Author's Note: Only three more chapters to go...

As always, my betas are indispensable, and possibly the only reason this fic is still moving. MountainRose, szzzt, and keroseneSteve - I couldn't do it without you guys.

Anon-review replies at the end of the chapter.


"All right. Steady... steady... There you are."

"Not - a horse, Doc."

"You wobble like a newborn foal, so forgive me the comparison." Carefully, Yinsen loosens his grip on Stark's rope belt, lowering the man's weight back onto his feet. He's gratified to see Stark's legs handle it with minimal trembling. "Oxygen?"

Stark twitches an elbow, nudging Yinsen's side with the hand that holds the mask over his face.

"Good. " Yinsen shifts their weight a little, tucking Stark's back closer against his chest, the better to gauge the rhythm of his patient's breathing. Shallow, stuttered, but better than it has been: it will be enough to keep him upright, probably. Assuming that he doesn't overexert himself immediately. "Need to cough?"

Well, that's interesting. Yinsen hadn't thought it was possible to roll one's eyes so hard as to make it palpable to a person standing directly behind oneself. If anyone could manage it, though, it would be the man capable of putting a sentence into the set of his eyebrows... "M'fine," Stark grumbles.

"All right, then. Your chair is over there."

Stark tilts his head as if to meet Yinsen's eye, his whole body telegraphing annoyance. "Like I - don't know? C'mon. Let's go."

Walking Stark the few meters to his chair is easier this time than it was when he first stood up, right after the surgery, but Yinsen can't let that sunny comparison outshine the fact that Stark should be able to do it by himself - that he did do it by himself, less than a week ago. When they finish lowering him into the chair he's wheezing again, clutching the mask to his face and trying not to double over; muscles tremble under Yinsen's palm. At least the gasping stops quickly this time, easing into long, steadying, controlled breaths.

"Okay." Stark lifts his head and surveys the contents of the table. A fond, sly smile twitches at the corner of his mouth; his gaze rests on each tool and coil of wire and sheet of paper in turn, acknowledging them one by one. He moves one hand, careful but steady, to caress the handle of the soldering iron. "God, I missed this."

Yinsen sits back from the table and lifts an interrogative eyebrow.

"Building stuff. Been bored, you have no - no idea." His fingers stroke the tool's handle, up and down, before finally curling around it; he looks up at Yinsen, and his grin is blindingly real - blindingly alive. "Finally gonna get to work."

- o -

Grip the pair of 18-gauge wires; tuck them in place against the contacts of the tiny servo, liberated from a former life adjusting missile fins. Solder the connections down. Once the beads have set, swap soldering gun for wire cutters, measure, and clip the leads to size. Coil the trailing ends around a forefinger and tuck the whole thing aside. One down, five to go.

He's making sure to leave plenty of excess in the leads on these things. They're part of the trigger mechanisms for his ill-advised propulsion system, whose wiring will have to pass through the Suit's knee, hip, and probably shoulder joints. The knee's the real problem; he's still working on good ways to lock the mechanism for flight, stiffen it enough to take the thrust so his legs don't have to, without closing all the wiring channels in the process. This would be a hell of a lot easier if he had some way to shape carbon fiber without destroying it on a primitive charcoal forge, but, well, cave, he's got what he's got.

Tuck. Solder. Swap. Measure. Clip. Coil. Two down.

He does have a few good ways to seal a container, though. Could do this with hydraulics - god knows there's enough compressor power lying around - maybe by filing off enough iron into the lubricant to make it ferrofluid, then locking it up with a handy electromagnet. Not that he actually wants to hang his survival on yet another magnet, but screw irony, it's the best idea he's got so far.

Tuck. Solder. Swap. Measure. Clip -

- warm hand on his shoulder, and he jumps about a foot. Dropping the wire cutters, he wraps one arm around his ribs, cursing breathlessly. "Shit! Doc - what the hell! Warn a - guy!"

"I did. Five times." Oh, that eyebrow is audible. "You seemed to be enjoying yourself."

"Well, not - anymore." Yeah, he had been enjoying himself. The blissful focus on triggers and joint designs had fuzzed out the cave; it was just him and the project, everything else drifting aside to let him work. Really damn nice, right up until somebody sees fit to shock him out of it. "What?"

Yinsen flicks his eyes in the direction of their cots. "You've been up for half an hour now. Time for a rest, don't you think?"

No. No, he does not think. Tony's other hand tightens on the needlenose pliers. "M'okay, Doc." He lets go of his ribs to wave a hand across all he's accomplished in the past half-hour. "I'm fine. I'm working. Don't knock it."

"And you'll continue to be fine, provided you rest when you need it." Doc reaches across the table, aiming for the wire cutters. "I'll clean up if you -"

Oh no you don't. Tony snatches the cutters back up and draws them into the shelter of his body, glaring sideways at Yinsen. "Like hell. I'm fine." Besides, he's been lying flat on his back for days, dying of boredom when he wasn't dying of worse things, and now that he finally gets to sit up Doc expects him to go back?

His finger smoothes down the worn curve of the cutters' handle. He has been fantasizing for days about getting back to his tools. He has plans for these tools. Doc does not get to take his tools.

Yinsen sits back from the table, peering at Tony with an unfamiliar expression. "All right, Stark," he says finally.

"Look, I said no, I'm not -" Tony blinks. "Wait. What?"

"All right," Doc repeats, getting up from his stool. "If you don't feel you need to rest, I will trust you."

"What, really? Finally." Tony huffs in mingled amusement and triumph, turning back to the trigger wiring. He stills again, though, when a pair of steady hands come to rest on his shoulders. "...Doc?"

"You do still need to stretch. That I'm not going to let go. If you'd prefer to do it here, that's fine, but you'll find that suit a difficult thing to operate if you heal with a permanent hunch."

He should've known better than to think Doc would give in all the way. Small victories, Stark. Take what you can get. "Sure," he sighs. "Hit me."

The hands on his shoulders squeeze gently for a moment, whether in comfort or warning he's not sure, before their grip firms up and draws Tony's torso back to plant Yinsen's hip squarely between his shoulderblades. He huffs a little, remembering where this is headed and not liking it one bit, and yep, they just keep going. The steady pressure almost feels good at first, pulling his collarbones apart and stretching muscles cramped from weeks of hunching over his chest… but he's been curled up like that for a reason, and the pleasant burn quickly gives way to something a lot less enjoyable.

He bites down hard on the groan that wants to emerge. Noise would be a pointless waste of air, and hard experience has taught him that gasping for breath in this position is not fun at all.

"Easy," Yinsen murmurs. "Breathe through it."

Dammit, Doc.

Yinsen counts off a rhythm to breathe to, though, and after a few false starts he manages to fall into it. In, and the bellows-frame of his ribs pulls his chest wall taut; out, and the burning stretch dies down to an ash-veiled glow. In. Out. It's weirdly hypnotic; when Yinsen lets his shoulders relax, thirty seconds' rest between stretches, he has to shake himself a little.

After the fifth rep, it's more than thirty seconds' break. Tony shakes himself out of a reverie lit by charcoal glow, clearing his throat. "We done?"

"For now. You'll need to do this again in an hour or so."

Good thing he can do it without getting up, then. Tony grunts noncommittally and flexes his wrists, flipping the pliers around his index finger. "Right. Come get me in - an hour, then." These servo leads aren't gonna fix themselves.

Instead of going off to whittle at random, though, like he's been doing the last day or so, Yinsen rounds the bench and perches on the stool next to Tony. Agile doctor's hands flex the skeletal hinge joint he's pushed off to the side, watching its interior spaces change shape with the movement. "Elbow joint?" he asks.

"Knee, actually." (...clip, coil, three down.) "Needs some work, still. Might want to - pick your brain, when I've got these ready."

Yinsen flexes the joint again, this time deliberately catching one finger in the closing space. "Hmm," he murmurs, and reaches for a pencil.

A couple minutes later, when Tony scoops the completed servos into a tray for later, he finds Doc scribbling away at… Huh. "Hadn't pegged you for a da Vinci."

Yinsen rolls his eyes. "These are joint diagrams, not the Vitruvian Man."

Tony cocks an eyebrow, leaning carefully closer. "Thought you were - a cardiologist."

"Specialty does not imply ignorance." A quick arc sweeps the space between the sketched-out calf and the back of the thigh, '178°' noted in that neat angular hand. "Besides, I have my own full set to examine, you know."

Tony manfully shoves aside the innuendo that rises unbidden to his tongue (wow, he must be doing better, if those impulses are back online) in favor of parsing the diagrams a bit more closely.

Hmm. Yes. That is helpful. Especially with struts shaped like that… and the space'd be roughly ellipsoid…

Aha.

He takes one more good long look, to etch the details in his memory, before snatching his own sheet of paper and going to town. The joints'll work this time.

- o -

Copper coil, ten-megohm resistors, dorsal half of a dissected Melchior rocket, another pair of aluminum struts, box of LEDs, and go - Yinsen scrambles back across the cell, dumping the double-armload of parts on the bench at Stark's elbow. His alacrity gets him a vague grunt from the figure hunched over the table, blending into the rattles and scrapes as Stark snatches his offering and starts working it into the… whatever he's building. It started as wiring for the new joint designs, he thinks, but it has since proliferated into an indecipherable, chaotically organized mass of machinery. The thing sprawls across two benchtops and a table, trailing loose wires and bristling with joints that connect to nothing; for all its chaos, though, it's somehow hauntingly systematic, as if its loose ends could articulate with each other at any moment and draw the whole thing together into a cohesive whole.

Stark's been working on it for hours now. At first, Yinsen had been able to follow him, and to interrupt at intervals with stretching exercises and conversation. Gradually, though, that driving focus had come over him; the conversation had petered out, the stretches interrupted by restlessness, and eventually Yinsen gave up even trying to break into Stark's concentration. At this point, he's just trying to stay out of the way.

"...hm… Hey! Driver, you know the one - five-eighths, red handle, c'mon."

That, and play gofer, when Stark demands it. A quick rummage through the scattered tools comes up with the one ordered, and he slaps the handle into Stark's outstretched palm.

"Mm, thanks Dummy. Not a wine rack."

He's not sure what to make of the name-calling, though - much less of the word-salad occasionally tossed out in the tone of a dry, distracted compliment. Maybe he should try to interrupt again, just long enough for a neurological exam. Hopefully it's just Stark's usual indecipherable mass of pop-culture references, but he'd rather weather the man's annoyance to prove it harmless than risk standing aside while Stark has a stroke.

He's only just resolved to check and begun moving, though, when Stark suddenly pauses, staring intently into the struts he's articulating. "J, modeling," he commands, looking up at - well, not so much at as through - the ceiling. "Gimme Young's modulus for this third permutation, then torsion and compression se -"

He cuts off in mid-word, his eyes snapping into focus on the rock above him, and flinches back as if struck. His eyes jolt wide open, bewildered and lost, and dart across the cave; his hands twitch and nearly drop his tools.

It's only a moment before he stills, though, fingers curling slowly around the handles. "Oh," he manages, staring down at his workbench again. He buries his face in one palm. "Fuck."

Yinsen moves in beside him, resting a hand (slowly, predictably) on his shoulder. "Stark?"

A harsh shudder jerks through Stark's entire body, and he drops his tools to plant his face in both hands. His answer takes a while in coming, and it's muffled through his palms: "M'fine."

"You're a terrible liar."

"Just…" Stark scrubs both hands down his face, blinking hard. "Zoned out a bit. I'm back, it's fine."

Yes, and Yinsen is king of the moon. He sits down beside Stark, keeping the hand on his shoulder to ground him. "I had an intern, you know, back at my hospital," he muses. Perhaps if he shares, Stark will feel safer in reciprocating. "A good man, good with sutures, excellent bedside manner; he was very kind. A little disorganized, though. He was forever losing important paperwork." He cracks a small half-smile, remembering how Rajid had flailed about in search of the latest missing chart, half-panicked and trying so very hard to hide it.

The smile fades, though: "The first time I had to dig a bullet out of one of Raza's men… when I called for the sutures, I called for my intern. He'd been dead for three weeks."

"Ouch."

"Mm." Yinsen tilts his head a little, chasing Stark's gaze. "I was lucky they didn't take it personally. I'd used his nickname, which sounds extremely rude in Dari."

Stark looks away. "I called you Dummy, didn't I."

"Both 'dummy' and 'butterfingers.' I thought at first that I'd dropped something without realizing it."

The choked noise that piles up in Stark's throat is neither laugh nor sob. "If those two were around, you wouldn't be able to - miss it. Disasters, both of them. I should've broken them down for - for parts, years ago."

Yinsen blinks. "Parts?" he ventures.

"Build them into a refrigerator or something. 'Cept they'd always screw up your drink." Stark combs his fingers roughly through his hair. "The morons don't have the RAM to handle cleaning up - one damn workbench - and they still won't, won't let me upgrade them. Dummy likes his damn 1989 m-motherboard." He huffs, breathless, and curls an arm around his ribs with another little sobbing laugh. Scruffy dark hair curtains his eyes. "Stupid piece of crap."

Robots. Stark's lab assistants are robots. (Yinsen should probably be surprised about this, but all he can manage is a distant, wry half-amusement.) They seem to be more than his lab assistants, too; for all the casual vitriol of his words, Stark's voice is warm, and he's visibly fighting back tears. Yinsen has no better way to describe it than paternal - a worried father missing his children.

The madman's built himself an artificial family. Yinsen has no idea what to make of that… and he quickly pushes aside the little voice that wishes he had the same capacity.

(Stark's children can be re-built, after all.)

- o -

Yeah, he's officially messed-up, if even talking about the bots is doing this to him. Tony drags a sleeve across his face and draws a deep, steadying breath. Pull yourself together, Stark. "Anyway. Yeah." He stares down at the core torso assembly in front of him, flexing a strut between thumb and forefinger.

He isn't going to get that modeling done, is he? Without J (don't think about it, not helping) and his home systems, he'd have to code the whole sim environment from scratch on a laptop that might actually be older than he is. No mockups, either, not under the camera's wary eye.

Pencil and paper it is, then. It's crude and it's imprecise... but then, this thing only has to work once.

Without another word, he throws himself back into the work. In the rhythm of construction, he can lose himself again. When he's wiring this colossal kludge, he isn't missing his idiot boys. It's hard to be homesick when you're busy. The core torso wiring's almost done, now; he can start hooking it into the leg drivers tonight, get that done by tomorrow. Haptic sensors after that, and soon. Valves and jets for the flamethrowers, rocket rails, joints and locks. It's all coming together.

He turns away from the camera, so it won't pick up his predatory smirk. A few more weeks, assholes. Just wait.

- o -
- o - o -
- o -


I feed on critique. It's delicious. Om nom nom reviews. ;)


Replies to anonymous reviews:

Guest: Thanks - the research is the fun part! Well, okay, more a fun part than the fun part, but it is actually fun. :

Miso Muchi: Thank you! I have excellent help, and also a disturbingly hyperactive imagination. ;)