Christine Everhart of Vanity Fair was waiting in his bed, and Tony wondered what the hell to do with her.
Two hours ago, she'd seemed the perfect woman to spend the night with. She had a nice face, a body up to standard, and a sharp, inquisitive brain. She was more motivated by curiosity than his charm, but many women were; had always been. Along with the gold-diggers and the star-struck and the habitually loose there'd always been women who came home with him to see what made him tick; the only difference was, the ticking was less metaphorical now.
But after a twenty-minute conversation with Nick Fury (and what the hell kind of name was Nick Fury, anyway?) on top of - on top of more stuff than he wanted to catalog just now - well, he'd decided restarting his sex life could wait another day or two.
If they'd been in the living room sharing a drink or something, disposing of her would have been easy - he'd plead exhaustion, call whomever was working out front, and be done with her. No big deal.
But he was pretty sure Christine Everhart of Vanity Fair was naked. 'Get dressed and get out' - well, that just wasn't gentlemanly; plus, say that to a reporter and you'd pay. So instead he said, "Christine - sweatheart, something's come up. I've got a meeting in London in ten hours. I'll call."
He chose the R8 and headed towards Rhodey's place.
- - - - - - -
Jim Rhodes was thinking of changing his ringtone for Tony Stark to the theme from Superman. Maybe from some cartoon version, to be obscure. No, not Superman; the early 60s Batman.
It was still just some ditty he'd thought was kind of catchy and Tony-like, though, and it didn't surprise him at all when his cell phone started emitting it.
"Hey, you sleeping?"
Between 2 and 5 a.m. Tony always asked. Since it was only 1:37… "You okay, Tony?"
"Sure, great, digging the new moniker."
"Yeah," said Tony. "I really, really love it."
"Speaking of loving, how's what's-her-name? Christina Everhart?" When he'd seen Tony escorting the reporter into his limo Jim had been a little surprised, because he'd thought that maybe something was developing finally between Stark and Pepper. So he'd scanned the area until he caught a glimpse of Pepper, and saw immediately that she was looking more relieved than anything.
"Christine - no 'uh' at the end. You know her?"
"Dodged her a time or two."
"I've given her the slip. I'm heading your way, be there in two minutes. Figured I'd give you a heads up."
"My way, meaning my house?"
"See, I knew they made you a colonel for a reason."
Jim put away the work he'd taken home with him, pulled on sweats, and went down to wait in the doorway. A moment later, Tony parked his favorite Audi half on Jim's lawn.
"Couldn't this have waited?" It was a useless thing to say, but made Jim feel better.
It wasn't like he never said "no" to Tony. He had, in fact, told him to go get his head together a couple of months ago, hoping to deliver the push that would land Tony somewhere sane. Instead, Tony'd built himself a flying suit out of gold and titanium and become a superhero.
"Pepper doesn't like it when I show up this late," Tony said. He passed Jim without looking at him and headed downstairs, to the rec room. To the bar. Of course. Halfway down Tony turned. "Could you grab your laptop? Pepper snagged some of Obadiah's private data off a ghost drive on the company server. You can help me analyze it. Hey, and do you know a guy named Nick Fury?"
"What the hell kind of name is Nick Fury?" Jim grabbed his Dell and the power cord and followed Tony downstairs.
"That's what I've been asking myself," Tony said. "Seemed like a real bad-ass, though. So you don't know anything about a group called the Avenger Initiative?"
"Sounds like bunch of pretentious vigilantes."
"'Pretentious Vigilantes.' For something with seven syllables, that kind of rolls off the tongue."
Tony'd poured himself a tall glass of scotch, no ice. "Need to be anywhere in the morning, Rhodey?"
"You know spending the night babysitting you's always been a get-out-of-work-free card. But I've cleared off the next few days for hunting you down and debriefing you anyway. I'll be getting calls, but I don't have to go terrorize new pilots or anything."
"I don't think they're ever really scared of you."
Tony glanced at him, eyes wider than normal, perplexed. Tony never seemed to mind him being sarcastic, but Jim had realized twenty years ago that Tony couldn't necessarily tell when he was being serious from when he was yanking his chain.
Well, right now, Jim didn't know what he meant himself. He gave Tony a smile he didn't particularly feel, then cleared off enough space on the coffee table in front of the room's old don't-care-if-this-place-floods couch for the computer and a couple of drinks (his would be Pepsi).
"Pepper downloaded this right before Obie went postal," Tony said, handing Jim a data stick. "She didn't know if he could tell what she'd done, but if he could, and this was the final trigger, well then, this could be very interesting."
"Because otherwise he'd have kept that metal suit of his in the closet."
"Oh, I'm sure he'd have used it, but the question is, when, and why? I don't think he built it just to kill me; he had enough of a chance at that when he stole my arc reactor. So… let's see what we've got."
"This thing going to talk to my machine?"
"Sure," said Tony. "Ever met Dotty, my OS?"
"Never had the pleasure."
"She's a sweetie. Anyway, Dotty wouldn't write out something that other computers couldn't read; what would be the point?"
Jim plugged in the data stick, then sat back and watched his desktop do things it had never done before. Maybe he should let Tony drive; he slid to the side and made space, which Tony quickly filled.
"Let's see… what've we got?" Tony asked under his breath.
They were looking at an image of a group of men; and, damn, that was Tony in the middle of the screen! He looked more than half dead. Worse by a mile than when they'd found him in the desert. "Where did Obadiah get this?"
"Shh!" Tony hissed, and Jim realized the image was part of a video file. Tony did something to increase the volume, and a dialect Jim didn't recognize emerged from the built-in speaker.
"We have people who can…" he started, but with a wiggle of his mouse Tony launched what had to be the best translation program Jim had ever encountered, and HOW THE HELL had Tony developed that? Mechanical genius, that was a given with Tony; and the cute little robot friends with genuine people personalities? Those had been a hobby ever since Jim'd known him. But linguistics software?
And then Jim focused on what the man was actually saying… "Obadiah Stane, you have deceived us. The price to kill Tony Stark has just gone up."
Tony folded forward, face in his hands, and Jim didn't have to wonder why. It had all been a set-up, from the very beginning. Tony's Uncle Obie, all the way.
Jim put a hand on Tony's closest shoulder. "You thought he'd just gone crazy," he said. "Couldn't take the stock dropping."
Tony took a deep breath, then another, then was off the couch and over to Jim's bar and drinking Jack Daniels from the bottle. It was hard to tell how much he got down in that first swill; by the time Jim got across the room and pushed his hand down, he'd had a bit.
"For God's sake, use a tumbler," Jim said. "Go sit back down, finish the drink you already have, I'll pour you another."
- - - - - - - -
'Golden goose,' Obie had said, and Tony hadn't known what he meant. Just another insane thing out of Obie, the day Obie'd gone crazy.
He'd locked it in a box, Obie's insanity; it was over, it was done, he'd take it out and try to figure out what had broken in Obie's brain when he had time.
But he'd never, never, not ever thought that Obie had been behind it all. That Obie had wanted him dead so badly for so long.
"He could have just shot me, any time," he said. The whiskey helped a little, but he still felt too much. He closed his hand deliberately around his glass of scotch and downed it as quickly as he could. Too much. He was still feeling too much.
"Honestly, Tony, I had no idea what that son-of-a-bitch was up to."
Big surprise there. Damn, had he just said that out loud? No, no, but he was going to have to get someplace else before he started saying everything he was thinking. And that would happen long before he'd had enough alcohol to stop what was swelling up inside him.
He took the next drink that Rhodey handed him - JD again, so why was Rhodey so picky about him drinking out of the bottle? - and downed it in three gulps.
But this wasn't something he could drink away. He needed something else, something more, never mind the risk to his brain or his reputation if he was caught.
Nah, he wouldn't get caught; he was fuckin' Iron Man.
It would be a good 20 minutes before the booze really hit his system; time to move while he still could.
He set the empty tumbler next to Rhodey's laptop and stood up.
"Where are you going?" Rhodey'd gotten in front of him somehow.
"I'm goinga…" He paused. Time to concentrate on enunciation. Talking under the influence was something he was decently good at. "Going to get some air."
"I'll come with."
"Not that kind of air."
"What do you mean?"
"The kind respectable officers of the U. S. of A. armed forces don't get."
"You want to pick someone up? Tony, it's after two…"
At the stairs Rhodey blocked him again. "You're going to get high, aren't you?"
"You're going to leave my house and go get high. Man, Tony, there's no way I'd let you drive right now even if you were headed home to bed."
"I haven't had that much to drink."
"You've had enough."
"I'll call a driver, how about that."
"I won't be calling Happy, you idiot."
Which was a really stupid way of phrasing that last thought, Tony realized, as Rhodey grabbed his arm and shoved him back toward his crap sofa.
Tony twisted and ducked and DAMN, that was supposed to work! But now Rhodey had him pinned over the back of the sofa. "If I had my suit you wouldn't be doing this."
"So that's steady state for you now? That suit?"
"Well, is it any wonder, when my friends treat me like this?"
"Charming," said Rhodey, but he released his hold a little and Tony propelled himself backwards.
And landed on his butt against a bookshelf. "That's… not how that was supposed to work," he said.
"I'm not surprised," said Rhodey. "You don't know what they hell you're doing, and you're drunk. So how about you stop this and take a seat like a normal human being."
"No need to be insulting. Give me a hand up?"
"You'll just try to do some stupid-ass kung fu move and I'll end up throwing you a couple of yards and there'll be broken glass and you'll need stitches and do you really want to go down that road?"
Tony didn't, come to think. He pushed himself to his feet and sat back on the sofa. His head was feeling foggy, but his heart was pounding. Who'd have thought that being thrown around Jim Rhodes's basement would give him a rush?
It was because it had stopped him from thinking for a minute or two, he realized. But now that he was sinking back into the cushions, the blackness was back. "I need another drink," he said.
"Okay, one more."
Rhodey handed him as small snifter of scotch. He took a whiff, then set the glass down. "I need to be drunker than this," he said. "But I feel like I've just gotten off a tilt-o-whirl."
"Why do you need to be drunker?"
"Because…" Because I don't know how long Obadiah hated me, he thought. "Why'd he do it?"
"Why'd who do what? Invent the tilt-o-whirl?"
"I thought he… was there a change? I thought he…"
Tony nodded. "I thought he…" He'd thought Obadiah loved him. How pitiful was it, that he'd always thought Obadiah did? And that he didn't have the words to explain the loss, the blackness, to Rhodey?
"Do you think I'm good with people?" he asked instead. "People think I am. Charming. That's what Fortune called me last year. Debonair and charming. But that doesn't mean I know shit about people, does it?"
"It's easy to be charming when you're rich."
"No it's not," said Tony. "Nobody calls Bill Gates charming, and he's been trying to save the world for years."
"I take your point."
Tony nodded. "I think the trick is, I give people interesting stuff to do. And I amuse them. That's enough to keep most people happy." And Obadiah always took care of the people who weren't.
"Don't forget your being a genius. That attracts people."
"But it's not enough."
"What do you want me to say?" Rhodey had now settled into the other corner of the sofa. Like any other time they got together.
Things had seemed so ordinary with Obie too. Rhodey could hate him, be sitting there loathing him now, and he'd never know it.
Tony knew why Rhodey put up with so much from him. The Air Force told him to. That had never bothered him, because everything had to start somewhere, didn't it? Nobody just decided to hang out with someone for no reason, did they? So it didn't matter why he was here, in Rhodey's basement, right now. It mattered that Rhodey was three feet away, listening.
And, when he'd escaped, and Rhodey had found him - that hadn't felt like nothing. That wasn't something that could be faked.
When the choppers had landed, and of all the six billion people on the planet it was Jim Rhodes who got to him first… And Rhodey had pulled him in close, and let him lose it for a while… That had felt real.
"You're being awfully quiet. You okay?" Rhodey asked. "Want some coffee?"
Tony shook his head. "Talk to me," he said. "Tell me about how you found me. Tell me - do you know anything about the kids who died when Raza's militia attacked?"
Tony closed his eyes and listened while Rhodey told him how they'd figured out that his capture must have been the reason for the ambush. How they'd searched and searched and met with nothing but dead ends, until his iron suit had lit up their screens. And about the twelve airmen and women who'd been killed when he'd been taken.
As Rhodey named them, said a little about each of them, Tony leaned back and let his eyes fill and overflow. This, at least, was allowable. It had to be.
- - - - - - -
Jim talked, without any real break, for what seemed like hours, taking tiny sips from his soda to make it last as long as he needed it to.
Handling Tony Stark had always been like balancing a huge ball on top of a long pole, but tonight - well, this morning - it was like the ball was made of paper-thin glass. And maybe he should just let the ball fall and shatter and then they'd pick up the pieces. But maybe the pieces would be too small…
Hell, he'd never been great with metaphors. But keeping Tony basically together seemed like the best course, especially if that meant he'd stay put.
When Tony started to cry Jim moved closer, offering a handkerchief, offering as much as of himself as Tony needed. But Tony shook off his hand and said, "Keep talking," so that's what Jim did.
When Tony finally fell asleep, Jim stood and stretched. Throwing Tony Stark around, even with the muscle mass he'd added in Afghanistan, hadn't been a particular challenge, but Jim usually loosened up first before any kind of a workout. And the sofa was comfortable enough, but not as good as a bed would be.
He knew he should go get a blanket to throw over Tony, then head upstairs. But what if Tony woke up and decided to take off again? He'd seen Tony a hell of a lot drunker, but still he wouldn't be legal to drive for a few more hours.
Jim sat back down and grabbed a magazine. He'd just stay here a little while more.
- - - - - - -
Tony awoke with the sun in his face; turned out, Rhodey's high basement windows faced east.
Rhodey was still where he'd been the previous night, slumped back, mouth open, eyes closed. Looking pretty uncomfortable.
Tony reached over and rubbed his arm. "Wake up or you'll get stuck like that."
Rhodey was alert immediately, scanning the room, reaching for something at his side which wasn't there. "Damn, Tony, I could've shot you."
That was - a pretty unexpected thing for Rhodey to say, actually. "You wake up and kill people often?"
Rhodey rolled his head left, then right. "Actually, no." He stilled, looking directly at Tony. "You better now?"
Tony nodded. "Yeah. Uhh..." Oh, what the hell. "I think I'd like to know when Obie…" He waved a hand. "Whether he was ever who I thought he was. Because, when I was a kid… I don't think it was fake. I mean, we talked about the awkwardness, how it must have looked to the rest of the world. Me taking over Stark Industries when I turned 21. You know those cover photos? We were completely goofing off for the camera…"
"I don't think this is something you can really ever know," said Rhodey. "Was anyone else close to him? Really close?"
Tony shook his head. "No friends, so I'm going to start with enemies. Or their accountants."
"This isn't the sort of thing you can learn wearing the suit."
"No, but maybe… You know what, Rhodey? In all the years I've been programming, I've never written a worm. Doesn't that seem odd to you?"
"Do you know how?"
Tony shrugged. "How hard can it be? I think I'll name her Christine, since she'll be asking a lot of questions. But first - how about breakfast."
Rhodey smiled. "Sure. Your treat," he said.
(Note: My memory is pretty bad, so I got the translation of the video from Peter David's novelization.)
Liked it? Hated it? I'd love to know!