"Please don't embarrass me." Rhodey stopped just outside of the restaurant in a precise about-face that blocked Tony's path. He had that look, the one that told Tony something was up. Something good. Well, good for Tony. Anytime Rhodey gave him that look, it pretty much meant that Rhodey had assessed the battleground, found his odds poor, and just opted for strategic retreat.
"What? We're just having lunch with one of your old Air Force buddies. Why would you assume I'd embarrass you?" Tony ducked under the arm Rhodey lifted to block his path and pulled open the restaurant's door.
"I mean it, Tony." Rhodey crowded right on his heels. "I have a lot of respect for Sam Carter and I'd really like-"
"Jim, over here."
And oh, now Tony got why Rhodey was so concerned. Colonel Sam Carter was blonde, tall and all leg. Tony guessed she was older than him by about five years, but it looked good on her. Damn good. Rhodey had described his "old Air Force buddy" as a former pilot-turned-satellite-jockey stationed at NORAD. "Kind of an egg-head," Rhodey had said when Tony invited himself along to lunch. "No one you'd want to spend an afternoon with."
Thank god Rhodey was a shitty liar.
Rhodey hissed one last pleading "Please" as Carter smiled, a gorgeous curve of her mouth. "Jim. It's so good to see you again."
"You too, Sam. You look great." Rhodey pulled her into a friendly embrace. "Life in the mountain treating you well?"
Tony cleared his throat and shouldered Rhodey out of the way. "I hate to break up old home week, but hi, I'm Tony." He stuck out his hand, delighted when her laughter turned out to be as bright as her smile.
"Right." Rhodey scrubbed his palm over the top of his head, his acknowledgement of defeat. "Sam, let me introduce Tony. Tony Stark, Sam Carter."
"Mr. Stark. I've heard a great deal about you."
Long, calloused fingers curled into his grip. Small nicks and burns marred her skin in patterns that mirrored those on his; she had the hands of an engineer. He dragged his thumb along a jagged scar that spanned her knuckles as he regretfully released her hand.
"And I've heard nothing about you," Tony said, shooting a disgruntled sidelong glance at Rhodey, "which is a shame. Rhodey's been holding out on me."
Carter's answering grin made Tony wonder how quickly he could convince her to ditch Rhodey for the afternoon. "You have no idea, Mr. Stark."
For all his faults, Alec Colson threw a damn good party: great food, expensive booze, and incredible women.
"So, the blonde over there." Tony gestured with his glass of scotch. "You know her?" He leaned back against the bar, where he had the best vantage of the room. Colson sat on a stool nearby, his attention half on Tony, half on the sheaf of specifications for a new Stark avionics propulsion prototype Tony had been encouraging him to invest in between drinks. "Hey, Colson. This is more important. The blonde with the short hair?"
His attention finally pulled away from the specs, Colson followed Tony's gaze. "That blonde?" He pointed to the woman in question, and at Tony's nod, chuckled. "Indeed I do. And I know you don't stand a chance."
Colson's grin bespoke some insider knowledge, and Tony decided he'd take the challenge. "Come on, give me a hand here. Just the basics. Save me the ten minutes it'd take me to call Potts and have her dig it up."
"I don't know, Tony. I know your reputation. What kind of host would I be if I didn't protect the honor of my guests?"
"I'll give you a substantial discount." Tony tapped his glass against the prototype specs, smearing the ink with the condensation from his glass.
"Deal. That? Is Sam Carter. Doctor of theoretical astrophysics. Major in the Air Force. I think she has an engineering degree in there somewhere. Likes fast cars and faster planes. Might actually be smarter than you."
"Uh huh." Tony watched her speak to some guy in a knock-off tux who was far more interested in her cleavage than what her fingers animatedly sketched in the air with bold, quick lines.
"Hell no." He set his drink on the bar hard enough to rattle the ice, and held out his hand to Colson. "I'm sold."
Waving off Colson's amused "Good luck," Tony beelined across the room to his target, swiping a glass of champagne from a passing waiter as he went. "Excuse me," Tony said as he eased between Carter and her startled conversation partner, neatly cutting off the bad tux with a jerk of his thumb and, "Major Carter and I have to discuss something important."
Wide blue eyes met his. "We do?" A tiny hint of amusement blunted the sarcasm in her voice, and Tony grinned, handing her the champagne flute.
"Yeah. What's a nice astrophysicist like you doing talking to a jerk like that?"
The corner of her mouth curled up, just the tiniest bit. Tony called victory. "That," she said, "is an excellent question."
"How about we ditch this party and have one of our own? Talk quarks. Or cars. I heard a rumor you like cars. I have some. Very fast."
She glanced over her shoulder in Colson's direction. "Did Alec put you up to this?"
"No, he actually told me I didn't have a chance."
Her eyes, very blue, widened. "Did he now?"
Tony dug in his pocket and pulled out his keys. "I drove the Saleen." He jangled them at her. "Help me prove him wrong and I'll let you drive."
Abandoning the drink on a table, Sam hooked the keys out of his grasp, fingertips chilled from the glass brushing against his palm. "Deal."
Even after reading the file, seeing the specs, the Prometheus isn't what Tony expected. The description of the 'spaceship' that would be using Stark Industries' repulsor technology had conjured up visions of a NASA shuttle on steroids, not this behemoth right out of a scifi flick.
Major Carter isn't what he'd expected either, when General Vidrine points her out across the F-302 hanger bay. It's like he knows her in a weird way - he's been reading her reports, so explicit and detailed they were almost intimate - but much like Prometheus, the actual package is way better than the specs.
Tony lays a hand on one of the sweet little hybrid experimental fighters, the organic alien lines smoothly integrated with what he figured was an F-117A. The fusion wasn't clunky at all. Carter knew her shit.
Speak of the devil. She mirrored his stance, fingers with blunt-trimmed nails splayed against the fuselage. The baggy flight suit didn't do her justice, he thought. It was a crime to hide legs that long.
"Only first class, Major."
"I don't think the amenities in these are quite up to your standards, Mr. Stark."
"There are sacrifices I'm willing to make. You know," he drummed his fingers against the cool metal. "We could take one of these up, you could show me a few moves, I could show you my frequent flier miles..."
She was apparently enough of a professional not to actually roll her eyes, but it was implied in the set of her shoulders. "General Vidrine asked me to give you the tour. Is there anything in particular you'd like to see?" Her cheeks pinked perfectly at his wolfish grin.
"Sorry, Major, you made that one just too easy to resist. Truce?" He held out his hand, and just when he thought she wouldn't take it, the tight line of her shoulders eased, and she curled her fingers around his in a grip that made it very clear who really had the upper hand here.
That, too, was hot.
"So, seriously. Any chance this tour includes a test flight?"
Carter cocked her head at him, her appraisal making Tony a little nervous until he caught the tiniest quirk of her mouth. "Maybe we can work something out."
"Hold still. I've almost got it." Tony licked his thumb and smudged out a sequence of numbers, smearing black gel ink across pale skin.
His canvas snorted. "Did you remember to account for the phase pattern this time?"
"Yes, thank you, shut up." He changed one variable, and that, that was it; the synthesis of the heated argument that had started shortly after they'd been introduced at breakfast the second day of the DARPA conference and ended only because she got more interested in telling him what to do with his mouth than criticizing his math. "Got it."
His partner shifted, stretching after remaining still for the twenty minutes it had taken Tony to work out the problem. Muscles played across her back and Tony lost all interest in the math. She was all lean, hard muscle, but not the sort sculpted by a personal trainer at a high-end gym. It was the body of someone who worked and lived hard, and not what he'd expect of the satellite jockey Sam Carter claimed to be.
Tony traced the line of her spine with the pad of his thumb, easing around the equations and the scars he hesitated to ask about. He wanted to follow that meandering line with his tongue, to taste the salt left behind from the rivulets of sweat he'd watched trickle there just hours before, as she'd sat sprawled in his lap, riding him.
"Hang on." He fished over the side of the bed for his pants. Triumphant, he pulled his phone free. "Hold still," he said, centering their work in the camera. Not the best resolution, but Jarvis would be able to clean it up enough to get what he needed.
She watched over her shoulder and he shifted the focus, pulling back to get all of her, that ass and those long legs in another shot. It wouldn't do her justice, but he'd bet Jarvis could fix that, too.
"These better not show up on the internet."
"A work of art like this belongs in a private collection."
She snorted into her pillow. "I can't believe anyone falls for lines like that."
"Technically, you did."
"No, I fell for a line about wavelength-multiplexing. I do have standards."
"Come on," Tony rolled off the bed. He caught her ankle and tugged her to the edge before pulling her up and flush against him. Barefoot she was almost eye-to-eye with him. He liked that - plenty of possibilities there. "Let's go clean you up so I can get you dirty again."
The muffled chitter of a phone interrupted their meander toward the bathroom. Sam glanced at her clothes, abandoned in a scatter across the room.
"Ignore it." Tony tugged her toward the bathroom, and she actually followed for a few steps before pulling out of his grasp with a sigh.
Tony collapsed into an ornate hotel wing chair as she found her phone and flipped it open. "Carter… General? Is something wrong?" It amused him how she snapped to attention, and not just because of what it did for her breasts.
"Where am I?" she said, very clearly trying not to roll her eyes, "I'm on vacation. You know, the one you ordered me to take? Yes. I know, but- General. General," she barked out, and looked about to say more, but after sidelong glance his direction her lips snapped into a firm line. "Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Tell Daniel I'll call him later, and I'll be on the next flight I can get."
"You sounded a little insubordinate there, Colonel," Tony said as she flung her phone into the tangle of his suit and her skirt and stockings.
"I think I'm allowed when I'm being ordered back from a vacation I was ordered to take."
"Hey, not judging. I thought it was kind of hot."
She sauntered over to him, hands on hips. "Is there anything that doesn't turn you on?"
"About you?" Tony pulled her into his lap. "No."
"Sir, I think you should-"
"Enough with the backseat superheroing, Jarvis." Tony sent another repulsor blast into the skittering mass of metal. It didn't do much; even when he'd first attacked, it only shoved them back, until they started deploying some kind of shielding. At best he was buying himself only seconds, and that wouldn't exactly give him time to repair either the busted servo in the right leg or more importantly, whatever damage was causing the armor to drain power from the reactor at an alarming rate.
The HUD blinked 48%. Down almost ten percent in the last twenty minutes. Not good. "Jarvis, what's the lay of the land?" It had been three days since SHIELD first told him about the bugs, and they were already all over the western seaboard, radiating primarily west from Colorado Springs, the pinpoint of the outbreak.
"Real-time satellite imagery shows that we are effectively surrounded. Howev-"
"Great. Very helpful." Tony sent his last two missiles into the teeming mass. That at least worked - the blast's concussion sent a confetti of metal raining down as he fired the repulsor in the good leg of the suit and bounced back an awkward ten meters, falling on his ass as he landed.
Unfortunately the bugs quickly recovered and skittered after him.
"Damn it, Jarvis, what?"
"It would be prudent to move out of the vehicle's path."
"Wha-" Jarvis helpfully amplified the high-pitched whine of an approaching engine and Tony heaved himself over, rolling away just as a humvee roared past, plowing right into the metal bugs. The turret gun mounted to the frame opened up with a shattering roar even as the doors opened and the humvee's occupants opened fire.
They cut through the wave of bugs like butter. Silvery shrapnel hovered like a cloud. One of them leapt free of the vehicle and landed in a clear spot, picking off the stragglers with precise fire as he worked his way in Tony's direction. "I hope this is the cavalry," Tony said, eyeing the black military-grade body armor and heavily modified MP-5.
The solider waved a hand, and, turret gun still making mince of the ever-advancing bugs, the humvee's wheels spun, slammed into reverse, careening back to slide to a stop just a few feet away. As his rescuer continued to take out what the turret gun missed, more black-clad soldiers spilled out of the humvee and hoisted Tony into the back.
"Hey, try not to dent me!"
A bright flash of teeth from his rescuer, who leapt onto the running boards and climbed in as the humvee rolled back again before executing a stomach-churning three point turn and roaring off.
When the chatter of the turret gun finally stopped, Tony flipped up the faceplate of his helmet. His rescuer slid up his goggles. Oh. Not his. Hers. Streaks of dirt and sweat didn't do much to hide the high cheekbones and elegant curve of jaw.
"Well, hello. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
One of the other soldiers choked back a laugh as she simply raised a brow and said, "Saving your ass, Mr. Stark."
"Right. Good point. So. What exactly did you save my ass from?"
She stripped off her gloves and tossed them aside. Crouching over him, she braced one hand against the side of the vehicle and with the other probed the damage in the leg of the suit. "Replicators. They consume metal and technology. The more advanced, the better. Is there a release latch?"
"Are you trying to get into my shiny gold titanium alloy pants?"
Her radio crackled. "Colonel Carter, we're coming up on another wave of bugs. Things are gonna get bumpy."
"Shit." She abandoned her investigation of his suit for her weapon, slapping in a new magazine. "Maybe, she said, "if the world doesn't end, you'll get lucky and find out."
Tony flipped his faceplate back into place. 42% power. He'd make it work. "Then let's go save the world."