"That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen," says Iron Man. "Oh, wait, I sound like you."
The other suit is black and silver and barely walking, right arm slung across Iron Man's shoulders, and Iron Man has his other arm around the suit's waist. The eye slits in the black-and-silver helmet are glowing dimly in the crumpled faceplate; the armor has been slashed, cracked, battered, blistered, and burned, one side of the torso caved in. Weak sparks zip from the exposed circuitry on the right shoulder and the back of the neck.
"Couple more steps," says Iron Man, as they turn the corner into the bay of the workshop. War Machine sags and would fall, if it weren't for Iron Man's grab. "Or you know, not," Iron Man grunts, and he lowers the heavier suit to the floor.
Iron Man mutters a command and the gold faceplate starts to lift; even before it's all the way up, Tony Stark is fitting his gloved fingers into his neck and pulling apart his helmet, tossing the two halves and the faceplate aside. His hair is matted to his head. "Whoa," he says, assessing the carnage. "Yeah, gonna have to cut you out of that. That's some serious damage. I'd be impressed, if I wasn't so annoyed. Hang on a sec."
Sitting with his legs spread, hunched over, War Machine shoots him a low thumbs up. Tony pats him on the non-sparking shoulder and gets up. "Hey, you! Scrap Heap! Circular saw; make it the diamond-edged blade and today, unless you want to be on an assembly line putting the filament in light bulbs for the rest of your life. Hydrant, I need goggles, a welding mask, and the biggest blowtorch you can find, if you would be so kind."
Four minutes later, Tony has his fingers under the edge of a long, jagged slice just below the smashed helmet's chin. "See? Told you I wouldn't cut your head off," he says, tugging upward. The black helmet comes loose; Tony lifts it off. "--Jesus. Are you supposed to be that color? I don't think you're supposed to be that color."
A gray-faced Jim Rhodes draws a very deep breath, blinking owlishly at the light, then takes a weak swat at Tony. His arm falls under the weight of the armor too quickly for the blow to connect. "Screw you. Just get me out of this thing before it crushes me." There's a trail of dried blood running down from the cut above one eyebrow; his face is battered and one eye has already begun to swell shut.
"It wouldn't be about to crush you if you hadn't just had to take on the dragon," says Tony. He tosses the pair of goggles at him. "And here I didn't think you could possibly find anything big enough to knock out the War Machine's power source." He snaps the welder's faceplate down again. "Well done." He fires up the blowtorch.
With what is clearly a supreme effort, Rhodey lifts his heavy armored arms high enough to get the goggles on over his eyes. "You can quit with the holier-than-thou attitude, okay? That ugly-ass thing was going after the city. I stopped it."
Tony snorts, resting Rhodey's forearm on his knee and going after the suit's elbow joint with the blowtorch. "If getting yourself shoved down its throat and practically liquefied by alien demon-fire counts as stopping it, then yeah, you did a fantastic job. I'd give you a round of applause, but my hands are a little full here."
"Yeah, it does count," snaps Rhodes. "It's dead."
"What a coincidence, so's the War Machine," says Tony, and he throws the gauntlet aside and moves on to the other arm.
"--No, wait," says Rhodey. "This stuff next." He points at the chestplate of the armor.
Tony shoots him a look through the welding mask. "That's gonna take the longest."
"It's killing me here, Tony; would you just get it off!"
"Alright, alright alright alright!" Tony shuts off the blowtorch and goes back to the saw against the invisible seam running up the suit's left side. Sparks fly; he glances up briefly to be sure he's not burning Rhodes's face or exposed arm, then he returns to work. "You know, you could have waited for me," he shouts over the noise of the saw. "It's a crazy thought, I know, but if I'd gotten there five minutes before I did, I wouldn't be peeling you like an overripe banana right now."
" 'Wait for you'?" Rhodey repeats, and his face has pulled into a flat expression. "Why would I do that? I never know when you're gonna be able to wear that suit." The side of the War Machine suit splits open with a clang and shriek of metal; Rhodey doesn't flinch.
Tony shuts off the saw and rocks back on his heels. "Okay." He snaps his plastic mask up. "Come on, Rhodey, whatever you're trying to say with that loveable passive-aggressive charm of yours, let's hear it."
Rhodes's eyes narrow; he pushes the goggles up on his forehead. "I'm trying to say, you being sober enough to help me out today, that was chance."
"Oh, for the love of-- Once, once, a guy can't keep a repulsor steady, and you never let him hear the end of it."
"It's not funny, Tony. It wasn't once. You think I don't notice when you can't stand straight, or I can't figure it out when you talk like my name's got four syllables?" Tony opens his mouth but Rhodey's blazing now; he doesn't let him get a word in. "I tried to get you help, man, but you laughed at AA, you kicked over that rehab place in record time, and you just kept going right back for that bottle after I distracted you from it--"
Tony barks a laugh. "Oh, is that what that was? Distraction?"
"--So, yeah, Tony, I started taking the calls and leaving without you, 'cause it's the only way I've got left to help you!"
"You started taking the calls now, huh?" Tony sucks in a sharp breath through his teeth; his glare is momentarily lost to the ceiling. When he snaps back to Rhodey, the other man is still watching him with that same steady anger. "What, are you an Avenger now? Is that it?"
"They think I'm you."
"They think I'm you. I don't take off the mask, I don't sit around, I don't chit-chat; I just roll in, get it done, and get out. They think you're testing out a new suit."
Tony stares at him, and then he shakes his head. "Oh, come on; they must have figured it o--"
"No," Rhodey says, ruthless and shaky. "Nobody has. Hell, that's how bad it's got, Tony -- even you haven't noticed that while you're under the hood of the hot rod with a bottle of Jack, Iron Man's out flying around."
"War Machine," Tony corrects swiftly. "War Machine's flying around."
"Somebody's gotta get the job done," says Rhodey, looking right at him.
"That's great," says Tony, and he snaps his mask down. "That's just great." The saw turns on with a rev of its motor, and Tony puts one red-gloved hand on Rhodes's shoulder to be sure he holds still as he starts carving into the other side of the armor, the side that got crushed like a kicked can. "That's just what I need," Tony shouts over the sound of the saw. "Somebody to make my decisions for me. A goddamn babysitter who can replace me without anybody noticing; that's exactly what I need, Rhodey!"
"People have been asking you about stuff I did, Tony!" Rhodey shouts right back, his arm lifted out of the way of the saw. "And you couldn't even figure out you didn't do any of it! That doesn't sound like a guy who should be making his own damn decisions!"
"I'm sorry, what was that?" He holds up the saw so that he can rev it illustratively beside his own ear. "Can't hear you!"
Rhodes sets his mouth in a thin line, and he sits still.
Tony makes a final strategic cut at the shoulder, and he sets the saw aside and yanks off the welder's mask. "What it sounded like, actually," he says, bitter and too-calm as he places his hands on either side of the jagged slice in the suit torso, "was like you finally get to be the hero, Colonel. How's that feel?"
Tony's eyes are up, and there's an unkind light in them for a half second when he sees the sharp, pained expression that flashes across Rhodes's face -- but it's too sharp, too physically pained, and Tony looks down. There's blood on his gauntlets and not a little of it, darker than hot rod red. His voice sticks.
"I told you I wanted this fucking thing off," says Rhodey.
"Jesus Christ," says Tony. "Jesus Christ you could have said something, Rhodey, like maybe, 'Oh hey Tony, by the way, Puff back there nicked an artery,' " and he's peeling the armor's torso off quickly, as carefully as he can given that he's using Iron Man's servomotors and strength to do it.
"Nah, he missed," says Rhodey, and he grunts as Tony pulls the last chunk of armor away from the deep slash just below his ribcage. "Besides, I figured I'd make you feel nice and guilty first."
"Oh, son of a bitch," says Tony, and it's half to Rhodey and half to the dark blood soaking his side and vanishing beneath the lines of the mangled armor still on Rhodes's legs. He points sharply at the nearest robot. "First aid kit, ten minutes ago. Jar-vis! Call Erica; patch her through on the speaker."
"Calling Dr. Sondheim." The sound of the ringing telephone line echoes through the workshop.
"Now you know what it's like being on my end of things," says Rhodey, and he's grinning crookedly, with effort, around his split lip. "I look that bad?"
"You look like a trash compactor or six chewed you up and spit you out," says Tony matter-of-factly, as the phone rings on. He snags the T-shirt that he'd discarded when he'd first put the suit on, and presses it against the wound; Rhodey hisses. "Hold that there." Tony points at Rhodes as he reaches out to take the ordered items from the robotic arm. "I'm still mad at you. You're still an asshole."
"You're still a drunk," says Rhodey, wry and not at the same time.
Tony, his hands full of his best friend's blood, almost laughs.
Pepper Potts has a daily routine.
She goes to the office at 7:30 in the morning, has coffee with Jim Rhodes at quarter til, and is on the phone with Stark Industries' overseas offices by 8:00 sharp. She spends the morning doing everything she possibly can without Tony; scheduling, shooing reporters, and returning phone calls.
Pepper still does anything and everything that Mr. Stark requires, though a few months ago, she quietly hired matronly Mrs. Arbogast to handle the drycleaning and the thank you notes, because these days, Pepper just doesn't have the time. She's making excuses for Tony, she's taking meetings without him, she's bringing briefs home at night so that she can summarize them for him in the morning, because she knows perfectly well that he is never going to read them. Sometimes, she takes meetings with department heads or S.H.I.E.L.D agents, assuring them that she is going to relay their business to Tony, knowing that she is going to wind up making most of the decisions herself.
At 11:30, she eats a Caesar salad and yogurt with granola. She scans the headlines, just like she did over breakfast in her apartment, for mention of Stark Industries or Iron Man. She checks the stock prices.
At noon, Pepper calls down for Happy and he drives her to Malibu. Sometimes Pepper will keep checking the news in the car or will have to take a call, but more often than not, these days, she spends the drive in the passenger seat, talking to Happy.
Sometimes, Pepper wonders when that half-hour became the best part of her day.
Between 12:30 and 12:45, depending on traffic, Pepper steps out of the big black Rolls Royce, walks to the front door, and greets Jarvis as she lets herself in.
On the good days, she's in and out of the house swiftly; she will find Tony awake and coherent and drinking coffee, waiting for her with a wink and a jaunty comment, and the sneaky warmth that still takes her breath away. Pepper stays for those days. When she gets Tony back to the office, she'll leave a bag from the corner bistro on Jim's desk, because she has a very good idea who forced water and aspirin down Tony's throat last night; who steered him to bed before passing out on the sofa.
On the days when Jim walks into the breakroom at 7:45 looking like death warmed over, Pepper knows what she can expect at the house. It takes serious convincing to get Tony out of bed, those days, and Pepper won't do it; Tony's bedroom is the unspoken line she won't cross. She asks Jarvis to wake him and pick out a suit and tie while she brews a pot of strong coffee and fishes aspirin out of the cabinet over the sink.
On the worst days, when the headlines say Iron Man did his best last night but couldn't save that suicidal jumper, when Jim wasn't there one way or the other, Pepper calls Happy inside, and they find Tony wherever he fell asleep or lost consciousness (whichever came first). Sometimes, Pepper has to recite the access codes and remove the pieces of red-gold armor that Tony never took off; once, she has to call Jim to help her cut Tony out of the mangled suit because she doesn't trust herself with power tools and Happy shakes his head when she puts it to him, and Jim drives over and does it with a frightening resigned ease. Those mornings (besides that one when she called Jim), she cleans up after Iron Man, and she asks Happy to come and haul Tony to his feet. Pepper and Happy sober him up, sharing glances over the top of Tony's head; Pepper finds ice and calls Dr. Sondheim if there are any cuts deep enough to require stitches, and she contacts a firm if a kitchen appliance or a pane of glass or the sofa needs replacing.
Jim takes the nights and Pepper takes the days. She's not sure she could handle Tony at night, when she sees the broken glass and the hangovers in the mornings, and when she thinks of how much he loves throwing her off balance, getting in her space, even when he's sober. Pepper can't begrudge Jim the nights off that he takes, not even when those nights off become more and more frequent; not when she sees him first thing in the morning after he's been up half the night fighting supervillains or terrorists or whoever else wants to blow up a city today, or when he's been up the whole night fighting Tony.
Pepper wonders sometimes if it would do any good to remind Jim that he has to sleep once in a while, but she never says it, because he's doing a hell of a job in the armor, keeping Tony out of it.
Until the morning that Pepper's laptop informs her over breakfast that Iron Man was last seen fighting a large creature near San Francisco, flying drunkenly and ultimately getting swallowed alive.
Pepper drops her spoon with a clatter that echoes in the too-still apartment.
She grabs purse, keys, cell phone, and the pair of flats under the coffee table, and she's speed-dialing even as she goes out the door.
Tony isn't picking up; that's not unusual for this hour of the morning (7:10, and Pepper really wishes that this weren't part of a routine, too, but it is -- read the headlines, see a report asking HAS MILLIONAIRE ONE MAN ARMY FINALLY LOST HIS WAR?, get no answer from Tony, call Jim and be reassured that Tony's at home and breathing). This morning, Jim's phone goes straight to voicemail.
Pepper looks in the rearview mirror and takes a sharp right onto the entrance that will lead her to I-10 West.
Her voice mail is full of calls; Agent Coulson, the DOD, the CIA, the FBI, Captain America, a concerned trustee on behalf of Stark Industries' board of directors; all of them want to know what happened, and all of them know that the most reliable route to Tony Stark is straight through Virginia Potts.
SUPER-ZERO FIGHTS LOSING BATTLE
Please, Tony, she thinks, and she hates these mornings as she steps on the gas, please tell me you didn't do something really stupid.
"Tony?" calls Pepper, and her shoes make no noise on the floor. She spins in the foyer, red-gold hair flying in every direction. "Tony!" The house is empty and silent and still; Pepper's mouth sets in a line of determined fear and she whirls again, headed straight for the stairs to the workshop. "Jarvis?"
"Good morning, Miss Potts," says the cultured voice.
"Jarvis, where's Tony?"
"--He's right behind you," says Tony Stark. "A little early, aren't we, Potts?" He's blinking at her from his bedroom door at the top of the stairs, wrecked and half-asleep. He's wearing a loose robe and shorts, and not much else. The arc reactor glows steadily. There's not a scratch on him.
Pepper's move up the stairs is barely slow enough to be classified as a walk rather than a run. Tony puts his hands up to catch her. His palms are warm on her arms; his hands are strong and a hell of a lot steadier than Pepper's. "Oh my God, are you okay?"
"Is there some reason I'm unaware of that I wouldn't be?" asks Tony.
"What are you--" Her brow furrows, and she shakes it off. "Are you really?"
"Yes, I'm really perfectly fine, Pepper, aside from the part where I have no idea what's going on. You, on the other hand, look like you just ran the hundred yard dash. Do you need to sit down? Is that what's happening here?" The tone is facetious, but he's frowning with something approaching real worry and he doesn't release her arms.
"No," says Pepper, "no, I don't need to sit down." She says this more to herself than to Tony, reassuring herself. She looks back up. "Was it J--" She notices: Tony is standing in the middle of the doorway, directly blocking her view into the dark bedroom.
Tony peers at her. " 'Was it Juh'? Uh, gee, I don't know." He blinks; he begins to smirk just a touch; that subtle, considering upturn of the corners of his mouth that Pepper knows too well. "Have I ever told you how nice you look with your hair down? Seriously, it's distracting me. Do it more often."
She shoots him the patented Potts disapproving eyes and tries to look around him over his shoulder; her gaze snaps to him as Tony puts himself right in her way. "Do you--" she says.
" 'Do I'…? You know, you've always finished your sentences before. Is this, like, a new trend?" says Tony, finally pulling his robe closed and knotting it, but Pepper is having none of it.
"All that worry -- I hurried to get over here! -- and do you seriously have," and Pepper is angry, shouldering past him and storming right over her invisible personal line, "some girl in your--"
Tony makes a grab for her arm, too late. "Don't--" But she's in the room, and he throws up his hands.
It's dark with the picture window shaded, but that is unmistakably Jim Rhodes asleep in the bed.
"--yeah, wake him up," Tony finishes, and there is something like quiet regret in the set of his mouth.
Pepper takes a half-step back, nearly running into her boss. "Oh my God."
Jim shows no sign of being woken, lying on his back with his face turned away from the door. He's shirtless, his ribs taped up and his right side and arm bandaged.
Her face has gone white; she will feel a twinge about the order of her observations (Jim is in Tony's bed; wait, Jim is hurt), later. "Oh, my God-- Is he okay?"
"He'll live," says Tony with a flippancy that doesn't reach his eyes, and he lays a light hand on her arm. "Come on, Potts; outside, huh?"
Pepper lets him turn her away, but she takes one last look over her shoulder as she goes. Jim breathes steady and slow under a spectacular display of bruising that she'd initially mistaken for shadows, the covers drawn up to his waist.
The other side of the bed is rumpled, the pillow indented.
Pepper misses a step, but it isn't obvious without the stutter-click of her heels to betray her.
As Tony shuts the door behind them, she finds her voice. "Tony, he needs to see a doctor."
"You think I wrapped those bandages that neat?" says Tony. "I appreciate your faith in my bedside manner, but it wasn't me; I called Erica last night."
"Dr. Sondheim? She was here?"
Tony waves her off. "I fed her a line about how Rhodey'd been helping with a project that backfired on us down in the workshop. I don't know if she bought it, but you know Erica; she isn't about to go feed an exclusive to Teen People."
He turns toward the stairs, but Pepper catches his arm, hard. She is inexplicably, impossibly angry. "When really, he was what, Tony? In the suit, fighting a dragon? A dragon! They don't even exist!"
He wheels back sharply. "Oh, so you knew too, huh? Didn't bother to tell me that Rhodey was flying around pretending to be me? For your information, Brutus, he wasn't in my suit; he was in the War Machine. I was in the Mark VII, saving his ass."
"It doesn't matter," Pepper snaps. "Yes, I knew."
"You lied to me," Tony says, and there is controlled fury in his face; he stands still but tight like a coiled spring, ready to move. "You lied to me, Pepper, and maybe it was stupid of me but I really didn't see it coming."
Pepper stares at him for a long moment, and she sets her hands on her hips. Her voice is low but no less vehement for it. "I have never lied to you, Mr. Stark--"
Tony barks a sharp laugh. "And now we're back to 'Mr. Stark.'"
"--You never asked! Not once! I kept waiting for you to have questions, to say something, and I would have told you, Tony, but you never noticed!"
"Maybe I didn't think to notice! Maybe I trusted you two!"
"We were protecting you," Pepper retorts, angry color high in her face. "Is Jim okay? Shouldn't he be in a hospital somewhere?"
" 'Jim' won't go to the emergency room because of that stupid secret identity of his, Erica checked him out, and I don't need protecting." Tony folds his arms over the glow of the arc reactor. "That's my gig, remember?"
"You could ask for help, Tony. It wouldn't kill you!" There is far more snap in her voice than she would like; it's louder than she would like. Pepper Potts is an eminently patient woman, but sometimes, even eminent patience smashes to bits against the immovable obstinate wall that is Anthony Stark.
"Why would I ask? Apparently, I don't need to ask!"
"Sir?" says Jarvis, before Pepper can get a word out.
"Start in on me, Jarvis, and I'll have your motherboard for a frisbee," Tony snarls. His eyes never move from Pepper; she can't remember the last time she saw them so dark.
"Yeah, I thought so."
"And physically impossible. Mr. Rhodes would like to know if you and Miss Potts will be going outside for sabers at sunset or pistols at dawn."
Pepper stops, her mouth half-open. Tony barely misses a beat. "How about RPG's for lunch?"
There's the buzz of a low, rough voice from the other side of the door, barely audible. Jarvis, on the other hand, is perfectly easy to understand. "Mr. Rhodes says that he doesn't give a damn what you blow up, as long as it isn't in front of this door." Pepper almost smiles at hearing Jim's words in Jarvis's dry, fussy voice.
"Ingrate," says Tony with no real sharpness, and he turns away.
"Tony," says Pepper, when he's down the first several steps. "Shouldn't you check on him, if he's awake?"
Tony turns on the staircase. "Pepper," he says, mimicking her reasonable, calm tone, "he's an adult. Besides," he jogs down the steps, "he's advocating explosions and telling me to shut up. He's fine."
Pepper glances at the bottom of the stairs, then the bedroom door. "Jarvis--" She exhales sharply. "Damn it. Jarvis, keep an eye on Jim, would you?"
"I'll devote several microprocessors to it."
Pepper wonders sometimes how Jarvis can be so much more comforting than certain people she knows, considering that he has no emotions and no body. She descends the stairs to find Tony flipping through news stations on the biggest plasma screen in the living room. She catches a flash of a shaky camera view, grainy dragon looming large, and Tony flicks it off.
He looks down at her feet as he passes on his way to the kitchen. "Nice shoes."
Pepper's toes curl up inside her uncharacteristic slip-ons; she steels herself and follows him. "You're going to have to put in a public appearance of some kind," she says, and she is a little impressed by how cool and businesslike her voice sounds; as if they weren't just screaming at each other, and she isn't standing in the kitchen in flats with her hair down. "The rest of the world thinks you were eaten by a dragon last night."
"Schedule a press conference," says Tony, rooting through a cabinet. "The reports of my untimely demise have been greatly exaggerated, etcetera etcetera, the usual." He points at her. "Make it for before--"
"Before the stock exchange opens?"
Tony looks at her with that maddening combination of challenge and amusement that Pepper would recognize with her eyes shut. His lips quirk. "Right," he says, and he returns to pawing through gleaming silver pots and pans. "That." He comes up with a coffeepot.
"That would be an excellent plan, except it's 10:55 in New York. Wall Street has been open for an hour and 25 minutes."
"Then we'd better move fast, shouldn't we?" says Tony, moving to the sink.
"There are a couple of calls that you're going to have to take personally." Pepper is warming to her subject. "Captain America and the Avengers wanted to hear from you. So do Nick Fury and the Department of Defense."
"Hmph." Tony eyeballs the glass pot, then adds another inch of water. "What do they want?"
"Well," says Pepper, "they probably want to question you about the dragon you fought."
"You're mocking me," says Tony. "It's not very nice."
"Anyway, that wasn't me. As we've established. By the time I got there, old greenbelly was already laid out flat."
"I know that," says Pepper. "They can't."
"Pepper, I can't exactly give them the blow-by-blow, here, considering that I didn't land a single one. The War Machine's helmet is broken up into about a million pieces; no recording could have survived."
Pepper shakes her head. "Then we're going to have to wake Jim up."
Tony pulls a face, but Pepper doesn't miss the way that his shoulders tighten. "Don't do that. He'll just start scolding and bleeding all over the place again."
She very nearly throws up her hands, but she folds her arms instead. "Fine. Then what do you want me to do?"
"One: quit being so surly. It's highly unbecoming. Two…" Tony pauses for a minute, coffeepot outstretched in one hand, and then he swings into motion. "Pull all the major news reports and put them together; keep track of any details that'll help me out. I need to know if anybody realized there was more than one guy in armor flying around. Some kid took video with his daddy's cell phone; download that into Jarvis's mainframe, watch it, live it, see if it's something we're going to have to suppress. Jarvis, analyze the video. How soon can you have a simulation of the action worked up?"
"Within the hour, sir."
"Good. Get on it as soon as you've got video." He sets the pot on the countertop.
"Tony," Pepper says, and he turns in the doorway. "The black pinstriped Brioni with the violet Hermès tie."
"Violet?" he says, shooting her a skeptical look. "Really, Potts?"
"You're wasting time," she says mildly, and Tony rolls his eyes and disappears upstairs.
Pepper finally takes a deep breath.
By the time Tony shows himself again a half an hour later, Pepper has settled in on the edge of the wraparound sofa, her hair tied back, laptop balanced on her knees, and cell phone and Blackberry at the ready. She is surrounded by headlines; the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle. The front pages feature full-color photographs of crushed buildings, smoke rising over San Francisco, a green and purple dragon spitting flame, a shadowy figure in dark-colored armor.
Tony picks up the Los Angeles Daily News and flips the front page open. "It's a little dramatic, this one, don't you think?" he says, and Pepper looks up to find that he's in black pinstripes and the violet tie, his hair slicked back and his sleeves rolled up, suit jacket tossed over one arm. "The fires, the dragon, the heroic beam of light coming out of the guy in the gray armor -- I mean, why not take the last step and just Photoshop Excaliber right into Rhodey's hand?"
"Well, it's a dramatic story," says Pepper, reaching up to pluck the paper out of his hands, "and I'm not finished with that one yet."
"Where did you get all these, anyway? Can you wiggle your nose and have things just appear now? Have I been missing out all these years on your great talent?"
Pepper shoots him a quelling look, thumbing open the Daily News to page A6. "Yes. That, and I asked Happy to stop at a newsstand on his way over here."
Tony twists to look over both shoulders. "I don't see Happy. Between you and me, he's kinda hard to hide. Not that I'd say that to him; it'd scar his delicate psyche."
She ignores him, for the most part. "He's outside taking a look at the Saleen. Do I want to know what happened to it?"
"Rhodey owes me half a million bucks, that's what happened to it," Tony says flippantly.
"You pay him well, but not that well." Finished with her scan of the article, Pepper sets the paper down. "No one seems to have picked up on the fact that there were two of you at the fight."
"Yeah? Good. Makes my job that much easier."
"Between the smoke from the wildfires and the smoke from the dragon, you were hidden pretty well. One observer reported having a red flash buzz directly over his head while he was watching the fight from a balcony, but the paper that ran the story isn't exactly known for its journalistic integrity." She holds up the National Enquirer. The cover story concerns the three-headed daughter of Bat-Boy.
"You know, this isn't the first time they've been onto something that they really shouldn't be."
"I know," says Pepper, setting the paper aside. "Their people are good."
"No, no, I mean the -- that thing really shouldn't exist. Seriously. What kind of kid's got three heads?"
"Tony. Focus, please." She rifles through a stack of newspapers. "I've compiled a report on the action after reading through the articles on what happened; several reports conflicted, so I've only taken the accounts that are seconded by other sources. Eyewitness testimony isn't exactly the most reliable thing to be working from." She hands him a typed two-page summary.
Tony glances at it. "Cliff Notes, Potts."
Pepper closes her laptop. "A dragon appeared over Fisherman's Wharf at 10:25 last night. The first person to spot it was a 42-year-old tourist from Minnesota. Witnesses say that the dragon appeared to have flown in from over the water, and it began attacking the city."
"When you say 'attacking,' you mean…"
"Breathing fire, ripping apart buildings, trampling cars -- attacking the city. By 10:35, it was on the news, which is where Jim saw it. He suited up and went--"
"Whoa, hold up there, sunshine; slow up. Where was I during all this suiting up and going?"
She pauses. "You were asleep," says Pepper, more carefully. "Jarvis said you'd been awake for two days straight befo--"
He waves her off. "Come on. Cliff Notes."
That's Tony, alright; refusing to hear what he doesn't want to hear. Pepper exhales sharply, but she continues. "Jim reached the site at approximately 11:40 P.M. At that point, two F-22's from Edwards had already been taken down; the highways were at a standstill with people trying to escape. The fight lasted nearly nine minutes; for more details on it, you should read that," she points to the summary in his hand, "and talk to Jarvis; he's about halfway through analyzing that video from the cell phone camera."
"Right," he says absently, skimming the front page of the report.
She fixes him with a look. "I still think you ought to talk to Rhodey. He's the only one who knows exactly what happened in that fight."
"He's also the only one sleeping off second-degree burns and a hole in his side," says Tony, without looking up.
He doesn't want to talk to Rhodey, but he'll talk to her. Pepper suspects that it's because she'll go on like nothing happened and Jim won't; Jim's too straight-forward for that. She sighs. "Have you called the office to let them know he won't be in?"
Tony pulls a face at the report. "Why would I do that? He reports directly to me. I don't care if he doesn't show up."
"He'll care," Pepper says, picking up her cell phone. "I'll call Research and Development."
He shoots her a skeptical, quizzical look. "And tell them … what, exactly? That the boss got used as a teething ring by a dragon from outer space last night?"
"…Well- I'll- tell them, that he's sick," she says, lamely. She hits the familiar button on speed dial.
"Yeah, no, you're a terrible liar. Give me the phone."
She eyes him, holding the phone to her ear, and when the receptionist picks up, she says, "Hi, Jennifer, this is Pepper. Can you patch me through to Scott in R&D, please?"
"Give me the phone," says Tony.
She tilts the phone away from her mouth, though it's unnecessary; she makes a mental note to have Stark Industries' hold music changed to something jazzier. "Bu--"
"Give me the phone, give me the phone." He holds his hand out, fingers wiggling, and she exhales sharply before passing the cell phone to him just as she hears a male voice pick up.
Tony fits cell phones to his ear like they're a detachable part of his anatomy. "Yeah, hi, Scott, this is Tony Stark. That's Tony with a T. Listen, Jim Rhodes isn't going to be in today, and -- actually, you know what, you should clear his schedule for the rest of the week, too. Go wild. … Yeah, motorcycle accident. Those things are death traps. … Oh, he's gonna be just fine. Recovering at home. … I'm sure he'll appreciate it; I'll pass that on. Thanks so much. Bye bye now." He switches the call off.
Pepper stares at him, horrified.
Tony puts the cell phone in her hand, closes her fingers over it, and gives them a pat. "Scott and R&D hope Rhodey feels better."
He can afford to be flip about it; he isn't the one who's going to have to keep track of all this. Pained, Pepper says, "Oh, God that was so many lies."
Tony holds up one finger. "Not lies. Creative truth-stretching."
She glares at him. "You do realize, if anyone tries to check your facts, we're in trouble."
"Nobody's going to try to check my facts." He saunters across the living room, through the foyer, and into the kitchen. "Only accountants pull crap like that."
Pepper furiously counts to ten, gathering her composure, then she follows. "S.H.I.E.L.D does, too, you know," she tells Tony, standing in the kitchen doorway. "Government officials, they like their facts."
Tony is opening and closing cabinets seemingly at random, the coffeepot now sitting on the coffee maker. "They don't count. There's no way you can convince me that Coulson wasn't an accountant in another life."
Pepper shakes her head and walks into the kitchen. "Happy's ready when you are. The press conference is scheduled for 9:15 in the lobby at Stark Industries, which means that you don't have time to try to make coffee, which is, by the way, not in the cupboard with the wine glasses."
She steps in and opens the cabinet right beside Tony's head; it's filled with row upon row of bags of expensive coffee beans, but Pepper doesn't notice the contents of the cabinet, because she's in Tony Stark's personal space, and he's looking at her with those dark eyes that can wilt her efficient bustle like nothing on this earth.
He smells clean, like soap and a hint of expensive aftershave. This close, she can see that he missed several dots of stubble on his cheek. This close, it's impossible to ignore his magnetism, his warmth. Her eyelids are heavy and can't stop her eyes from flicking to his mouth; her head tips, just a little, to the side. Tony's fingers brush her wrist.
Pepper swings the cabinet door shut and takes a swift step back. "You should have left ten minutes ago," she says, and she barely recognizes her own voice.
There's a half-second where she really doesn't know how he's going to respond, and then Tony folds his arms and asks, "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"Yes," she says, immeasurably grateful for the return to familiar ground. "Don't be late."
"Okay, okay okay." He rolls down and smoothes out the sleeves of his dress shirt. "I'll send Happy back to give you a hand."
"--With what?" asks Pepper warily.
"You mean with who. Rhodey's got an unscheduled date with an x-ray machine." Tony shrugs into his suit jacket. "Erica promised to have some of my favorite personal parts for her trophy wall if I didn't get Rhodey to Stark Medical after he wakes up."
Pepper would like nothing so much as to tell him that she can't sit here all day and watch an injured man sleep. She has meetings, a one o'clock conference call, a late lunch scheduled with Elaine from Fujikawa. She'd like to ride along in the backseat of the Rolls; practice the fake story, come up with talking points, strategies, questions that Tony shouldn't answer. But Virginia Potts knows Tony Stark and his requests better than that.
She cancelled all of her appointments while he was still in the shower.
Jim Rhodes stays where he is, half-up in the bed and half-hunched over, one hand on the headboard. "Son of a bitch," he mutters, trying to shield his eyes from the sunshine allowed in by Tony's massive picture window.
"I did tell you that that wasn't going to be a very good idea, Mr. Rhodes. You've taken a great deal of damage," says Jarvis, and Jim flutters his fingers at the ceiling, in what would be a much more authoritative 'shut the hell up, Jeeves' gesture if it didn't feel like somebody was hitting him in the side with a sledgehammer every time he drew a breath. Trust Tony fucking Stark to program his AI to say I told you so.
Jim concentrates on breathing through the dizziness that threatens to swamp him; shuts his eyes so he doesn't have to look at the room sway. He stubbornly lowers his chin and tells himself he did not fly an X-31 in low gravity for this shit to take him down.
He isn't what you'd call surprised that he's alone with Jarvis, the same way he isn't surprised at the light knock and the sound of the door opening. A low, indrawn breath, sucked hastily through someone's teeth, draws his eyes up.
"Hey," he says, and he's pretty proud of how much his voice doesn't sound like a croak. "It's not as bad as it looks." He gets the idea of how he looks when he sees Pepper Potts' face, and combining that with what he already knows-- Burned hand and arm wrapped up, in a sling; ribs taped, big gauze patch on his side under another round of bandages; from the puffy feeling in his face and the way he can't open his right eye to more than a slit, he's guessing that at least one side of his face is pretty bruised up, his eye swollen shut, and he's got a hell of a fat lip. He has to look ugly.
He's disoriented and in pain, but he's thinking pretty clearly. Jim figures that's got to count for something.
"Well, I would hope so," says Pepper, stepping into the room. "Jarvis, can you send one of the bots up with some ice, please?"
"Certainly, Miss Potts."
With a firm grip on the headboard, Jim counts to three in his head, and then he hauls himself up again. To say that he immediately wishes he hadn't is something of an understatement. He doesn't make a sound, but something must show on his face, because Pepper says, "Oh, my God," and there are suddenly small hands under his arms, helping him sit up. She's stronger than she looks; Jim has always thought that.
"Hey," he wheezes, once he's sitting up against a pillow or two. "Do me a favor?"
"I've heard that before. As long as it doesn't involve me reaching into your chest, yes, I think I can," she says, still leaning over the bed.
Real considerate, Tony. Make Pepper do that shit for you when you've got a couple of the country's best doctors on your payroll. "Pass me one of those pills and the water." He tips his chin toward the prescription bottle and the glass sitting on the dresser. Pepper looks at the bottle, then at Jim; her hair is disheveled and she looks tired as hell, but that doesn't give her skeptical look any less bite. "C'mon, Pepper, you can even ask Jarvis. Feels like--" He shifts, just a little, and can't stifle the wince. "Feels like the last dose ran out a while ago."
"Dr. Sondheim left directions that the Percodan was to be taken at a rate of one tablet every six hours. Mr. Rhodes took his first and only tablet at 3:34 A.M., twelve and a half hours ago."
"Okay," Pepper says, a little softer, and she retrieves the pill and the glass, and she passes them into his uninjured hand one at a time. It's a little scary how easy the stuff goes down.
"You look tired," Jim says, giving the glass of water back.
She half-smiles, putting the glass back on the dresser and then sitting down on the edge of the bed. "I look tired? What do you think you look like?"
There is a hint of humor in her wry smile. "You could say that."
"Listen, I'm sorry you got roped into playing babysitter," he says. "We both know you've got better things to do."
"No," says Pepper, shaking her head. She puts just enough of a flustered stretch on the 'n' that Jim knows she's lying. She really hasn't gotten any better at that over the years. "I didn't get roped into anything. I don't mind. I just -- I was worried." The last part isn't a lie.
"Yeah, you and me both," he says dryly, and Pepper's smile is tiny. "How long've you been here, Pepper?"
"In the mansion? Since 7:30 this morning."
His eyebrows furrow. "7:30? What time's it now?"
"4:08 P.M., to be precise," says Jarvis. "Number Five is on its way up with the requested ice, Miss Potts."
"Thank you, Jarvis." Pepper has this thing where she looks capable and dignified no matter what she's doing. That includes sitting on the edge of a hopelessly huge bed, talking to the ceiling.
"Four in the afternoon?" Jim interjects, dismayed. He'd ideally scramble out of bed right now, or at least make a valiant attempt at it, but he remembers what it felt like just to try to sit up. He won't be scrambling anywhere for a while. "Damn -- you didn't call R&D, did you?"
"I didn't," says Pepper, crossing her legs, and Jim knows what that tone means.
His heart sinks. "What'd he tell them."
"That you were in a motorcycle accident," Pepper says, her mouth set in a thin line.
"A motor-- You've got to be kidding me." He exhales sharply; presses a hand to his ribs when it causes a twinge. "I've never ridden a motorcycle in my life."
"I know," she says, sighing. "Don't look at me. I'm just damage control."
"How's that working out for you?"
She half-smiles. "Not so bad, this time. Mr. Stark went to SI and held a press conference to prove his good health before any panic could spread. The stock only dropped three points."
" 'Mr. Stark,' huh?" He raises his eyebrows, resigned. "What'd Tony do now?"
There is a telltale split second's pause. "Nothing."
"So it was a whole lot of nothing, that thing that woke me up earlier?"
"--No," she admits. "Sorry; I really thought the door would muffle most of that."
"I don't think lead walls would have muffled that," he says, wryly. "What'd I miss?"
"Nothing, Rhodey, I swear." The flustered snap, the use of Tony's nickname for him, tells Jim loud and clear that it's not nothing. "I just -- was annoyed, because I'd seen the reports and hurried over, expecting to find Tony half dead on the floor in the workshop, and instead, he was here being Tony, sauntering around in that stupid bathrobe he loves so much."
Jim's got a sudden idea of why she's been sitting here with such iron-willed self possession; why she's still wearing her shoes with her professionalism wrapped around her in a way Jim hasn't had directed at him in years. "What time'd you say you got here?" he asks, and her dull flush deepens around her freckles.
"Around 7:30 this morning."
There's no way in hell Tony Stark was out of bed at 7:30 A.M., and Jim may have been dead to the world, but he has a pretty good idea of which bed the man was in when Pepper got here. He has a pretty good idea of what Pepper took from that, too, given the steady way she's looking at him.
That's when the mechanical arm that Tony calls Hydrant comes rolling in with the creak of treads on floor, serving tray grasped firmly between its metal fingers. Pepper turns and takes the icepacks off the tray with a murmur of thanks, and when she pats the arm, Jim almost thinks it leans into her touch before rolling away. Tony always swears his machines like Pepper more than they like him, their creator. Jim thinks he programs them to do that. It's exactly the kind of creepy shit Tony would do.
Jim keeps the hiss behind his teeth when Pepper gently touches the icepack to his face. "Look, Tony and me, we had it out pretty good last night," he says. "I told him I've been working with the Avengers."
"How'd he take it?" she asks, and he thinks she's grateful for the change of subject.
"About as well as you'd expect. I didn't tell him you knew about it; he find out?"
She almost, almost smiles; he can see it in her eyes. "He called me Brutus."
"Brutus." Jim snorts. "You're Brutus, huh? That makes me Cassius and him, what, Caesar? Nice, Tony. Real humble."
"Yes, because that's exactly what Tony is," says Pepper wryly, and Jim would smile, if it wouldn't hurt. "A model of humility." He can feel her cool breath on his neck as she exhales, carefully moving the ice up to his black eye. "Sometimes, I wonder why I stay."
"No, you don't," he says, dead sure. "He's pulled through some pretty crazy shit in his life, Pepper, and he did it mostly alone. This time, you know he won't admit it, but he needs friends--" He tilts his head, just a little, indicating himself, putting just a little extra stress on 'friends'; knowing she'll get it, that that's what this is. "--And he needs you."
Jim's sitting still, and Pepper doesn't move either, for a minute, and then she carefully turns his head so she can look him in his good eye. "That was a totally unnecessary low blow, Jim Rhodes," she tells him, and he gives a lopsided smile, damn the pain.
"Did it work?"
"Did it work." She scoffs. "As if I was ever going anywhere in the first place. I don't think Tony can make coffee without me."
He shoots her an amused look. "Is that a story?"
"Not a very good one," says Pepper. "Hold this." She guides his good hand up to the icepack, and slips an arm around him. "But I can tell it on the way to see Dr. Sondheim. Jarvis, call Happy and ask him to bring the car around and come inside."
"Consider it done, Miss Potts."
"Doc couldn't come here?" says Jim, but he's moving, nice and slow, letting Pepper help him.
"She could; her equipment couldn't. Are you okay?" She's supporting more of his weight than he'd like, sitting under his arm on the edge of the bed.
"Yeah, I'm-- Ow," Jim protests, as she takes advantage of the breather to go after him again with the icepack, and then he gets a taste of what Tony's been dealing with the last two years.
"Don't be a baby," Pepper says, with the utter lack of sympathy that only fondness can foster, and she presses the ice to his eye.
"Fucking dragons," says Jim Rhodes.