...

Yinsen knew it too. "This was always the plan, Stark."

Tony ordered him to move, frantically. "Come on, you're going to go see your family again."

Yinsen had a look so serene that Tony nearly broke. "My family's dead," He whispered, weaker. "I'm going to see them now, Stark. It's O.K. I want this."

Tony racked his brain, finding the right words to stop the inevitable; but they just wouldn't come. Finally, he settled on honesty. "Thank you for saving my life."

Yinsen smiled. "Don't waste it."

Tony wanted to say something else, wanting to stretch the moment before the inevitable end.

But after a few moments, it was too late to try.

Yinsen was dead.

Tony Stark never cried. It wasn't out of any macho desire to seem strong; it just wasn't in his nature. But at this moment, he wished he it was. This moment sent him cold. It was like he felt when his parents died. After getting captured by these people, after being saved by one man, after three months in a cave, after fighting his way past more than a dozen of them...and Yinsen still died, killed by a Stark Industries weapon. Tony wanted nothing more than to break down in tears at that moment from the shame.

Tony could hear movement outside. Weapons being loaded, things being dragged around, orders being shouted angrily back and forth...

Shame was strong. Grief was stronger. Rage was Pure Iron.

Tony shut the face plate. His world went darker again. He stalked past Raza's motionless body, and the gaping hole he had ripped in the rock.

Targeting sensors. Tony made a mental note. So I don't miss next time.

The Iron Man stalked out of the mouth of the cave with calm deliberate steps. The glowing centre to his chest was muted by the sudden glare of daylight.

The last of the soldiers were surrounding the entrance in a semi-circle, hiding behind solid cover. They all opened fire at him.

The bullets slammed into the mask, the chest plate, his waist. Hammer blows that rang out like a hammer to a steel drum, hundreds of them.

The fussilade ceased finally, and within his mask, Tony Stark gave a cold grin. "My turn."

Iron Man returned fire. Literally. Great gouts of flame burst from his hands, casting fire down on all of them. He targeted the fuel drums, conveniently placed next to vehicles. He targeted the sandbags, with the ammo feeds leading into the machinegun emplacements.

And then he walked forward.

The soldiers that he'd missed backed away quickly, trying to reload their toy weapons.

Stark let them go. He was after a different target.

Everywhere he looked, he saw his own name staring back at him. His name written on the weapons, piled high in easy reach.

Iron Man lifted his flamethrowers and annihilated it all.

The fire was quick to catch and a massive explosion consumed it all.

Stark embraced the flames from within his armor, almost hoping it would end him. Justice had a funny sense of humor that way. To Peace! he toasted.

But the flames spread, circling him; and he survived within his tank.

More of the terrorists had found hiding places, and started shooting again. The small arms still did nothing, but Kid-Khan still lived, and made his way to the ridge. He was sitting at the controls of a very old mounted gun. Tony hadn't seen it before, couldn't get much more information now; but the barrel was huge, and mounted on a pivot that allowed the man to aim it down at Stark.

He opened fire and Stark could hear it through his armor, over the flames, over his own gear, over the screaming bad guys...

A millisecond later he could feel his armor starting to break, the welds were holding, the metal itself was starting to crack under the barrage.

What the that an AA Gun? Stark thought in disbelief.

Off to his left, someone had reloaded a rifle and flanked him, opening fire again. One of the bullets must have hit a pneumatic hose of control cable, because suddenly Tony couldn't stand.

Stark was dying inside from the heat of his own flames, he could feel his gloves melting, his chest was killing him, his head was pounding from the noise, he was down on one knee...but he did not falter from his purpose. He kept torching the weapons stores.

More explosions, more fire, more heat, but finally, he did not see his name staring back at him any more.

His captors could see him weakening and pressed the advantage. So desperate were they to cut him down, they ignored the flames catching on some of the larger weapon crates.

Driven down under the brutal assault, Tony Stark forced to play his last card. He got his feet under him, and flipped the switch hidden under his left wrist plate.

His legs felt like sledgehammers were hitting him, but from his iron boots came a terrific thrust, kicking him up.

The boots jets were made from leftover munitions, which were provided by their captors, but had the explosive charges removed. Tony had intended them as a last ditch defensive move in case he tripped and needed to be able to move fast in any direction.

He had wondered if it would give him an escape route, but had resolved never to test the theory, as it would leave Yinsen trapped and helpless.

Yinsen was dead, Tony was getting cooked alive in his suit and the fire was catching on things that frankly didn't react well to extreme temperatures and blunt force. He fired the jets for no other reason that having nothing left to lose.

But somehow, it was working!

A massive eruption of pyrotechnic death rattled Tony's jaw and overloaded his eardrums, and consumed everything.

But out of the mushroom cloud came a manned missile. A humanoid shape that trailed fire from its feet powered up into the air.

Inside, Tony Stark marveled. It was beautiful up here...

The suit jets weren't really meant to repel gravity for long though, and finally his boots ran out of power.

In a parabolic arc, drawn in smoke with such perfection that the Maestro would have admired it, the Iron Man fell.

Tony yelled in horror as he fell headfirst toward a sand-dune.

Luck was with him yet again, and the sand dune was soft enough to shatter under the weight of his armored head and body, and Tony found himself buried in the sand.

Tony came back to himself a few minutes later. After so many weeks in the caves, he was blind in the sun as it beat down on him.

But he was not confused or disoriented; he knew automatically where he was. The few seconds of flight had filled his dream. "Not bad."

The armor was torn up pretty badly. He wasn't hit, but there were breaches all over the surface. He was able to slip his hands out of gloves and free himself from his armor.

He was free.

He felt like laughing. Had Yinsen been there he would have.

He had fought his way past his guards, destroyed their weapons, cut down their soldiers, and escaped without pursuit.

Pursuit. He looked back the way he had flown/fallen, and was able to find the camp fairly easily; there was a mushroom cloud of smoke and fire rising from the rock behind him. Stark calculated that he had traveled about a mile.

Raza had probably survived. If he escaped the explosion and the fire he wasn't that badly hurt. If he had a transport, or for that matter a horse somewhere that hadn't burned, which he probably did, Stark might have company soon. The suit jets had left a contrail behind them. Raza wouldn't have any trouble tracking his direction.

There had been no wind when he was flying in the sky, so the smoke would linger.

The thought stopped Tony dead. 'When he was flying in the sky.'

He had built, not a graceful thing of the air perhaps, but it flew, and it took him along, and he survived the return to ground level. No wings, no wheels...

No control. Have to make some upgrades. Get moving Tony!

Stark stood up and started hiking. Survivors were supposed to travel by night in the desert, but Raza wasn't likely to give him that long.

The distance he had flown surprised him. A clean arc up and down, he had covered the distance faster than he would have thought possible.

He wrapped the blacksmith jacket around his head to keep the pounding sun off, and started walking.

He didn't know how long he had been walking when his vision swam. It was inevitable. He had no water, he had been knocked over the head about thirty times, he was hiking in the desert without any protective gear, and the sun was pounding his head like a massive drumbeat.

To go through all that, go to all that work, and now at the last to die of thirst?

Tony knew he had to keep moving. Traveling in the desert had brought him such good results lately. He fought to keep his mind clear. Dehydration was blurring his vision, making his throat dry, making his head pound...But his head was clear.

So why was he still hearing their voices?

"I've seen a lot of wounds like that."

"What do you say to your other nickname, The Merchant of Death?"

"You are a man with everything and nothing."

"Don't waste your life."

Oh my God. Stark thought,the realization making him finally lucid again.

The only thing you ever built to save life was to save your own. And you killed twenty people doing it.

Not again. Stark told himself. Done now. No more shrapnel into hearts, no more flamethrower fire consuming people, no more Merchant of Death.

"I've seen a lot of wounds like that," Yinsen had said.

Wounds I inflicted. Stark thought. Wounds I created weapons to inflict. Blood that I made a fortune spilling.

Blood money Stark! Blood money and you drank it down.

How had he not seen this happening? How had he not known where those weapons were ending up?

But then, your father taught you that too, didn't he?

When Tony was nine years old, he went with his parents on a business trip to Osaka, Japan. His father had left his mother and him with the hotel room. The TV held no interest. The only channels in English were the ones he had at home. The food and the clothes fascinated his mother. The buildings and the streets fascinated him. There was nothing built with slide doors and paper walls in California. It was where he had gotten the original idea for making the walls in his room polarized. Two days later, with the business completed, his father came back and took his family on a wide ranging tour of the country. Tony had never seen anything like Japan before.

Then, a tour group was leaving the Tokyo markets while The Starks were there. One of them said, loud enough to be overheard, that they were going to Hiroshima. They detailed some of the attractions there, including the war memorial, from the site of the first atomic blast.

Tony had asked his parents if they could go too.

It was the only time he had ever known his father to say 'no' without explaining why, or his mother to yell at her son when pressed for details.

It took a full year for Tony to realize why.

Dad, he wept silently as sand filled his eyes. You didn't want me to see.

Weapons were needed. Keep the peace; stop the world from falling into chaos. Tony knew all the reasons. Two Nukes ended the bloodiest war in history in an hour. Two shots; with a weapon his father had helped to make. Tony had argued all the reasons. Even now he believed them. I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once. That's the way dad did it.

Carry a bigger stick than the other guy. Tony thought. I know dad, I believe it. But Raza stole the sticks we made and used them to kill my friend.

Tony had designed non-lethal weapons. Nobody bought them. Stark Industries funded third-world food exports. Medical research. Schools and orphanages. Nobody mentioned them.

Like those soldiers in your convoy. Nobody mentions them, I'll bet. Just because they died trying to protect you. Just like Yinsen.

Those bullets had come straight through the Humvee. Stark manufactured Armor piercing rounds.

Tony had watched footage of the London blitz. Thousands of bombs dropped, massive devastation and more often that not hundreds of civilian casualties. And even then they were known to miss their targets. Stark Industries had changed all that. Weapons were his father's trade. Weapons exports were the family business, and Tony had taken up the trade his father had left. But Tony had re-invented it. The weapons Tony Stark had built were clean, were focused and precise. War had become a precision business thanks to him. Less than fifty years ago, innocent bystanders were half the casualties. Now, a single civilian hit made the news.

Unless it happened here.

The only things of substance you have created are better guns. Even Yinsen picked up a gun with a Stark Industries logo on it. Yinsen! Yinsen picked up a gun and got himself killed protecting you!

You're not a weapon designer, you're a Death Dealer. You, Obadiah and the Grim Reaper sitting around the card table discussing exports and shipping schedules. But you were spared. You were spared by the blood of people you knew ten minutes, people who treated you far better, and people like Yinsen.

And why had that been enough? Because Raza wanted him to build a missile. Another weapon. A bigger stick that you only needed to fire once. That was his only worth to the world. To his country, his friends, his enemies even. To be a Killing Machine Maker.

Tony had to stop when that thought hit him. The final revelation. And it'll be fresh on your mind when you get to Hell. Was that why? To kill Raza's men? Then to die of thirst at last? Have you survived this long only so you could see what your life hath brought?

Why couldn't your weapons kill you too Tony? The symmetry would be perfect. The irony would be a tale of justice straight from an old Greek Tragedy. The 21st century Frankenstein story. The mad inventor; slain by his creations.

Why aren't you dead Tony?

Sounds. Tony couldn't even see straight. The sand was too thick between his eyelids. He tried to blink. Too dry. His eyes actually hurt from the feel of his dry eyelids dragging over them.

The wind was picking up at last, blasting more sand at him.

And finally, Tony could bring enough willpower to focus his vision.


It was a helicopter. It wasn't Raza coming after him. It was a helicopter.

But it wasn't coming for him, it was following the contrails. It was heading directly for the cloud of smoke hanging gently in the distance.

He raised his hands over his head with a strength he wasn't aware he had. "HEY! Down Here!"

The helicopter went straight past him.

But the helicopter was being followed by Humvees.

And they were all carrying American Flags.

The first Humvee slowed down.

Slowing down. It was slowing down. It had seen him. Tony dropped to his knees in disbelief.

And the first set of boots out of the Humvee belonged to a familiar face.

Jim Rhodes himself, weapon in hand and outfitted for war came charging from the vehicle, to his side. The relief on his face was palpable. "So how was the 'Fun-vee'?" Rhodes quipped.

Tony collapsed.

"What do you say to your other nickname, The Merchant of Death?"

Tony didn't even remember her name, but he answered her silently at last. I say, that those sales made my fortune. Those sales made capital. I say, that all these things I have made, all the things that have benefitted people, things that feed the hungry and heal the sick were financed by weapons. I say, that I was able to look the other way once, and now, I can not. I say, that the money served its purpose, and selling these weapons, brought me here.

Rhodey was giving his friend a hug, relieved beyond measure to see him safe. A moment later he was barking orders, commanding someone to bring him water, someone else to bring blankets, a third to bring a gurney. Stark didn't speak.

"What the Hell is this thing in his chest?" Someone asked.

"I don't know, but it doesn't look like a bomb."

"We can't take him in the chopper with something like this."

"Why not?"

"Might blow up."

"Tony? Can you hear me? If that thing in your chest is safe to move, squeeze my hand."

Tony did so weakly.

"We're taking off," Rhodey's voice snapped with no room for argument.


"We're taking off. Have the Medic's standing by at the forward base camp, and have the airlift standing by on the pad too. Give me that canteen."

When the helicopter came into land, and Rhodes started pouring sips of water into his dying throat, he accepted the fact. He was going to live.

I say, when a man like Yinsen had to turn to a gun for the sake of your life, you damn well better leave something better than a body count in return.

And as the helicopter lifted, Tony swore he would.

"Does that radio have Sat-Phone hookup? Give it to me. I've got a call to make to the States."


"Right now," Rhodes voice actually sounded nervous.

Tony finally managed to smile. Pepper gave you Hell didn't she?

Pepper had found out about the attack on the convoy when Rhodes had led five federal agents into Tony's office without so much as a call. The FBI had gone right to work on the phones, preparing to trace any incoming phone calls. Rhodes had taken her aside and explained that her boss had been kidnapped.

Pepper was about ready to tear him down to his clusters in outrage at the failure to keep him safe. Rhodes had matched her reaction with icy calm, focusing her on what was needed. They were expecting a ransom demand, and Pepper suddenly cooled her jets, focused again.

Ready as she could be, Pepper waited with them for the call, cool as a cucumber. She was fully prepared to offer herself in Stark's place, planning to bring along a baseball bat she could personally beat all the kidnappers to death with. It had taken her a full two minutes to realize that she had gone a little insane and make herself sit down to talk to the FBI agents that Rhodes had brought. A brief conference with them about the nature of the people they would likely be dealing with, the sort of demands they might make, and what her job would be when the call came in.

At exactly the wrong moment, the editor of Vanity Fair had called, asking if they could try rescheduling Tony's interview, as their star reporter Christine Everheart had apparently 'misplaced her copy of the transcript' and needed to be able to check her facts.

Pepper had been expecting ransom demands, and had politely told him that his star reporter had not taken any notes as far as she knew, and went on to describe some of Everheart's birthmarks and freckles in detail so he could personally double-check the facts for the article with her, and calmly hung up on him.

Rhodes and the FBI agents had stared at her with their jaws hanging open.

Pepper had merely nodded professionally to the FBI Agent. "You won't need to trace that call."

But the ransom demand never came, and after a while, the FBI had left.

A day later the CIA appeared at the office, and had taken Tony's laptop apart for clues. Not long after, she had taken them to Tony's home and let them in with her key. Jarvis had nearly blown a fuse.

But the computers and phones gave them nothing useful, and they had left, warning Pepper that any contact from the kidnappers was likely to come to the house and not the office. Pepper had seen the logic of this, and essentially moved into Tony's house, sleeping on his couch so that she wouldn't miss the call if it came.

The silence was one of the scariest things that Pepper had ever experienced.

It had taken all of a week for word to leak out that Tony was kidnapped. It wasn't odd for him to disappear without warning for a few days, but one of the fallen soldiers had apparently called home before getting into the Humvee, and mentioned who the passenger was. Once that happened, Pepper had stopped posing as Tony Stark's personal assistant, and accepted her place as a full fledged ringmaster at the most expensive three-ring circus ever conceived.

After three hours of unconfirmed news reports, Stane had come to see her at Tony's home, since she hadn't been in at the office, demanding details, and promising to help. And he had. The Press were informed quickly at a hastily arranged Press conference, and board and the stock market were beaten into submission soon after. Pepper was still left with the press after the conference and a few less than scrupulous bankers trying to assume control of his estate and private accounts had to be dealt with.

Since then, she had spent the last three months holding everyone away from Tony's house, his job, his possessions, his money and in the case of one reporter who quickly regretted it, his garbage; with a whip and a chair.

In every spare second left to her she had been on the phone to Rhodes demanding updates. There had been nothing for weeks. The military wouldn't give her anything since it was an active investigation into a hit on a US Military convoy in a hot-zone.

Another few weeks and people started sending condolence baskets.

Realizing that the world had written him off for dead, Pepper went back to the office for the first time and found Stane working hard in Tony's office. She had all but thrown him out; and grabbed the phone. The military wouldn't tell her anything since she wasn't a relative. One Major in particular made it clear that even if that wasn't the case, a 'sweet little girl like you shouldn't get so worked up over a man, and don't worry your pretty head about it, you can leave war to the professionals.' Pepper had responded by calling a Senator that Tony knew on the Armed Force Services Committee, and had the Major in question transferred to an Arctic Research base.

His replacement was an old friend of Rhodes and Pepper had personally gone to him for help making this one talk. Rhodes had also tried to give her the runaround, for reasons of procedure and chain-of-command regarding sharing that kind of information with civilians. Pepper had merely waited, staring at him silently. Twenty minutes later she had been fully informed on the investigation.

After all that effort, there was very little information anyway. Tony had been snatched. But they only knew that because there was no sign of his body. The rest of the convoy was all dead, from very professional weapons, the kind that you didn't typically find from the local warlords and terror groups.

The investigation had been shifted to include Mercenary groups and the local government teams. The military had moved swiftly to cut off any ways they could have snuck him out of the country, but there was a lot of dangerous territory to search. It wasn't like having a national park searched for a missing man, or even a manhunt by the FBI. Any search team that kicked in a door could be gunned down, and a soldier gunned down could tip off a bloody retaliation elsewhere.

After getting the sobering revelation that nobody had a clue where to look, Pepper was ready to kill someone.

Right on time, Happy had let himself into Tony's office and essentially ordered her to go home and get some sleep. She had managed to unload the entire buildup of frustration on him in the space of four minutes, and he took it on the chin without backing down or retaliating, until Pepper finally exhausted herself.

Conceding defeat, she had let Hogan drive her home, and she was stunned to discover that the apartment was clean, her messages were collected and organized, there was food in the fridge, and freshly brewed coffee in the coffee machine.

She had given Happy a hug in gratitude; which he had eagerly accepted.

After sleeping for almost twenty hours, Pepper had gotten back onto the phone to give Rhodes another earful about keeping up the search; only to find that Rhodes had taken a leave of absence from the Air Force.

It had taken Pepper a full hour to find out why. Rhodes had gone back to Afghanistan.

A few days later there was an Email from Rhodes, explaining to Pepper that he was asking questions and shaking down informants personally. He had found two names. One man, one group. The email asked Pepper to start a search for a group named 'The Ten Rings', led by a man named 'Raza'.

Pepper had passed that to the military, and the DOD contacted her the next day, and had told her that it was a known group, but their whereabouts were a mystery at the time.

Another two weeks, and Rhodes had called her collect from somewhere, and told her to get him a strike team organized in the time it took him to get back to base.

It had taken some work; but Pepper had incriminating details on enough Generals from Tony's distinguished career in weapons exports to shame them into giving Rhodes enough men for whatever he needed.

The next morning Rhodes had called in. Tony Stark was alive, and he was safe.

Pepper had thanked him endlessly, promised him a few things she probably shouldn't have, and called Stane and Happy.

Two days later, the phone had rung again. Tony had answered the endless stream of questions from the military and intelligence committees; refused further treatment, refused physical therapy, and chartered a flight back to the United States without telling anyone.

Rhodes had made sure she was somewhere private and had described the Arc Reactor to her and what it did. The fact that Tony was keeping some details of his escape and captivity private had some people worried, so Rhodes commissioned her to keep an eye out for certain signs of PTSD, and other reactions to this kind of experience. Pepper got all this and understood, but focused on what it meant. Rhodes was bringing her Tony home within the day.

She ran downstairs to the street outside her apartment, where Happy was dozing in the car. She had woken him up, kissed him square on the mouth and told him the news. Hogan had taken her straight to the airport right then. Pepper had contacted Stane from the car, and told him to hold off on telling anyone for a while. From the sounds of it, Tony had been through hell, and Pepper wasn't about to let the press at him as soon as he stepped off the plane.

Stane had agreed, and the press had been told that any statement would be made, not from the airport, but from the Stark Industries headquarters.

The C130 that carried the battered Tony Stark home landed without incident.

When the cargo hatch lowered and the two men were visible, it looked like Tony was shoving the wheelchair away. Rhodes gave in on that, but helped Tony down the ramp to the tarmac.

Pepper was surprised. To hear Rhodes describe him, Pepper was expecting him to be hunched over in a wheelchair, drooling on his shirt. But he was wearing a pressed shirt and tie; his suit coat covered the arm brace he wore in a sling. His face was bruised up and he had open cuts in numerous places.

He was walking with his head held high, moving straight for Pepper. His shoulders seemed broader and his arms more muscled than she remembered. They must have put him to work. He was thinner too, his face more angular. They hadn't fed him well.

But those things were transitory, those changes were expected. Pepper realized something was truly different. After a moment, she figured it out. His eyes. Her aloof uninterested boss was full of barely restrained energy, and had pure iron behind his eyes.

But despite the proud defiance he tried to keep on his face, and the open scorn he had when he waved away the gurney and the ambulance alike, Rhodes was clearly half-carrying the man down the ramp to the tarmac. Once he was on solid ground he waved Rhodes away too and walked slowly to Pepper.

"Your eyes are red," He observed. "Few tears for your long lost boss?"

Pepper was consciously stopping herself from either bursting into tears or throwing her arms around him. "Tears of joy," She covered professionally. "I hate job hunting."

"Yeah. Vacation's over."

Pepper reacted. She had just served him a straight line, and he hadn't pounced. He was heading for the car.

Hogan was holding the door open for him. "Welcome back, sir."

Stark gave his old friend a look that spoke volumes and got in; Pepper right behind him.

Once inside the car, everyone relaxed a degree. "Where to?" Happy called from the front seat.

"Hogan, please take us to the hospital..."

"No," Stark said firmly.

Pepper relaxed and tensed simultaneously. This was to be expected. "Tony, you have to go to the hospital, a doctor has to take a look at you."

"Pepper, I've just been in captivity for three months. I want two things." He looked Pepper over. "One, I want an American cheeseburger, and two-"

"Yeah, you can just stop right there," Pepper held up a hand. "That's not going to happen."

"Not what you think. I was going to say: And a Press Conference."

Pepper blinked. That was a surprise. "A Press...what on earth for?"

"Yeah," Tony said calmly. "Hogan, drive. Cheeseburger first."

Happy had taken them to a Burger King, and then straight to Stark Industries. Pepper had warned him that Stane had announced his return, and Tony was pleased with that because it meant the press was already there.

Pepper had called quickly while Tony was ordering some cheeseburgers. Stane was as stunned as she was to learn he was coming straight to the office, but promised to have things ready when they got there.

And sure enough, with the first of three burgers gone, and the Industrial Plant just ahead, Pepper could see the crowd of employees gathered at the entrance, Obadiah Stane leading the parade on his Segway, front and centre. The incongruous image of a man in a three-piece suit with a bald head and a huge bushy beard standing atop a geek's dream scooter was easy to pick out.

Hogan brought the car to a halt as the crowd started applauding, and Stane hopped off the Segway and spread his hand wide jovially. "You see this?" He shouted to everyone in earshot, as Tony stepped out of the car. The two old friends wrapped each other up in a tight hug. After a moment Hogan brought around the take-out bag and Tony grabbed the second burger clean out of it.

Stane hadn't stopped yapping all the way in. "Look at you, welcome back, great to see you; you look so good, oh sure, you had to have a burger. You get me one? We've got everything all set up for you in here."

Pepper fought to keep up as the crowd increased once inside the foyer. More employees began applauding, the photographers jockeyed for position, the rest of the press started shouting questions and Pepper found herself a spot out of the way as Tony, untouched by the circus, made his way with Stane toward the podium.

"Excuse me, Miss Potts?"

Pepper turned and found herself looking at a shorter man with thin hair and a fairly unimpressive suit coming to her. "Can I get a moment?" the gentleman continued.

"Oh, I'm not actually a part of the press conference, but it's going to start any second."

"That's O.K., I'm not a reporter," He handed her a card and she took it without looking. "I'm Agent Phil Coulson with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,"

"That's quite a mouthful," Pepper said dryly, never taking her eyes of Tony.

Coulson sighed, as though he had heard that before. Which he probably had. "I know. We're working on it,"

Pepper was in no mood to deal with another Government man. "You know we've already been approached by the DOD, the FBI, and the CIA."

"We're a separate division, with a more… specific focus," Coulson said with no particular ego. "We need to debrief Mr. Stark about the circumstances of his escape."

Funny you should mention that, Junior G-Man, because I was sort of hoping to do that myself. Pepper reflected. Thing is, Mr. Stark hasn't told anyone about the circumstances of his escape. Aloud, she kept it professional. "I'll put something in the book, shall I?"

Coulson seemed satisfied with that. "Thank you.

Meanwhile, Pepper was happy to shake off the latest annoyance and find out what Tony wanted a press conference for.

"O.K.," Stane was saying cheerfully. "Let's get...uh..." He trailed off as he realized that Tony wasn't next to him. In fact he was in front of the podium, sitting on the floor out of his sight, but had the entire Press corps staring at him in surprise.

"How would it be, if everybody all sat down huh?' Tony said, matter-of-factly. "Y'know, then I could see you; make it a little less, formal," As if to demonstrate that last point, he took a bite of his cheeseburger.

Everyone reacted with disbelief, but their host was waving them down, and so they all knelt awkwardly to the floor of the room.

Rhodes had slipped in the door behind everyone and was surprised to see the room on the floor. She slipped over and squatted next to Pepper. "What's with the love-in?"

"Don't ask me," Pepper said honestly. "I have no idea what he's doing."

Stane came around from behind the podium also, and sat down on the edge of the stage next to Tony.

Tony looked up and over at his old family friend. "Stane?"

"Yeah, Tony," Obadiah said in a friendly way, putting a hand on Stark's shoulder.

"I never got to say goodbye to dad," Tony said soft as a psalm.

Hushed silence. Pepper was stunned. Tony was looking like, given the might motivation, he might begin to cry. It was a humbling experience. Tony's poker face was legendary; and now...

Tony had shifted his gaze to the press and nodded, like agreeing on an important point. "I never got to say goodbye to my father," he said, stronger now, folding the wrapper back over the burger. "There are questions I would have asked him. I would have asked how he felt about what this company did. If he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts...Or maybe he was every inch the man we all remember from the newsreels…"

The Press was in collective silence. Nobody knew quite what to make of the great and inscrutable Anthony Stark being emotional and introspective.

"I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons that I had created to keep them safe. And I came to realize that I had become part of a system that had gotten comfortable with the idea of zero accountability."

One brave reporter said what they were all thinking. "Mr. Stark...what happened to you out there?"

The question seemed to crystallize something in Tony, and he finally stood up, circling the podium and coming to the usual place behind the microphone. "I… I had my eyes opened. I came to see that I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up."

Loud silence, everyone starting to realize...

"Which is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the Weapons Production Division of Stark International-"

Anything he might have had to add to that was drowned out by the sudden uproar.

Pepper felt her jaw drop.

"Until such a time as I can decide what the focus of this company should be, what direction it should take, one that I am comfortable with, and that will reflect the highest-"

The press went nuts, calling out questions, and then repeating them; trying to outdo each other.

Tony was saying something else, but Pepper couldn't make it out; and in all likelihood, nobody else could either.

Obadiah had moved to Tony's side and had pushed him to the left enough that he had the microphones in front of him. "Hey!" He said way too cheerfully. "What we should take from this is that Tony's back, and he's healthier than ever, we're going to have some more discussion-"

Tony was already making his way out of the room. Nobody was even looking at Obadiah.

Rhodes sent Pepper a grim look. Told you. People act out after traumas like that. Keep an eye on him.

Pepper sent a glance over her shoulder at the door as Tony walked past her, with the press pursuing.

Pepper imagined pulling out her whip and chair again; and started forcing them back from the door.

She was so proud of him.

Stane pushed past her and went after Tony.

Stane found Stark at the entrance to the Industrial plant, staring up at the massive Arc Reactor which had a place of prominence in the main floor, directly centre in the building by the entrance, where the most efficient place to spread power to the building, and to show it off to the tour groups was.

Tony was looking up at it. As Stane watched, he rolled his head back further at the Art Deco Skylight far above, the size and shape of the Arc Reactor. Tony had put that in, so that passing planes and helicopters overhead could see through the roof to the bright blue glow five floors beneath.

The spider web iron frame sent down such bizarre shadows sometimes, but that matched Stane's mood just then, looking at the younger man who was gazing at it like some holy relic.

"Well," Stane chomped on his cigar with pointed sarcasm. "That went well."

"Yeah," Tony said matter-of-factly. "So, did I just paint a big bulls-eye on the back of my head?"

"The back of your head? I'm worried about the back of mine," Stane quipped. "What do you think the over/under of the stock drop is going to be tomorrow morning?"

Tony ran the math in his head. Finding out the CEO was kidnapped, maybe dead, then back alive only to shutdown the whole trade..."Optimistically? Forty points."

"Ha!" Stane chomped another quarter inch of his cigar. "At least!"

A long, uncomfortable moment of silence passed between two men who had stood shoulder to shoulder for decades.

"Tony," Stane said quietly, as though the whole affair was a personal joke that he wanted to be let in on. "We're weapons manufacturers. We're Iron Mongers-"

"Stane, I just don't want a body count to be our only legacy."

"-That's what we do, and we-"

"My name on the side of the building…" Tony protested.

Stane hadn't shifted his slow patient explanation. "-keep the world from falling into chaos."

Tony met his gaze intensely. "Not based on what I saw. We're not doing enough, not from what I saw. We can do better. We're going to do something else."

Tony glanced up at the Reactor. "I think we need to take another look at Arc Reactor technology."

Stane remembered arguing that one with Howard when Tony was all of three years old. Creating it had solved a number of PR problems that they had at the time. The environmental groups were spoiling for a fight with the weapons plant, and Stark had suggested throwing them a huge bone by making the entire factory emission free.

Howard's only reservation was that a new energy source like this would be the next Manhattan project. For all the money that weapons made them; Stark didn't want to create the next arms race before the eighties at least.

Stane had agreed and kept the specs of the reactor as a proprietary technology. Nobody else had it.

And now, standing before the only one of its kind, was Tony Stark, who had quite possibly just made it the single most expensive monument to bankruptcy that a megacorp had ever made.

"Oh come on!" Stane said, finally fed up. "The Arc reactor is a publicity stunt. We built that thing to shut the hippies up!

"It works."

"As a science project! The arc isn't cost effective, we knew that when we built it."

"Could be," Tony said without committing anything.

"Arc technology is a dead end, Tony. We haven't had a breakthrough in what? Thirty years?"

Tony recognized his cue. That was the part where he was supposed to say: "Yes, we have. Take a look!" Instead, Tony tilted his head at Stane, the way he did when faced with any puzzling problem. "What did they say?"

Long silence. Tony and Stane looked at each other evenly.

Tony smirked. "Could you have a worse poker face? Just tell me, who told you? It had to be either Rhodey or Pepper."

"Never mind. Show me!"

"It's either Rhodey or Pepper."

"Show me."

"Fine, Rhodey," Tony sighed and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing his new fashion statement to the older man.

There was a silence, as Stane looked from the chest-piece to the huge factory generator and back again.

"It works," Tony pledged. Let me build these. We can make this work again brother, let me do it. It's not cost effective, but it is a legacy. A better one than Yinsen's corpse.

Stane gave a long suffering sigh, buttoned Tony's shirt, hiding the glow, and put a friendly arm around Tony's shoulder. "Now listen, Tony, we're a team, you understand there's nothing we can't do. O.K., like your father and I…"

Tony suddenly realized how badly the rug had been pulled out from under his friend. "I'm sorry I didn't give you a heads up," He said honestly. "But if I had…"

Stane was already waving him down. "Tony, no more of this ready-fire-aim business."

Tony smirked good-naturedly. "That was dad's line."

Stane nodded. "You're gonna have to let me handle this. We're going to have to play a whole different kind of ball now, and we're gonna take a lot of heat. I want you to promise me, that you're gonna lay low O.K.?"

Stark nodded quietly. He knew his friend was right. Tony was a good businessman, but a better inventor, and he had a tendency to lose his temper with the board, which was why he had put his father's oldest friend in place as chairman. With Tony at the plant in LA, and most of the business dealings being done on Wall Street in New York, a certain symbiosis had been formed, with Stane keeping a stewardship at Stark International while Tony created new prototypes and rolled them out to prospective buyers.

Tony preferred it that way.

Now, however, they had no weapons to roll out, demonstrate and sell. It was, as Stane said, a whole new ballgame. Tony had to find new projects to work on. Things that he didn't want just for his house or for the military.

The Arc Reactors were tricky at best, but had practical applications.

Tony had one such application in mind since he had designed the Mark I.

No. Laying low for a while was not a problem to Tony Stark.

He had work to do.

Stark came into his home and went straight to the workshop. "Jarvis, you up?"

"For you sir, always," Jarvis responded as though Stark had just stepped out of the room for a moment, instead of being abducted for three months.

"I want to enter a new project. Title is 'Mark I'."

The design had been scanned into the holographic workstation, and Jarvis projected the 3D view. Tony picked up his light pen and started circling whole sections of the original armor for deletion from the hologram.

"Is this for the Stark Industries server?" Jarvis asked him.

Tony took half a second to consider that. Weapons designs had made it to men like Raza before. "No, for now keep this on my private server."

"Working on a secret project, sir?"

"Can't risk having this one fall into the wrong hands," Wrong hands. Right. Someone who couldn't be trusted to use this suit might start going around torching caves full of people. Stark shook that thought out of his head; and continued revising the basic design. "Maybe mine can do some good."

After a few seconds of removing huge cross-sections of the Mark I, he started making improvements.

Studying the screen, Tony prepared himself for the most original project he had ever undertaken. There was no precedent since DaVinci's time, and nobody he could learn from like with any other weapon or vehicle. This would require working from scratch, to create something that nobody had ever considered. This wasn't going to be like bionic prosthetics. His limbs were all still attached. This wasn't going to be like creating lightweight alloys so he could move. This suit would be powered. This wasn't going to be an assembly line job. Every component would have to be precisely tailored to whoever wore the suit.

He had a lot of work to do.

Raza knew he had a lot of work to do.

Stark had destroyed most of his weapons and vehicles, as well as taking down most of his fighters. Raza didn't know if there was a cruise Missile heading for what was left of his cave, but was a seasoned warrior and knew not to be around long enough to find out.

Hiding places in the mountains of Afghanistan were plenty, but concealable, fortified, bases were harder to come by, especially with his diminished manpower.

It was time to move his operation, and move fast.

The survivors of Stark's escape were falling over themselves to obey, convinced that Raza was going to take revenge on whoever was within reach any moment.

With his face mangled by Stark Munitions, hideously scarred for life, the idea was tempting. But Raza had something else on his mind.

For all its power, Stark couldn't cross the desert sand in a suit of Iron.

The desert sands were hungry, and Raza knew time was a factor. Waiting long enough for the helicopters to pass, then a little longer to ensure they weren't coming back, and the wind had buried their objective.

Stark had left a clear trail behind him, and men experienced in surviving missile attacks from above knew how to read trails of smoke. There was only so far Stark could have flown.

Searching the desert sand was a short term arrangement by definition. The sun hit almost as hard and as hot as Stark's flamethrowers.

But after almost a day of searching, his underlings pushing themselves to exhaustion in anticipation of Raza's punishment, one man raised a hand and yelled.

And in his hand was an Iron mask.

End of Part One