“All right,” said Patty as Ecto One stopped in front of the sleek doors of the underground entryway. Her hands flapped frantically at her throat. “Stay calm. Stay. Calm.”
Holtzmann had already half-shoved the door open. She yanked it closed again and turned in her seat. “Hey, I’m calm!”
Patty gave her a disbelieving look. “You are now. But I saw you after Dr. Gorin called to say that she’d gotten you a meeting with Tony Stark so you're not fooling me! Anyway, I wasn’t meaning you - I was meaning me!”
“I thought you didn’t like Tony Stark.”
“I don’t. But he’s, like, Tony Stark, best friend of the Iron Patriot! The guy that James Rhodes spent weeks looking for in Afghanistan after he went missing! The guy who built Colonel Rhodes his exoskel after he got injured in that big fight up in Europe earlier this year. That exeskel, by the way, you were totally jonesing to get your hands on when you saw the newsbit – don’t tell me you weren’t!”
“I had a moment when I was weak. Maybe a dozen of them.” Holtzmann grinned. “Just breathe. It’ll be good.”
Patty took herself a deep breath and climbed out of the car, trying not to gawk at the way everything here was shiny and new. After the 2012 alien invasion, the building had been remade and refurnished through the forceful application of Stark’s millions, and although she’d heard that the results were impressive...the results were truly impressive.
And this was just the parking garage.
There was a little glass booth they had to step into, one at a time. The door slid shut behind Holtzmann and Holztmann turned and flattened her palms against the glass in front of Patty, opening her mouth so her tongue lolled out in unabashed delight.
“What are you doing?”
Holtzmann frowned, drawing herself upright, her lips moving although no sound came out. Can you hear me?
“No, I can’t hear you!”
Then an overhead light brightened, and Holtzmann looked up. Patty had a moment when she thought, They’ve separated us! And then she had a moment when she thought, It’s a trap! And then she had a moment when she thought, Get a grip on yourself, Patty! This ain’t no weirdo mad scientist – this is Tony Stark!
Who, her brain unhelpfully supplied, is totally a weirdo mad scientist, just weird and techy, and who doesn’t go after people unless they’ve threatened him and what’s his. Which we totally haven’t. Oh God, did Erin run the ownership on the Mercado? Maybe that was his and he’s holding a--
Holtzmann was saying something – that, or she was making shapes with her mouth just for the hell of it. But Patty figured Holtzmann was answering questions via an intercom because after a moment, a door opened on the other side of the glass box, and Holtzmann stepped out.
The door on Patty’s side opened again, inviting her in. Holtzmann made ‘come in’ motions and after a long, suspicious moment a female voice issuing from inside the box crisply demanded, “Ms. Tolan, please step into the box.”
“Well, if y’all know my name, why the hell do I have to go through interrogation?”
“It’s not interrogation,” says the voice with a distinct note of patience well-tried. “It’s a biosignature box, and it’s a requirement of access into this part of Stark Towers. Just step into the box, Ms. Tolan, and you can come up and meet Colonel Rhodes.”
“Well, why didn’t y’all say that to start with?”
The biosignature box was painless, just a little creepy with the floating voice and the questions.
“What’s your business at Stark Tower?”
“Holtzmann got an invite. I tagged along. I could really meet the Iron Patriot?”
“He’s on the premises, so, yes, you really could. He generally prefers to be called ‘Rhodey’, however.”
“On the premises don’t mean shit – this building? You could hide God only knows what in it. Housing for all the non-corporeal entities up to a level 5 – and y’all got it secured up the wazoo, too...”
The door in front of her slid open, and Holtzmann grinned. “Isn’t it neat? Stark Technology, man. What I’d give to get my hands on the design for that...”
“What I’d give to get out of this area,” Patty said, lifting her voice as she stepped out into the empty antechamber and the glass door to the biosignature box closed behind her. “Y’all finished checking us out? Because I’ve been lured here on the promise of meeting the Iron Patriot, and I ain’t seeing no supersuit around here.”
A door across the chamber slid open and a woman stepped into the room.
She was dressed in a sleek stylish outfit that screamed business-minded, with dark hair and eyes that Patty was pretty sure could measure them for the strength of their character or a shroud with equal facility.
“Ms. Holtzmann, Ms. Tolan, I’m Maria Hill.” The voice was the one from the intercom speaker, rather less tinny in person. She offered a hand to shake, which Holtzmann took and pumped enthusiastically, and Patty shook firmly. In return, the woman neither gave them a ‘limp fish’ handshake or tried to crush their fingers; her touch was brisk and courteous, without challenge. “Come this way.”
‘This way’ was into an elevator. They stepped in. The doors closed behind them. Maria Hill said, “Guest Lounge 101, thanks Friday.”
The voice that answered was female and probably not human from the slight sing-songy overtones of it. “Guest Lounge 101, confirmed.”
“Friday?” Patty asked. “Weird name for an AI.”
“Stark has a fondness for classic Hollywood movies.”
“Really?” Patty tilted her head at Stark’s...secretary? Aide? “Me, too! But I wouldn’t call my AI ‘Girl Friday’ because that’s kind of sick, really. No offence intended.”
“None taken,” was the distinctly amused reply. “I didn’t name it.”
Holtzmann was eyeing the ceiling. She tilted her face up. “Hey, Friday?”
“How can I help you, Ms. Holtzmann?”
“Is there any chance I could get a malted milkshake?”
“I believe that something could be procured in that nature.”
Patty looked at Maria Hill, who was regarding Holtzmann’s fistpump with a certain amount of bemusement. “We don’t let her out too often.”
“Then she’ll probably be fine dealing with Stark. We let him out plenty, but he still behaves as though he never goes anywhere.”
The elevator bell dinged, ‘Friday’ announced, “Guest Lounge 101,” and the doors slid open.
Her first thought was that there was so much space. The second was, “Oh, my God, will you look at that view!”
The buildings of New York rose up gleaming in the morning light, a panoramic spread visible through the curved ‘wall’ of glass panes held in place by metal frames which also formed the balustrade that edged the area. Against the unlit interior of the guest lounge, it was breathtaking.
Behind her, Ms. Hill laughed. “So what’s it like being ‘that view’, Rhodey?”
Patty blushed all the way down to her toes. She hadn’t even noticed the man standing outlined at the window, not even when he turned at her exclamation and the exoskeleton he wore around his lower half hummed with movement.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She came forward, holding out her hand, and was relieved when it didn't shake. “Colonel Rhodes. I’m such a huge fan of your work – both with the Air Force and as the Iron Patriot!”
He shook her hand, then seemed to actually hear what she was saying and paused. “My work? Really?”
“Really! I got a cousin who served under you in Afghanistan, and he sang your praises, so I read up on your dissertation about crisis response teams in warzones, and I know it’s for warzones and not, like, for situational analyses when shit goes down on the New York Subway – not the paranormal kind of shit, just the ordinary terrorist crisis kind of shit – but there were a lot of similarities, as in, I’m talking about a lot of similarities and so I started reading up on more of your other stuff. The non-classified bits.”
“She’s really a fan of his work,” she vaguely heard Holtzmann telling Ms. Hill in an aside behind her.
“I’m seeing that.”
Colonel Rhodes hadn’t let go of her hand. Instead he was staring at her, like he wasn’t quite sure he was awake.
“I could pinch you,” Patty offered before she thought about what she was saying.
Someone made a wheezy noise. Since Patty had never heard it before, she presumed it was from Ms. Hill. Considering Holtzmann cackled a split-second later, it was probably Ms. Hill.
Then a man’s voice cut across the room. “That’s not an offer you get every day, Rhodey!”
Holtzmann’s cackle cut off mid-laugh as she spun around.
“More your territory.” Rhodey retorted, quick as lightning as Tony Stark descended the stairs from a mezzanine level like some kind of princess entering a ball. Probably not that far-off a comparison.
“So,” he surveyed them as he came down the last few stairs and crossed the polished floor to meet them. “You’d be Patty Tolan, and you’d be Jillian Holtzmann. Just guessing, mind you, nothing to do with the fact that I’ve looked you up.”
“Whoa. You looked us up?”
“Of course. Rebecca Gorin is one of my favourite people. And according to her, you’re one of her favourite people in the world...I think that means we should be friends, right?”
She didn’t think it was possible for Holtzmann’s eyes to get even wider. But they did. “Oh, absolutely!”
“Good work at the Mercado by the way. I was all ready to send in the Stark operations bots for clean-up and found I didn’t need to. But I guess that’s what reversing the polarity does these days?”
Holztmann’s eyes were huge, and she stared at Stark’s outstretched hand for a good two seconds before she grabbed it and began pumping it like she was in a dream. “Oh, God, I based the proton-based trans-matter diffusion converter on the design of your original ARC reactor – cutting down the phase shunt, of course, because the wavelength didn’t improve the disintegration of the paranormal protoplasm—”
Beside Patty, Colonel Rhodes snorted. “Now she’s got him started.”
“Yeah, Holtzmann gets like this. Hard to stop once she gets started.” Not that they did much to curb her back at headquarters. The very least you could say about Holtzmann was that she was enthusiastic about her work, if a little weird; everything else just went on from there and that was the part they adored about her.
Maria Hill comes down to the seating area as Stark and Holtzmann start babbling at each other full on, like a couple of over-excited techno-scientific types. “Well, that will make a change from Banner.” She turns to the Colonel and her voice softens. “How’s the struggle today?”
“Hey, the struggle is always real.” Rhodes smiles. “Pain’s about a five. Managing is about a six. We’re cool, Maria.”
“You could sit down, you know.”
“I could. But – as certain people keep reminding me – I’m a sucker for punishment.”
She rolls her eyes. “Aren’t we all around Tony? I need to talk to you about some projects, Rhodey, but it can wait until later. Ms. Tolan, you and Ms. Holtzmann will be bio-locked when you’re not in the presence of Stark or Colonel Rhodes – that means you’ll be restricted to the area that you’re in and monitored at all times. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the way the tower works. When you’re ready to leave, have Friday to message me so I can escort you out.”
“Yeah, you might end up kicking us out – or else, I might be dragging Holtzmann out of here.” Patty looked up to where Holtzmann was showing the motion-activated tech that she’d designed and if Tony Stark wasn’t enraptured then he was doing a damn good job of acting.
Hill grinned but said nothing more, merely leaving Patty with Colonel Rhodes.
“So,” he says, “you were serious about looking over my papers on crisis management in a war?”
“Is this the face of a woman who jokes about that kind of thing?” Patty threw up her hands. “Yes, I read your papers. Long days and nights in the subway, nothing much to do, my cousin Sammy sang your praise like you was the second coming of Jesus himself, so yeah, I checked you out.” When his brows rose, Patty gave him a look and decided to ignore the question. Male ego. She wasn’t going to cater for it. “Should you be standing? Because we can sit if you decide that ‘sucker for punishment’ part isn’t doing it for you.”
His long, serious face broke into a smile. “I think we might head up to the lounge area for a bit, and you can tell me how Captain Tolan is doing – your cousin is Sammy E. Tolan, right?”
“That’ll be him. He’s dealing – mostly – with his life. I think his wife’s a piece of work, but they got a little girl and he’s happy, my uncle and aunt are happy, and it ain't none of my business, so I keep my trap shut and just send Skylar the merch when they give us freebies.” They made their way towards the lounge, the stiffness in Colonel Rhodes’ movements presenting as something like a limp. Patty offered him an arm as they reached the stairs.
“I’m not dead yet.”
“Yeah, but no need to get masochistic about it. I’m offering ‘cause I’m nice like that. You don’t want me to offer, I take it back. No skin off either of us.”
The laugh gusted out of him, and he touched her shoulder. “I don’t mean to be rude – thanks for the offer. You know, I’m still getting used to this and Tony says I can be an ass about things.”
“Tony Stark says that?”
His smile shared the irony as he madehis way up the stairs, a touch slower. “Would you believe it takes one to know one?”
“Hah, you better do some convincing on that front. Ain’t no way I’m seeing you as an asshole.”
“We’ve got the whole afternoon,” Rhodes said, grinning as they headed towards the bar. “There’s time.”