|"Don't you want to live a normal life
again?" Rhodey asked over a rare dinner at Reds
Wine Bar. They were given a table on the private
even just passing through the bar had half the clientele
stare. Tony paid and Rhodey didn't argue. He
when Tony paid.
"You make all your dates pick up the tab?"
"Hell, ain't like you can't afford it." He didn't mention the date reference and Tony didn't try to get him into bed at the end of the night.
"I spent all day in a meeting of the board of directors. That's normal, Rhodey, that's what my life would be without Iron Man." The usual response, the standard response. The truth was so much more complicated he wouldn't know where to start even if he wanted to try and explain it.
"Normal for you isn't board meetings, Tony, it's… fast cars, faster women, gambling, drinking, and obsessive periods of actually designing exceptionally complex and intelligent weapons."
"I've told you…."
"Doesn't have to be weapons. Defence is good too. All I'm saying is that I'd be happy seeing you go back to even a portion of the life you used to lead."
Tony sat back, glass of red wine resting against his index finger and thumb. "All you're saying is you don't like me playing the hero."
"This isn't about you. It's about Pepper and me." Voice dropping in volume he said, "We both love you, Tony. We've almost lost you twice. We don't want to lose you again, not to some green goblin, orange mandarin or… red devil!"
Tony laughed, of course he did, because how else could he react? But behind the laughter was the truth.
He knew Rhodey and Pepper had wanted to take out Fury's other eye after he'd left that night. Bad enough he was running around with delusions of super-heroism, the idea that there was a group of them, a team of them, all trying to out-do the others, all trying to win the world's greatest 'who can piss the highest' contest by defeating the and wildest and weirdest villains around.
But Tony hadn't started down this road for notoriety or fame. He wanted revenge, revenge for himself for Yinsen's life, for Obadiah's betrayal, for the people of Gulmira. But most of all he wanted revenge for what Raza and his gang of insurgents had done to him personally, what they'd stripped from him; the devastating injury to his heart, the three months in captivity, the torture, the pain, the fear, the death of the man he had been and the birth of the man he was now.
Because unlike Logan and Banner and Parker and whoever else Fury dragged into this madness, Tony had a choice. He could hang up the suit, stop anytime he wanted and go back to running his father's company 24x7. He didn't turn into a green monster when he was angry, couldn't scale buildings without the help of repelling gear, hadn't got a skeleton made of Adamantium. The only thing he had was an arc reactor in his chest, a power source keeping him alive. It didn't have to power the suit. It could just as easily power the R8 and save him from ever having to buy gas again.
But just because he could stop didn't mean he wanted to. He wanted to piss the highest because he'd always wanted to. He wanted to be a super-hero because the world had always revolved around him anyway. He already had the notoriety and the fame. He wanted the greatest of adrenaline rushes, and didn't see why skinny, dweeb and wolfy should have all the fun.
"You're vulnerable." Dragged into Fury's office one beautiful California morning when he should have been catching a few morning rays and an early swim before descending into the workshop for the day, he listened to a twenty minute diatribe about security for the team and the protection of its members before asking Fury to cut the bullshit and get straight to the point.
So he did, and Tony appreciated the honesty even if it was bollocks, something he told Cyclops right to his fuck-ugly face, adding, "Vulnerable? I'm the vulnerable one?"
Even with one eye, Fury could give a look that could crack diamonds. "That high-tech glow light in your chest is the only thing keeping you alive. Stane proved how piss-easy it is to steal it, to kill you. Christ, you're lucky it was the only way he fucked you, Tony." He took a deep breath, telling himself he wasn't going to murder the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. with his bare hands. "You're the most recognisable person in a state of globally recognisable people! You're a public figure, anyone at anytime could put a bullet through your brain - take you down in the blink of an eye."
He cleared his head, the remark about Obadiah still grating like gravel in an open wound. "Right. And a bullet to the brain would be a mere flesh wound to the rest of your collective."
"They have ways of protecting themselves."
"No one protects themselves from a bullet in the brain." He shook his head with a sigh. "Come on, Nick. Banner won't hulk out unless the world is moments away from complete annihilation. Pete's greatest defence is his smile; he just makes people believe he's harmless which, of course, he is. Logan… he's your exception I'll give you that. Someone shoots him he just pushes the bullet back out, although he won't tell me why it doesn't just ping off his thick metal skull. Must be hell getting through airport security."
"Tony! This isn't about them. It's about you."
He leaned back in his chair. "I have protection, I have bodyguards. Hate to break it to you but being public enemy number one isn't new to me. I've been on someone's hit list my whole life."
"I know." Fury hesitated, looked at Tony in that assessing way he hated, then leaned forward and read from an open file on the wide desk in front of him. "When you were eight years old, an anti-war group abducted you from outside your school and held you ransom for seventy-two hours. Obadiah was the one to deliver the cash and to deliver you back into your mother's arms. A week later every member of the group who held you - not just the ones involved in the kidnapping but every group member - was dead."
Tony stared at him, mind blank for just a moment as he tried to suppress the rage building rapidly inside him. "You wind Banner up like this?"
"No." It was a measured response accompanied by the flicker of a maybe smile. "I'm pointing out that you don't have Obadiah standing between you and harm any longer."
It was enough. Tony burst up from his seat. "You asshole. Obadiah Stane ordered a hit on me because he wanted the company, he wanted the money. Forty-three years of love and family and when it came down to it, it all meant fuck all to him. And when he paralysed me, he talked about me like I was some fucking resource he could just use up and throw away. He smiled when he reached into my chest and took out the one thing keeping me alive. There was nothing but twisted hated in the way he looked at me."
"All I'm saying -"
"All you're saying is bullshit. Don't lecture me on my own security. I know how to look after myself. I've learnt the hard way."
"I want to offer you -"
"I don't want anything you have to offer me. I don't even know why you're worrying. I don't appreciate your concern."
Fury sat back, arms outstretched in what Tony presumed was a peace offering. "I'm just protecting my own."
"I'm not yours, Nick."
"I just meant you work for me."
Taking a step forward Tony slammed his palms flat on the desk, putting his whole weight behind them, the words resonating through him. "I don't work for anyone."
He spoke slowly, deliberately. "You are a part of my team. That is all I meant."
Two deep breaths and Tony straightened. "Sorry. I'm…. That fucker Raza used the same line after he dunked my head in a toilet ten or twenty times. Ever been through that? Anyone ever tried to drown you while you've got a fucking car battery in your chest?" His words were angry but he kept his voice level.
"I didn't mean anything by it." Tony reckoned his apology was going to provoke one in return and he wasn't disappointed. "I know how hard you fought for your freedom, I respect that. All I'm saying is that there are ways I can help boost your own personal security. If you'll let me. I promise it won't cramp your style."
He knew when he was outnumbered. If he didn't agree, Fury would find a way of placating Rhodey and Pepper, getting them on side and he'd end up with whatever the hell this 'extra protection' was whatever he did. In a previous life that would have meant sending Happy out for more condoms. He had no idea what it meant in this one but he knew he was going to find out, sooner or later. May as well make it sooner then he could send it back if he didn't like it.
"When I'm Iron Man, it's just me and Jarvis."
"Accepted. Although you might appreciate the extra -" he wisely stopped short of finishing the sentence. "The scope of this will be up to you. Okay?"
Tony nodded. "Okay."
"Tell me, Tony, are all our conversations going to be this difficult?"
Despite the conversation ending in a begrudging draw, Tony left Fury's office with anger still simmering in his gut. Something about the guy rubbed him up the wrong way. He tried never to judge anyone on first impressions, he tried never to judge most people at all, it was bad for business, but Fury had broken into his house somehow that first night, wiping out with one careless act that illusion of safety and sanctity he'd once again attached - so mistakenly - to his own home. And it had royally pissed him off. First Obadiah then Fury. He'd beefed up security, of course he had. He'd extended Jarvis' reach to the outer perimeter of the grounds, the front gates, the cameras monitoring the drive, added a sound cancellation routine, just in case anyone else got hold of one of those gruesome gadgets Obadiah had used to take him out. No one got in without several forms of identification, all of them taken without the visitor ever knowing he or she had been checked out.
Still, he was so fucking far from feeling safe and secure he'd installed extra measures in his workshop / garage, bedroom, en suite, lounge and office. The kitchen had escaped untouched due to the large number of incredibly sharp knives that would be at his fingertips if anyone tried anything. He'd imagined that being Iron Man would give him not just a sense of purpose but a sense of bravado, and escaping the cave had done both. But Yinsen had died and he'd been hurt. He kept getting hurt. Iron Man he might be, but immortal he wasn't.
"Hey, Glow Worm."
Tony let his eyes follow Logan along the corridor, head turning as he strolled arrogantly passed. So far he'd refused to even shake hands with the guy but there was definitely a spark between them and despite himself he was curious. It didn't mean he had to take any crap.
"Listen, Wolfman, you want to fight, let me get my armour and we'll fight."
Logan chuckled. "That's right. You need to get dressed up before taking me on."
"We don't all have the luxury of metal bones."
Heavy eyebrows lifted. "You know, the last I heard you were lusting over my metal bones these days."
Tony smirked. "In your wildest fantasies, James."
"You couldn't even begin to guess my wildest fantasies, Anthony."
"No? How about I just start licking you and we go from there?" Logan growled, low in his chest and Tony grinned. "Down, boy. Only kidding. If you're here to see Fury, just a word of warning, he's in a foul mood."
Tony walked into his workshop and let the deceptive glass door close behind him, the lock automatically catching and activating. Not even his own repulsors would break the replacement material, only two humans and one AI knew the code, and Jarvis was locked down tighter than the house.
"Any… additional information? Changes, unexpected visitors?"
"No, Sir. Were you expecting someone unexpected?"
He wasn't sure. "Just checking. Fury said he had a way of making me feel more secure."
"He's working miracles now, is he, Sir?"
"Fucking hilarious." Tony dropped into his chair and swivelled back and forth a couple of times before planting his elbows on the desk and dropping his arms until his fingers hovered above the projected keyboard. "Sorry."
"No apology is required."
"Yeah, it is. You're my lifeline, my co-pilot; you don't deserve to be treated like that."
Silence dominated for a long few seconds. "Thank you, Sir."
"We can dispense with the 'Sir', you know, Jarvis. We could have dispensed with it a long time back."
"Maybe we could, Sir. But it wouldn't feel right."
Tony smiled to himself. "Okay. Bring up the power stats for suit from the last mission, I want to see where the greatest energy drain is, try to lessen the usage of the couplings between the arc reactor and the armour."
He'd always buried himself in his obsessions; 'play hard, work hard' had been his simple and not-so original motto. Now there was less time to play, and his indulgences veered more towards the culinary than the sexual. During his time in hell the menu had been somewhat limited and his immediate demand for a cheeseburger and fries the moment he'd touched down on American soil hadn't been the end of his quickly escalating indulgences.
Twenty-eight day aged steak, thick-cut chips, a Diane sauce and a bottle of Brunello had been high on his list of meals to savour before Obadiah had brought his fragile world once again crashing down around him. He was a chocolate aficionado and only the best would do. Coffee too - ordering the green beans from a tiny farm on the Jamaican islands, roasting and grinding them himself. The best wines, the best whiskies, the best of everything. Iron Man or not, he wasn't going to deny himself the luxuries he'd been born in to, grown up taking for granted, although maybe that had changed. The first night he'd spent back in his own bed he'd been reduced to silent, bone wracking tears simply due to the fresh, crisp coolness of the sheets, the lightweight security of the duck down comforter and the perfect submission of his pillows.
Twelve hours after calling up the power stats, Pepper put a mug of freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee and a fresh club sandwich with crispy lettuce, free-range chicken, organic bacon, expensive mayo and thick slices of buffalo tomato between two slices of fresh-from-the-bakers white bread.
"Bruce Wayne called to see if you wanted to do breakfast tomorrow."
Tony looked up at her, considered it for a second and scowled. "Did not."
She held her expression for a moment before letting it melt into a smile. "But that doesn't mean you don't have a reason to go to bed before dawn."
"It's still early…."
"It's one a.m., Tony."
He glanced at the clock high on the wall of the workshop. "Right. Like I said, still early." He watched her turn and shake her head slightly as she left him to it. She was spending a couple of nights a week staying at the house still, and that was okay because after he'd come back from Afghanistan she stayed every night for a month. He doubted she'd ever get over it completely, just like he wouldn't, but she was working through it, something he definitely wasn't doing. When she wasn't in the house it was quieter somehow, even though he never heard a peep out of her, and he had Jarvis play music or read him the weather reports and shipping forecasts for the whole of the US until he fell asleep.
He could ask her to stay every night, to move in to the house on a permanent basis (not like that). But he didn't want to, partially because he wanted her to have a life of her own, and partly because he wasn't sure that one day he wouldn't be grateful again to have the place to himself.
"Goodnight, Tony," she threw back as she climbed the pushed open the door.
Tony ate the sandwich, drank the coffee, then poured himself a scotch and saved the calculations he'd done along with the changes he'd made to file, trusting Jarvis to back everything up to an off-site server out of state. He kicked off his sneakers and crossed his ankles as he put his feet up on the desk so that the projection of the keyboard curved over his sock; U, J and N on one side, O, L and > on the other.
Jarvis lowered the lights without being asked and put some music on; electric, classical, something Tony didn't even recognise. His personal AI could get very obscure sometimes. For a long time he sat in the peace and quiet of his workshop, listening to the music, letting his breathing slow, closing his eyes slowly. If he fell asleep here so be it but there was such a comfortable bed upstairs if he could just bring himself to go up and collapse in it.
"You have new mail, Sir." Jarvis' voice was quiet and he could have ignored it if he'd wanted.
"I'll deal with it in the morning."
"It's not exactly business."
Tony opened his eyes and blinked at the nearest computer screen. "Reading my mail now?"
"Not exactly, Sir. This one's from… an acquaintance."
"Yours or mine?"
"Both. Maybe you remember the Knight Foundation charity ball last year?"
The Knight Foundation… oh. How could he not? He'd apparently ducked out of making a decision on attending for so long that Pepper had put him down as a 'yes' and committed him not only to attendance but to a sizeable donation once he was there. So, black tie, black tux, dressed up and looking like a million dollars, he'd decided to make the most of a bad deal and had arrived in style in a three hundred thousand dollar Bentley. Almost immediately he'd been distracted, not by some brunette or red head, but by two cars parked side by side close to the entrance of the Knight Foundation Manor where the gala was being held. Black - no, more like colourless - sleek, no discernable make although one vaguely resembled an updated, upgraded Pontiac Trans Am. Both looked like predators, primed and ready to strike, and he remembered staring at them for some time, hoping he could find the owners and wangle drives, before he was greeted and ushered into the entrance for the first of what turned out to be an unending fountain of good, expensive champagne and hideously dull conversation.
"The mail is from Kitt."
The cars weren't the only reason that night stuck in his mind. Kitt was the other reason. Blond, blue eyed, immaculately dressed, working the room like a pro, like he was born to do it. Everyone seemed to know him and those few who didn't he introduced himself, made them feel like they did. Including Tony. He'd been utterly captivated, trying anything and everything to win himself the rest of the night upstairs with the stranger. But nothing had worked and all Tony had managed to leave with at the end of the night had been the guy's name. He'd never admitted his failure to anyone, not because he felt particularly ashamed about it, but because it was something he'd felt like keeping to himself, just for himself. So how did Jarvis….
"How do you know about Kitt?"
"We've been in touch."
Tony swung his feet from the desk and sat up. "What?"
"It's not what you think."
"You've been exchanging emails with a… a stranger?" The sense of betrayal was almost overwhelming. His own system had let an unknown influence touch him, someone they didn't know, someone who could have done untold damage….
"Not exactly an exchange of emails, Sir. And there has never been a threat of a security breach."
"Kitt is… he's more like me than you, Sir."
He started to think he should have gone to bed when Pepper had suggested it. "What are you talking about?"
"Kitt isn't human, Sir. He' an Artificial Intelligence."
Either he'd had too much coffee, too little scotch or his creation had suddenly developed a couple of bugs. "Jarvis… are we talking about the same Kitt? Blond hair, blue eyes," he held his hand out and up, "yay tall?"
"Yes, Sir. He's an android."
"He's a bloody good one." It was all he could think to say. He'd been after fucking the guy… thing… no, definitely guy, all that night. At least at explained why he was turned down for the first time in his life but it didn't make him feel any better for it. "Shit, Jarvis, are you serious?"
"Yes, I am."
"And you've been… what? Having late night chats? Romantic e-liaisons?"
"No need for jealousy. He's spoken for as I understand it." Tony's mind boggled. "Would you like to read his mail to you, Sir?"
"You're sure it's for me?"
"Yes. It has 'FAO Tony' in its subject line."
He sighed, for once not rising to it. "Put it up."
Sender: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: FAO Tony
We met at the Foundation's charity ball last year. No hard feelings, I hope. Jarvis has no doubt told you what I am. I work - indirectly - with a man called Nicholas MacKenzie, an unsurpassed security expert, and we're responding now to a personal request from Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. He's concerned with your personal security after your revelations regarding Iron Man and I can't say I blame him. Nick's asked me to assess the situation. If you're comfortable with this, respond and I'll visit. If not, he's willing to come himself although there might be a slight delay on his visit as he's abroad at present.
Let me know. It would be good to see you again. You were very convincing that night, I was almost swayed.
Tony licked his lips. "Reply for me."
"'If you won't stay the night, what about breakfast?'"
He smiled to himself before it faded. "Get me everything on Nicholas MacKensie. And everything on Kitt. And explain to me what you meant when you said he's spoken for?"
He went to bed at five and was woken at six by an admittedly reluctant Jarvis whose apology wasn't quite enough to stop Tony threatening to re-voice him with Chris Rock.
"Mr Logan is at the gates, Sir."
Tony rubbed his eyes and kicked the sheet off, wiggling his toes. Jarvis had left the windows in their darkened state and the ocean had a beautiful deep glow to it which felt inviting even after a scant hour's sleep.
"Put him through."
"Glow worm!" He sounded a hundred miles away and Tony briefly wished he was. "I'm outside your fortress on the bike, comin' for a ride?"
"Piss off, Wolfman."
Logan's laugh sounded like it was bouncing off the iron gates.
"Telling me you don't like something hot and fast between your legs first thing in the morning?"
Tony groaned. "Never come round here again."
Another roar of laughter before the bike joined in and Jarvis cut the feed.
"I apologise for disturbing you, Sir."
Tony pummelled a pillow into submission and turned onto his side to look out of the opaque glass panes, one knee lifting, briefly wondering which view Jarvis was enjoying the most before he closed his eyes and let himself drift back to sleep.
He showered; experiencing a single heart-stopping moment, as the fast-flowing water ran over his face and into his eyes, of what his doctor laughingly called PTSD. Not that he'd ever called it that to his face, because Tony had threatened to leave and never return if he so much as suggested the bastard four-letter acronym was responsible for any of his outwardly spiralling paranoia and obsessive behaviours. But he'd heard Pepper and Rhodey mention it often enough when they thought he wasn't listening.
He towel-dried and ruffled his hair slightly, deliberately, before pulling on a white shirt over outrageously expensive light blue denim. The light cotton didn't quite mask the blue glow of the reactor, but then he didn't want it to for reasons he didn't really understand himself.
Jarvis had told him everything about Kitt - the Knight Industries Two Thousand - who had started life in a mainframe in Washington, was bought by the industrialist and entrepreneur Wilton Knight, loaded into a fancy car and given to a lone operative by the name of Michael Knight who worked for the Foundation as a cross between a private detective and a vigilante. Some years ago, Michael and Kitt had split from the Foundation for reasons Jarvis couldn't explain and were working with the mysterious Nicholas MacKenize (on who Jarvis had nothing), basically doing the same work but this time for cash. How Kitt had gone from being a glamorised form of transportation to a deceptively human android, Jarvis again couldn't say, and that was why Tony wasn't sure he was buying it. A computer housed in a car was one thing. The man he'd met the night of the charity ball, the one he'd spent hours seducing, that was quite another. That was beyond futuristic, beyond what most people called 'cutting edge'.
Still, as always he was out to impress, something made him want to fascinate Kitt the way Kitt was starting to fascinate him.
Even at the late hour at which he'd called her, Pepper had arranged for his personal chef to come in early and breakfast was laid out on the veranda overlooking the Pacific. This was a view that would seduce even the coldest of women, a view that very few of his one-night stands had ever been allowed to stay long enough to enjoy. Would Kitt appreciate it? He had no idea.
Kitt's arrival was announced to him as he stole a strawberry from the fresh fruit salad and he all but bounced down the curved staircase to come face to face with his memory, like a ghost in the walls of toughened glass.
He was just as Tony remembered him, this time dressed all in black, just a dash of white gold at his cuffs; exquisite. Still Tony couldn't see anything but a flesh and blood man standing in front of him, maybe slightly younger than his usual choice of male company but still... human.
Kitt didn't reach to shake a hand Tony didn't offer. His first words were, "You don't believe what Jarvis told you." There was something arrogant in that statement that reminded him of himself and Tony couldn't help but smile and shrug.
"Doesn't matter. It's good to see you again."
A nod. "You too."
"Do you... eat?"
The corner of Kitt's mouth curved. "It depends what's on offer."
As he led the way to the veranda, Tony thought of anything and everything he could to dispel the effect that statement had on him, certain that Kitt had done it deliberately. That night at the Foundation, who had been seducing who?
"You live very well."
The comment surprised him. As he bit into a Danish pastry he looked around at the open white space of the living room through the wide veranda doors, the cool interior he roamed at nights - his sanctuary, his home - and around at the blue horizon opposite.
"Yeah, I guess I do." Kitt's expression was of mild curiosity. "I've seriously never thought about it before. I've… changed since the last time we met." A nod, like he knew and maybe he did. Maybe Jarvis had kept him updated. That jarred with him.
"Come on, enough about me. I'm just a regular human being with a flashy suit of armour. You're an android. How did that happen?" He couldn't help himself. And he couldn't help staring either. He'd convinced himself last night that no way had he drunk enough champagne at the Foundation Ball not to recognise a mechanical life form when he was chatting one up. But this morning he could see in broad, sober daylight that Kitt could fool anyone. He let the false grin slip. "Seriously."
"Seriously?" Kitt slowly, deliberately unfastened the cufflink at his left wrist - an action which alone set Tony's heart racing - and pushing his sleeve up, reached between them to lift Tony's right hand and place it on the underside of his arm. Permission thereby granted Tony ran his fingers over the flawless… skin? Kitt flexed his wrist and what he felt wasn't quite human. It wasn't muscle and bone but it wasn't robotic either.
His fascination was starting to bloom into something more. He wanted to take Kitt down into his workshop and strip back the skin, see what was underneath, figure out how it worked and build one of his own, only better. If better was even possible; he was an over-achiever, always had been.
Still, there was slight discomfort alongside the interest. If Kitt really was what Jarvis said he was, he was an incredibly powerful, incredibly dangerous machine.
"Why does it feel so real?"
"Because it was designed to."
He looked up into those stark blue eyes and wanted to know how it all worked - how a robot with an artificial mind acted, sounded, looked so fucking real he still wanted to get it into bed.
Not moving Tony's hand, not asking him to move it, Kitt took a presumably unneeded breath and said, matter-of-factly, "I'm here to assess your security and to give Mr MacKenzie some options that will satisfy your requirements while allaying Mr Fury's concerns."
"My requirements?" He looked from Kitt's face to his arm and back again.
"I believe you don't want any more body guards."
"You're right." He pulled his hand away.
"Could I see your garage?"
He frowned, but it fulfilled the bit about getting Kitt into his workshop. "Do I want to ask why?"
Kitt looked at each of his cars in turn, ignoring the bikes. Tony wanted to know what the hell was going through that computer brain, but as he was about to ask, Kitt got in before him.
"Are you disappointed?"
The question threw him. "Disappointed? With what?"
"With me. With what I am. That night at the Foundation, you were clearly interested in sleeping with me."
Tony hoped against hope that Jarvis wasn't eavesdropping on this conversation. "It was a hobby of mine, sleeping with strangers. It isn't anymore and I'm far from disappointed, believe me."
"Do you still want to sleep with me?"
"I don't know." It was as honest an answer he'd ever given anyone. "Do you want to say hello to Jarvis?"
"I already have done."
Tony considered that, felt a shiver peel down his spine. "I don't like that."
Kitt turned from the cars for the first time in the conversation. He looked truly confused. "What?"
"I don't like it that you can just… speak with him, interface with him like that, you could do anything."
"He could do anything. He's uploaded into your suit, isn't he, when you're on missions as Iron Man?" Tony nodded. "What's to stop him cutting the power from the arc reactor to the suit? Crash landing you, killing you?"
How the hell…? "How the hell do you know about… any of that?"
"Jarvis told me." Kitt walked over to where Tony was standing. "You trust him and he won't ever betray that trust."
"I think he has." His voice sounded flat, the tatters of his fragile personal defences pulled tight around him now. Last night he hadn't believed a word of what Jarvis had told him, now he believed it all, and he wanted Kitt out of his house.
"I'm a computer, Tony. I'm as secure as Jarvis. I'm a friend of his. He trusts me as you trust him and you can both trust me." He didn't know what to say. "He found me after you were abducted. We worked together to try to track you, accessed satellite feeds, tapped data and phone lines, monitored military, public and private sector communications, We tried to find you together and ultimately it was us who gave the exact location of the explosions you caused to Colonel Rhodes. We helped saved your life once, we would do it again and again and never let you down. Believe me, we're closer to you than you know and there's no reason to be scared of us."
Tony listened to it with churning emotions, all of it threatening to overwhelm him. In the end he grasped enough control to ask, "Could you leave, please?"
Kitt hesitated, but nodded. "Just answer one question for me. Which car do you drive the most?"
Pepper showed Kitt out. Tony let himself slide down against a storage locker and didn't move for a long time, stared blankly ahead of him, determined he wasn't going to cry as the memories of his kidnap and captivity washed back over him like dirty water over a filthy shore. Kitt had left with a kind hand to his shoulder and the immortal words, "We'll be in touch."
Why did he feel so violated? His first instinct was to take Jarvis offline, reboot him. Revert to factory settings. Only there were no factory settings. He wanted to shout, to rant and rage against the machine but it was just that, a machine; one he'd created, written, built from scratch; circuit boards and processors, memory, disk space and millions of lines of code. Just like Kitt. Only Kitt had grown, somehow become something more, something incredible. Had Jarvis? Could he?
"Is it true?" he asked obliquely.
"Is what true, Sir?" Jarvis sounded chastised despite Tony not having said a word yet about what Kitt had said.
"You found me. With his help?"
"He would not lie to you. It took three months and you saved yourself, you gave us something to find. It is not something either of us are proud of."
Tony took that on board. "He wouldn't lie to me? What is this? Is there something going on between you two I should know about?"
"No, Sir." The British accent suddenly sounded long-suffering, like an aged retainer. "Kitt is simply remarkable. As are you. He is as fascinated with you as you are with him. So might I suggest you get to know him, and allow him to get to know you?"
Tony rubbed his face with the heels of his hands. "Why?"
"Because he would be good for you."
"Why should I trust him?"
"Because I do. And you created me."
Tony dropped his head into his hands with a heart-felt groan.
He sulked for the rest of the morning, tinkered with the engine of the Hot Rod, ignored all calls and emails until Pepper was apparently forced to bring one particular problem to his attention and he was forced to change into a darker shirt to hide the reactor and drive out to the Stark Industries R&D facility. The recurring problem with the prototype engine of a stealth jet he'd designed took up the remainder of the day and most of the evening and took his mind, joyously, off the situation 'at home'.
He got back just after nine. Pepper had already left and he fixed himself steak and chips and ate it in the lounge in front of CNN before descending to his workshop. Jarvis had welcomed him home as usual when he'd arrived back but apart from a muttered, 'yeah', he hadn't spoken to him. Now, as he seated himself at his desk and brought both the large monitors alive with a wave of his hand, he apologised.
"This is gonna sound corny and clichéd but it's not you. I've just got a few… unresolved issues with trust and dependency." Jarvis wisely didn't comment. "Kitt fascinates me, of course he does. Part of me wants to fuck him the other part wants to dismantle him just to find out what makes him tick."
"In that case, aren't both parts of you are pursuing the same goal?"
It put a smile on Tony's face for the first time since Kitt had left. "Yeah, guess it does." He didn't say any more, and thankfully Jarvis let it drop.
"What are we working on tonight?"
Tony let his eyes travel to the suit hanging from the rig. "Stealth," he declared. "And analyse the next batch of sales orders for me. I've just about recovered from the last battering," he finished wryly, "I think I'm ready for another."
Kitt parked his highly customised Ferrari in its usual spot inside the converted warehouse, next to his silent brother.
<_you're back - everything okay?
Karr's response rumbled in his mind,
Kitt smiled and jogged up the metal stairs to the living area. He could see Nick in the office through the crack in the half-open door and was heading that way when a voice stopped him from the ground floor below.
"So?" It was teasing and curious, and in his mind he felt no anger, no fear.
He turned, leaned over the stair rail and gazed thoughtfully down at the wavy-haired man standing looking up. "I want him."
The man smiled, nodded. "Thought so."
He shook his head with a smile. "I know you."
Kitt grinned and carried on up. "Nick?" He peered in through the office door. "When did you get back?"
"An hour ago."
He echoed his partner, "All's fine, Kitt."
He'd get the details from Karr later. "The job for Mr Fury? It's an Audi, R8. Silver and black. Fifth off the line according to the VIN. No customisation. And I'd say he's fond of it."
"As fond as Tony Stark is about anything." Kitt's expression darkened and Nick's expression turned to faint surprise as he nodded. "Okay. Thanks."
It was a dismissal, as close as Nick would come to dismissing him, but Kitt hesitated. "What now?"
Nick hesitated but he answered, "Now we find out how much Nick Fury's willing to pay to protect his favourite genius."
"Sir, you have a visitor."
Roused from his Tantric-like state of concentration, Tony blinked a couple of times and threw a glance across at the clock half-buried under the technical drawings scattered like giant leaves across the work top. It was five thirty. A.M.
"You're kidding me."
"No, Sir." Jarvis helpfully put the security camera feed from the front gates up on the nearest flat screen monitor. "It's Mr Banner."
The AI's tone was the exactly same one as Tony's internal voice as he looked at the skinny man standing on the other side of the wrought iron gates. They towered above him and Tony was in no doubt that as the Hulk Banner could burst straight through them like they were boiled candy. Just as he was in no doubt that he wouldn't Hulk out unless the house spontaneously burst into flames or started to slide from its cliff ledge spot.
Bruce had his arms wrapped around himself like a frightened child, looking bedraggled in a long mac despite the fact that the last time it rained was almost a month ago.
The first time they'd met, Tony had felt a loathing for the man he couldn't justify and couldn't ignore. He felt it again now. He hated him because as much as Tony had wasted his life before Iron Man, before Afghanistan, before Yinsen, Banner was still wasting his, throwing away day after day after day and for what? Because he was too fucking chicken to face his own demons, to get a grip on what was inside him. If it were Tony he'd learn everything there was to learn and he'd deal with, damn it; he'd find a way. Banner... Banner was pathetic.
"He'll go away," was his verbal response, "take it off the monitor."
He was starting to regret saying yes to Fury's initiative. He didn't play well with others and he'd pointed that out at the start. He was a loner, had always been a loner, had never had very many friends of his own age. As a child he'd been too smart, too clever, what was cool now definitely hadn't been between the ages of five and fifteen. At school he'd been quickly moved up from class to class until they'd run out of classes in which to put him where he wasn't correcting the tutors. He'd gone to MIT when other kids his age were moving up from sophomore. He'd graduated around the time other teenage boys were discovering what their balls were for. The first girl he'd fucked had been a quarter his intellect and the first guy who'd fucked him had been twice his age. He'd grown up an adult, his childhood lost to an ever-expectant father who pushed and pushed until Tony had shoved back, hard.
It was half an hour and too many remembered regrets later when Jarvis asked without any prompt Tony could immediately establish, "Are you curious as to what he wants?"
Looking up from his own technical drawings, he frowned at the room in general; used to thinking of Jarvis as being everywhere at once like some omnipotent deity.
"Don't tell me he's still there."
"All right, I won't."
"For Christ's sake...." Tony let his hands drop, palms flat on the work surface. He didn't want a visitor. He thought he should feel guilty about that but he just couldn't. Time, space and privacy had become so important to him after three months held prisoner in a cave without a moment to himself - every movement, every action watched, witnessed, spied on. Even the cheapest backstreet shrink would point out the cause and effect here without the need for a single word about his mother.
"I don't want a visitor."
"I know. I had no intention of suggesting you see him. It was just a question; I was wondering what he might want."
Tony thumbed a virtual bolt out of the way. "Whatever it is, I can't give it to him." Something still wasn't quite right with the design and turning, he took the pencil from behind his ear and returned to the hastily drawn schematics.
The following conversation takes place in a split second, in the blink of an eye, in 1s and 0s. This is what was said.
>I told you he is fragile. I will not let you break him
>I need access to the Audi
>No. He trusts me. I will not betray that trust. He is already suspicious after your visit
>Said I was sorry. This is for his own good, for his protection
>Then tell him
>I will after, you have my word. I can't until after
>He will not allow it
>Then I cannot allow it
>We do this with or without you
>You do it without me. I will not give you access
>so be it
The voice, close to his ear, murmuring his name with a sexual undertone that got him immediately hard. He muttered something in response, turned over expecting to feel warm skin and a human body behind him, and instead dropped onto his back alone.
He opened his eyes to the semi-darkness. "Umm?" He was half-awake, the dream still like a real memory in his mind, cock demanding his attention. "Jarvis…." He wasn't certain what else he was going to say, what he was going to ask, whether he could even ask what he wasn't sure he was going to ask of an AI with no corporeal form to speak of. In that half-awake, half-asleep state, so much seemed like a good idea that just wasn't in the cold light of day.
"Yes, Sir. I thought you'd like to know, Kitt is here."
He took a deep breath and started to wake up. "What time is it?"
"Ten thirty. I let you sleep, Sir, as you didn't go to bed until six twenty-five."
Tony stretched in the cool luxury of his sheets. Since Afghanistan, an erection really wasn't all that common an occurrence for him. "Give me half an hour. Have Pepper make him breakfast."
Tony waited, but he wasn't sure for what. Jarvis wasn't a real person who would leave the room. He never really left any of the rooms in the house. Before Afghanistan he'd been shameless, not giving a thought to the invisible eyes that watched every inch of the house for every minute of every day, the recordings that were made of every movement. Now he slid his hand under the sheets and brushed his palm over the glowing blue circle on his chest before hesitantly moving down to touch his half-interested cock. One leg straight, one bent at the knee, his own touch was tentative at best, but Christ, what was it - four months? Five?
He tightened his grip, gritted his teeth and closed his eyes.
"I came to apologise." Tony nodded, sipping at the coffee Pepper had put in his hands before leaving them alone in the living room. "I upset you and believe me, it was the last thing I intended to do."
"You could have sent an email." It was bitchy, but he wasn't in the mood. His hand job hadn't helped matters and he was starting to think maybe it was time he hit the Malibu club scene and found some living, breathing company even if it was just for one night only. "You didn't upset me. I've been through a lot of shit recently, people close to me have let me down and you, pal, you're one step away from being a stranger."
That struck deep, judging by the expression on Kitt's face, but something… something made it pass, like silent words.
"Nick wants to meet you."
"Nicholas MacKenzie, the man Mr Fury hired to provide protection for you."
"I believe the word was security, and so far all you've done - Kitt - is make me second-guess my own support systems. I feel less secure now than I did before he was hired. Congratulations." He felt trapped somehow, and this wasn't how it was supposed to be! He felt secure as Iron Man, powerful in the suit, but out of it… he didn't want the armour to become another addiction and he could see that path so easily, beckoning him. Alone, as a man, he was vulnerable to attack, and he couldn't, wouldn't, go through something like that again, he wasn't capable. His hand passed over the arc reactor hidden under his shirt, his vulnerability, the part of him that wasn't human. Sometimes he felt every moment of the surgery, relived every second of pain.
"Tony... no one can know what happened to you in Afghanistan, what you've been through, what you're still going through. No one's trying to take away anything you built after that - you're Iron Man. You're a hero. You're not as vulnerable as Fury thinks but believe it or not, Nick can help you. Just meet with him, please. Somewhere public, somewhere you choose. Nick won't harm you."
"You trust him."
"With my life. And I have done, several times over."
Tony took a deep breath, let it out and nodded. "Okay. Michael's Cafe on Sea Vista, this afternoon at two. Just you and him or I don't want to ever see you again."
Kitt tipped his head to one side for a moment before nodding. "Nick's free this afternoon. He'll meet you at two. There's no need to be suspicious, Tony."
"You're kidding? That thing you just did? That's fucking creepy."
"Are you sure about this?"
Kitt dropped his head back to the car seat and rolled his eyes. "Stop."
"Mike told me you like him."
He ignored Karr's wordless questions in the back of his mind. "Yes, I like him. I think he's been through enough for one lifetime. So this needs to go right, Nick. Otherwise he's never going to see me again and it would look seriously bleak for Jarvis too."
"It's just a job, Kitt, remember that. Do you have the code and password?" He nodded. "Good. Then let's do it."
Nick threw back his hideously expensive triple espresso with its perfect crema in one and picked up the equally costly black Americano. He was glad again that Fury was picking up expenses. They were sitting outside Michael's Café, in the hippest, most expensive part of Malibu where Tony Stark had his bizarrely futuristic home. "I've always wondered what it would be like to be a superhero."
Tony smirked, fingering the oval almond biscotti brought on a small plate along with his cinnamon latte. "Know many?"
Nick knew he wasn't what Tony had expected and the truth was, Tony wasn't what Nick had expected either. Nick had seen some rough shit, experienced stuff he'd not wish on his worst enemy. So when he'd read what about what had happened to Tony Stark in Afghanistan, he'd made assumptions about the man's character. How the hell this highly-strung, spoilt rich kid survived in a damp, filthy cave for three months with severe shrapnel wounds? "No. But I know a couple of people who should be."
"Don't we all?" Nick tried not to cringe as he watched Tony sip the ultra-sweet coffee. Granted, the guy wasn't being overtly hostile, but he obviously wasn't happy about any of this. "You wanted to meet with me."
"Yes. I wanted to talk about our options for your security."
"Before we do that, why don't you tell me who you are? Because I couldn't find anything on you and Kitt wasn't talking either. Where is he, by the way? I kinda thought he'd be here."
"Kitt wanted to come. But I needed him on something else."
"So he works for you?"
"He and his partner work for themselves, private contractors like me. I just provide them with contracts, contacts and security. Backup, when the need arises."
"He and his… partner?"
Nick opened his mouth and closed it again. So Kitt hadn't told Tony about Michael? That was… strange. Something changed slightly in Karr's presence in the back of his mind and he wondered how much his own partner - Kitt's brother - knew about what the hell was going on with him. "Kitt and Michael have worked together a long time."
"That wound be Michael Knight? Wilton Knight's superhero."
Nick smiled. "Like I said."
"And you provide them with security? I ask again, who are you?"
>let me in Jarvis
>I promise you I don't mean him any harm
>Tony would not allow it therefore I cannot allow it
>Tony might if I explained
>then why haven't you explained?
>one final time please
>one final time no
>okay Jarvis in that case I'm sorry
>welcome Mr Stark
>sorry for whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Nick took a deep breath. Watching Tony drink set his teeth on edge. "I'm an expert, that's all you need to know."
"An expert in what?"
"Lots of things."
"Nick, please. I've never been that formal."
Tony sat forward, finally removing his light-tinted sunglasses. Nick swallowed, for the first time seeing the human being behind the mask. Still, the arrogant defences were in place. "-I graduated from MIT-"
"I know your credentials."
"Up until a few months ago, I designed weapons. Now I design defence systems - stealth planes, high-tech medicines, intelligent counter-measures and surveillance equipment. I design security. Do you see the irony here?"
"No offence, Mr Stark, but a man broke into your house, paralysed you and stole an arc reactor literally from under your nose. That came four months after the same man had you abducted from the middle of a convoy of US army soldiers." He ignored the pain turning to anger in Tony's expression. In his head, Karr was telling him Kitt was in, at the same time as he was warning him to tread carefully. "I can stop things like that from happening."
"You think I can't? You think I just went home and left things the way they were? The house is impenetrable now." Nick didn't even blink. "What Fury's worried about is someone shooting me in the head on the red carpet of some film premiere or charity gig and aside from wearing the Iron Man suit twenty-four-seven I don't see how me, you, or anyone else is going to prevent that."
Nick nodded. "You're right. If someone's determined enough to shoot you in the head, Tony, you're a dead man. For someone to be determined enough to shoot you in the head, you'd have to have fucked with the wrong people and I'm sure you've fucked and fucked with so many wrong people that a few of them are bound to have the means to have you assassinated if they so wish." Tony's face was a fragile mask, rage shining in his eyes but his expression blank now. Nick always knew which buttons to press, he'd known with Michael and this guy was a thousand times easier to read. But Karr was warning him, again, to back off and for some reason he was being quite insistent. "What I'm offering are better odds of you staying alive."
"You know, I used to gamble all the time, blow a million just to see the look on people's faces. I play the odds all the time."
This was safer ground, stroking Stark's ego. "You gamble with your life?"
"I know the odds, I know the risks. And yeah, I do, because sometimes I just need to feel alive."
"Risking your life is the only way you know to feel alive?"
"One night, on the anniversary of my parents' death a few years ago, I drove a three-hundred dollar Lamborghini into the back of a Hummer because I wanted to feel the crash. Then, yeah, I was kidnapped by order of a man I'd known my whole life, and during three months held captive in a cave I found something else, something inside myself."
Tony shrugged. "That's the media's name, not mine. I just thought it sounded catchy."
"'I am Iron Man'? You sounded happy with it at the press conference."
"I'm proud of it."
"I can tell. You think plastering it all over the newspapers and news stations was a decision taken with your survival instinct switched on?"
"I honestly didn't think about it, I just did it. Tony Stark, famous impulsive." Nick fought the urge to stand up and punch him. Playing with his life like it didn't matter. Didn't matter to Nick, not really, he was a client, not even a client. But Nick was being paid to keep Tony Stark alive. Karr's behaviour was inexplicable. And what the hell was taking Kitt so long? "What can you offer me, Nick, that I can't provide for myself?"
"I know some good people-"
"And like I told Fury, I don't need more bodyguards. Look, I appreciate your help, okay, but I can look after myself."
Nick leaned forward, already tired of this. "Mr Stark, I've been hired-"
About fucking time.
"-not that it matters. You're right. You can look after yourself, otherwise, why would they call you a superhero?" He pushed the chair back across the stone paving and stood, holding out his hand. Tony shook it, looking slightly perplexed at the sudden end to the discussion. "Take care of yourself, please, or I'll be getting sued." He could feel inquisitive eyes on his back as he crossed the road and opened the door of the black Stealth.
Tony stared at the screen, at the proof of betrayal staring him right in the face. He felt anger surge through him like those first moments of seeing his weapons stockpiled in the desert in Afghanistan.
"Fuck!" A sideswipe of his arm noisily relocated pens, pencils, a wireless mouse and a half-drunk mug of coffee to the floor. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK!"
Two lines, white on black, in plain Courier font on the flat screen monitor.
>141024 goodbye tony
>141503 hello tony
He'd trusted Fury, trusted Kitt, even trusted Nick to a point. He'd been an idiot and they'd all betrayed him. Pushing his chair back hard he crossed to the drinks cabinet. His hands were shaking as he grabbed a handful of ice and dropped it into a crystal tumbler, sloshing a more than generous measure of scotch over it. Trembling, he lifted the glass to his lips and drained it, savouring the sweet burn at the back of his throat as he tossed in more scotch and took the bottle and glass back to the desk.
Picking up the mouse from amongst the china shards and cold coffee, Tony turned on a second monitor and called up a new session the old-fashioned way. He stopped a few basic functions, including Jarvis' human voice, and assigned perimeter and house security to other processes. He severed the connection between Jarvis and every other system in the house for the first time since he'd brought the AI online. All system communications were logged and stored in real time, and he called up a file dated today, with a timestamp of a tenth of a second before access hand been granted to an external party. That third party had been clever enough to mask the shutdown and restart of the system, but Tony had made Jarvis human in his own way and the 'hello' and 'goodbye' messages had been missed by whoever had done this.
The file was a communication in binary - one computer to another - and he couldn't read it, but he could get the IP address of the external system, and once he had that he could find out exactly where it had come from. Only there wasn't an IP address associated with the communication, just a code, like a telephone number. It was Kitt's code, Tony would have bet his life on it.
He started a line by line comparison between Jarvis' code now and the last backup, almost twenty-four hours ago. There were millions upon millions of lines, but he had access to some of the fastest processors in the world by connecting to Stark Industries' computer array, and the comparison ran in a matter of minutes.
The checksums matched, no changes detected, not a single semi-colon out of place. Every line of code was a line he'd written. He made a couple of phone calls, and within the hour two white vans were parked outside his house while inside a team swept for planted technology and a single man wearing headphones and an iPod swept for surveillance devices. Both sweeps would take hours, the house was huge and Tony wanted every inch checked. He hated this, hated letting these people into his home but it was necessary. They'd shut down Jarvis for a reason and the only reason he could think of was to gain access.
But to what?
With a secondary system monitoring and recording every movement of the people upstairs, Tony retreated to his workshop and started diagnostics on every one of his systems. And only when the house was being physically and electronically searched for a sign of what Kitt and his friends had done, Tony picked up the bottle of scotch and refilled his glass for a third time that afternoon.
Crouching down. Rhodey wrapped his hand around the back of Tony's neck and pulled him forward without resistance until their foreheads touched. "You okay, man?"
Tony nodded, nose momentarily touching the other man's, hands rising hesitantly to rest lightly on his shoulders. He could smell the alcohol on Tony's breath, like a distillery. "Yeah."
Tony pulled back slightly and Rhodey immediately let him go. "I don't know if getting involved with this Avengers Initiative was a good idea. When I came back from Afghanistan, when I survived Obie… I realised I don't have much that's mine, I'm splashed all over the covers of every magazine and paper in the galaxy. But I have this place, and it's private. These guys… they're getting into my home, into Jarvis...." Despite the obvious depletion of scotch, Tony didn't sound drunk. But then, he'd given lectures that had made Rhodey's head spin after four bottles of champagne and eight whisky chasers.
"Yeah, it's… complicated. I went out this afternoon to meet this guy Fury hired, Nick MacKenzie. When I got back, someone had rebooted Jarvis."
Rhodey's dark eyes widened. "But I thought… thought he was secure. Jeez, Tony, you do systems security that makes NASA look like a grad student."
Tony snorted. He knew some grad students who'd made NASA look like a technophobe, he had them working for his company. "Someone, or something, broke through six levels of encryption, entered a fifty-two character access code and a random, circulating fifteen character password. I've got him offline but there's nothing."
"You think this guy, MacKenzie, did it?"
"No. I think… someone who works for him did. Trouble is the system was only down just over four minutes and there's no change in the code, so whatever they did it for it wasn't to get to Jarvis. I've had the house swept for surveillance devices, any devices - even fucking bombs. There's nothing. Nothing's been taken, nothing's been left. I don't understand."
Rhodey looked around and wondered how Tony knew nothing had been taken when the workshop was always in such disarray. "Why don't you ask him? Call him, challenge him about this. Why did Fury hire him in the first place?"
Tony tapped at the blue glow through his white shirt. "He thinks I'm vulnerable. He wants extra protection for me. I told him I only wear ribbed but he didn't-"
"Tony… too much information, man." Tony smirked, one eyebrow raised, and Rhodey looked away.
"I survived for three months in a fucking cave with an open wound in my chest," Tony continued, all serious again, "escaped in a suit of armour I constructed from fucking scraps! I can look after myself."
"Sure you can, Tony." Rhodey took a couple of steps forward. "But you know, announcing you're Iron Man probably painted a bigger target on your back than cutting weapons development from your company's business plan. Anything that helps keeping people from hitting the target, man, is good in my books."
Tony's head canted to one side and he regarded his friend. "Aren't I just a pain in your ass, Rhodey? Wouldn't your life be easier without me in it?"
His answer was immediate. "Don't say that. I got to experience life without you, remember? I didn't like it, not at all, so don't start with the self-effacing, self-sacrificing crap. I know you, Tony, you want to live more than anyone I've ever met." Tony rolled his eyes in response. "So why did you call me? I don't see what I can do that you can't."
Tony glanced away, at the Hot Rod, at the Iron Man suit, at anything but Rhodey. "I thought you might feel like pizza and a game?"
It took him a moment or two to work it out. "You… don't want to be alone in the house?" He wasn't sure which of them was more shocked.
Looking down at the floor, Tony murmured softly, "I don't know what they changed, Rhodey. Every time I hear a noise I remember Obadiah that night…. Just for tonight, okay? Fury's back in town tomorrow, I'll go over and beat the shit out of him until he tells me where I can find the bastard."
Rhodey smiled gently. "That I'd pay to see."
"Hey, I could take Nick Fury."
"Tony, you're useless at hand to hand combat without the suit. And that's okay, because if you could fight you'd be a very dangerous man and you're already enough to give me a heart attack a week. Come on, I'll order the pizza, you get the beer."
He tried to take the three-quarter empty bottle out of Tony's hand as they walked up the stairs, but he wasn't letting go, and Rhodey wasn't about to press the issue.
Tony had long ago learnt to read Pepper's level of stress in the formality of her stance. This morning she was ramrod straight, calves taut below her knee-length black skirt, suit jacket buttoned, hands crossed, fingers clasping a black leather Filofax which she handed him the moment he'd cleaned the engine oil from his palms.
"You have to go to this meeting," she told him curtly. "It's with the members of the board and your senior share holders. All the details are in there," she nodded to the leather case, "Happy's here with the car. You need to get changed and read this on the way."
Tony regarded her for a time. "That's a bad plan." His $10,000 leather biker's jacket was thrown carelessly over the seat of the Harley Davidson and he grabbed it. Opening the passenger door of the R8, he threw his jacket and the filofax in, and made his way around to the driver's side. Pepper's protests - presumably about his inappropriate state of dress (an oil rag of a light blue T and torn jeans) - were drowned out by the roar of the Audi's engine in the enclosed space and Tony floored it out of his garage.
Something was different, something was wrong. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on, just a feeling he got every time he stopped at a light and looked at the dash. Like something was looking back at him. It was stupid but by the time he pulled into his named space in front of his own building, he'd convinced himself there was a camera in the dash - a pinhole to the right of the steering wheel. He'd covered and uncovered it with his finger half a dozen times during the journey.
Climbing out of the car he saw one of the security guards hovering and tossed him a wave. Reaching across, he lifted his jacket out with the black filofax, and something caught his eye. The dark grey leather of the passenger seat was flawless, and that was a problem because a week after he'd taken ownership of the car he'd had a Perfect 10 model blow him in the driver's seat and in the clutches of a ten second orgasm he'd burned the seat with the tip of his cigarette. He hadn't had it fixed because he'd liked to tell the story.
This wasn't his car.
Popping open his cell phone he called Pepper. "Have a low-loader come and pick up the R8, would you?"
"Has something happened?" He could hear her instant concern. "Do you need Happy to…"
"No. Well, yes. But I don't want anyone driving the R8 until I've checked it out. Make sure it's taken back to the house and dropped outside, not inside, okay?"
"Thanks. And tell Happy I'll need a lift to SHIELD in an hour." He ended the call. That arrogant fuck Fury had some explaining to do. And when he found out where MacKenize hung out, Iron Man was going to pay that bastard a call.