"Howard?"

Stane peeks into the bare hospital room, cautious. Silence greets him as he ducks in.

Howard has a phone in one hand and his wife's hand in the other. Stane can't see his face, but he can guess enough by the disheveled state of his clothes, the same suit as he wore three days ago. He smells faintly of alcohol and sweat.

"Howard?"

"She's gone."

"... What?"

"She's not going to wake up," says Howard, flatly. He still hasn't moved.

Stane sucks in a tight breath.

"The doctors say if they don't- if I choose not to let her go, she'll die on her own in two days.

"I'm going to let them do it."

Stane takes another step forward, hesitant. "Howard-"

"I'm going to let them do it," Howard interrupts, "and I'm not going to come back. At all.

"I'm never going to see her again."

"Howard," Stane repeats, gentler this time. He takes a few steps closer, dropping a hand on Stark's shoulder. The older man tenses at the contact, dropping Maria's hand. "Howard, you can't just walk away from this."

"I can," Howard mutters. "I can, and I'm- I'm going to."

There's something off with him. Stane frowns and shakes the shoulder in his grip. Howard's head lolls.

"Are you-?"

"Maybe."

"Why are you drunk in the hospital?" Stane hisses, shaking his shoulder harder.

"Because my wife is dead!" Howard shrieks, bloodshot eyes snapping to meet his. His phone clatters to the floor. "My wife is dead, and my son is dead!"

Stane releases his shoulder.

"I've lost my whole family," Howard grates, hands dropping to form fists in his wife's hospital bed. "I have nothing left but the company and scotch." He stands up quickly: too quickly, swaying to catch his balance and knocking his chair back. "And what the fuck is that worth? Not my goddamn family." Then he whirls around and kicks the chair; it skids and topples over the cables laid out on the ground. He stares at it furiously for a few seconds, chest heaving, as though he'd like to pick it up and throw it through the plexiglass window. He staggers forward one step, two, and collapses against the bed frame, head in his hands. His shoulders shake and Stane knows he's crying.

"Jesus, Howard," he manages, horribly uncomfortable. He glances at the coma patient on the bed, barely recognizing her wan face as Maria's, and then checks the window for observers. Finding none, he goes down on one knee next to his old friend. "I know this is hard, but you've gotta pull yourself together. Now is not the time-"

"To mourn?" Howard spits, voice muffled. "Even if I did wait around for the last of my family to die, this would be the only chance I got to truly mourn. Leave me to it."

"Howard," Stane insists. "You can't do this. You need to take a step back from all this and think it through. Put away the alcohol for- for ten minutes, go back to the company-"

"Fuck the company!" Howard yells hoarsely. He looks up, exposing his wrecked expression. Tears soak the collar of his shirt. He looks exhausted. "Fuck the company, fuck the public, and fuck you. Get out, Stane."

Stane jerks back, then sighs and nods. He moves to the doorway, muttering a quiet goodbye. Howard doesn't reply.

He's got a hand on the door when Stark's phone rings: a loud, persistent noise that cuts off after only a few seconds. Stane turns as the other man snatches up the large chunk of technology and presses a button.

"Hello?" he slurs into the receiver. After a pause he sits up, looking more coherent than Stane's seen since the news first came. "Okay, I'm on my way." Another press of a button, and the phone goes back to the floor.

The man stands slowly and leans over the bed, pressing a gentle kiss to Maria's forehead. "Goodbye," he whispers into her hair.

As he turns to march out the door, he catches Stane's incredulous look. "Peggy needs me," is all he says, and then he's gone.

**8**

It starts out with playful slaps on the back.

Obie spends a lot of time in the Other Room. The Other Room, Tony knows, is much larger, and has other people and animals in it. Obie once said that if Tony was good, he could have a fish. Whatever a fish is. All the same, it's kind of exciting.

"Engineering", or so Obie calls it, comes naturally to Tony. He spends many hours reading everything Obie gives him, books as thick as his hand with tiny words that he somehow instinctively knows how to read. It's very hard to retain all this information, and that's how playful slaps on the back turned to rough slaps on the back turned to painful slaps that left bruises. He takes extra care to retain and recite everything exactly as he read it, whenever Obie asks. His head feels stuffed and uncomfortable, a constant headache throbbing at his temples. But he doesn't realize how bad it is until he has to apply his learnings to a mound of scrap metal placed on his desk.

His protests earn him a fractured wrist and a bruised jaw. Of course, with his wrist injured as it is, he can't do any work. Needless to say, Obie is less than pleased about that.

And so here he is now, curled up around a bruised rib and a thick book, head pounding so hard his eyes are watering as he tries to cram more information into his head. He doesn't feel like he's old enough to be reading all of this, feels like he's missing something vital that's supposed to help him process-

and that thing is memory. He doesn't remember nearly anything before his Room. He doesn't know anything about the Other Room. He's got gaps that can't be explained. He's not sure if he's ever met someone other than Obie-

except for how he has. And something in Tony is afraid to ask about him.

**8**

"Who are you?" Tony asks, slung over the masked man's shoulder. The car the man pulled him out of is far in the distance by now, still aflame. "What's your name? Did you know my dad?"

"Stop asking," says the man, gripping him tighter about the thighs. "Was your dad in that car?"

"N-no..."

"I see," the man says neutrally. Behind them, the car finally explodes. Tony stares.

At some point he's shuffled into another car, sleek and black with leather seats. The masked man ducks in after him. He doesn't fit in with the expensive interior, all rough edges and dirty boots seated awkwardly on the clean seats.

"Sit," he orders roughly. Tony obeys.

"- is gone," he says; the man tells him to stop speaking. Tony obeys again, at a loss. Now that they're in the car and heading somewhere Tony doesn't dare ask after, the man is tense. He reaches for the mask covering the lower half of his face, pauses, and drops his hand.

They sit in silence for a long time.

Eventually the car rolls to a stop. The masked man gets out and offers a hand.

They walk through the car garage still holding hands. It's dark and indoors, so Tony can't tell where he is. He finds he doesn't much care, at this point. He knows he should be afraid, but he doesn't know how to feel much of anything right now. It's like that one time when he went to the dentist, and they gave him a needle full of liquid so he couldn't feel it when they filled his cavity. It made him numb.

Until he feels a jolt of pain in his hand.

The man has his hand in such a tight grip Tony worries it will bruise. He's looking straight ahead, muscles tense and a tightness about his eyes. He's afraid of something, Tony realizes, or at the very least worried.

"Try not to tense up," he says suddenly, and the strain is evident in his voice as well. "It's going to look scary, but if you don't stay calm it'll hurt more. Don't struggle. Don't fight them."

"What's gonna happen?" Tony asks. The numbness is fading away, and in its place comes the first stirrings of fear.

"They'll strap you down," the man continues. "Tighter if you try to escape. Bite down on the mouth guard. Don't try to spit it out or you'll end up losing your tongue."

Tony's free hand moves up to his mouth. "What's gonna happen?" he asks again.

They stop in front of a door.

"They're going to wipe your mind," the masked man says. "I'm sorry."

Tony swallows. "Not you too?"

The man looks down at him, and there's something in his eyes Tony can't read. "I wouldn't wish this on anybody."

"Then it's okay," Tony whispers. "I can tell you don't want to be here."

The hand on his tightens and relaxes. "I don't."

Then the doors open.

"Stay with me?" comes out of Tony's mouth. The man nods.

"I will."