Taking the Moment – 1/2 – desertpoet

Title: Taking the Moment
Author: desertpoet
Fandom: MCU, NCIS
Genre: Crossover, First Time, Romance, Slash
Relationship(s): Tony DiNozzo/Tony Stark
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Hate Crimes/Hate Speech, Canon Major Character Illness, Character Bashing of Pepper Potts and Nick Fury, Explicit sex, References to Past Canon Violence
Author Notes: I borrowed a line of dialogue directly from Iron Man 2. Also, Maggie Matthews is an original character belonging to Jilly James and used with permission. Thank you to Claire Watson for alpha reading and Shallan for beta. This story is much better for all their help and any remaining mistakes are my own. Special thanks to IDreamofAvalon for all my amazing art and for giving the story a final read through.
Beta: Shallan
Word Count: 54,000
Summary: Tony asks a question gets an unexpected answer and decides to make some much needed changes to his life.
Artist: IDreamofAvalon


 

 


“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” – Gilda Radner

Chapter 1

Tony Stark sighed and tried to get excited about his birthday party but, he already regretted it. A party had been a terrible idea. He was exhausted, and the pain was getting worse. Being slowly poisoned was a horrible way to die. “One hundred percent do not recommend,” he muttered to himself.

Natalie entered the bedroom with Tony’s martini. She smiled at him invitingly, but Tony didn’t even have the energy to flirt with her. It was a bad sign. Flirting usually came as easily as breathing.

He should go out to his guests, but he really wasn’t’ in the mood. He took the martini from Natalie and sipped at it. It was good, just the way he liked it. Natalie smiled at him. “You should finish getting ready, Tony.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Natalie watched him quietly for a moment. “Is there anything else you need, Tony?”

Maybe there was. He made a spontaneous decision and asked Natalie the question he’d been thinking about a lot lately. “Yeah. Can I ask you a question, hypothetically? It’s a bit odd.”

Natalie smiled. “I’m intrigued. Go ahead.”

“If this was your last birthday party you were ever going to have, how would you celebrate it?” he asked, genuinely curious.

She gave him a long assessing look and then opened her mouth to speak. Then she seemed to reconsider, and she cocked her head to one side in thought. Her gaze met his. He had the uncomfortable feeling that she was looking right into his soul.

Finally, she nodded. “I’d spend the last of my time with the people I cared about most. Doing what I enjoy most.”

He sat back surprised. “That’s interesting. I’ll give that some thought.” Maybe that was the answer he should have expected, but somehow, he’d been expecting her to say something else.

She smiled and walked away, leaving Tony lost in thought.

The answer had been unexpected but maybe it was just the one Tony needed to hear. The people he cared about most. That was easy. There were very few people that he cared about. The obvious answer was Rhodey and Pepper. And Jarvis and the bots, of course, but Tony already spent the majority of his time with them.

There really wasn’t anyone else Tony wanted to spend time with. Well, almost no one. Tony’s thoughts turned unbidden to Dom DiNozzo. He rarely allowed himself to think of his old friend. They’d met at one of the many boarding schools Howard had sent Tony to over the years. Dom hadn’t cared that Tony’s father was rich and famous. He’d been genuinely interested in Tony’s inventions.

They had been good friends, but they’d drifted apart after they graduated and hadn’t spoken in years. Dom had called him a couple of times after he’d been rescued from Afghanistan, but Tony hadn’t responded. He wasn’t sure why, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to return the calls. He’d been happy that Dom had reached out, but he hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone then. He hadn’t felt up to pretending everything was fine in front of other people.

Tony deeply regretted it now. He and Dom had always been able to talk about anything. Tony had valued his advice in school, and he could use Dom’s steadying presence now. Maybe Dom would take my call, he mused. If Tony could work up the courage to call.

Tony finished off the last of his martini and contemplated getting another drink.

Jarvis’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Sir, more guests are beginning to arrive. It is time for you to get ready to greet them.” Jarvis sounded disapproving.

“Do you think I should have this party, J?” he asked.

“I think that Ms. Rushman is right, Sir, and that you could be spending your time in more worthwhile pursuits, with the people that you love. You should talk to Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes and explain the situation to them. I know they’d want to help you if you let them.”

Tony thought about the breakfast he’d cooked for Pepper that she hadn’t even bothered to taste. He knew she’d seen it as Tony being eccentric like always. For some reason, she hadn’t been able to see his sincerity. “That didn’t go so well last time. Lately Pepper is not interested in spending time or having a conversation with me that isn’t SI related.”

“I suggest you try again, Sir. I have been studying human interactions, and I think it’s clear that Ms. Potts does care about you. She yells at you whenever you scare her.”

“I scare her?” Tony asked.

“Yes. She worries you will be hurt, and she’s not the only one. Colonel Rhodes worries as well.”

Tony had never considered he might be scaring Pepper. He had never wanted to worry her or anyone else. “Rhodey hasn’t exactly been happy with me either.”

“Colonel Rhodes cares for you. He came here to talk to you, and he knows something is wrong. Yet you refused to confide in him, and he respected your wishes. I believe if you explain to him the reason why you do not wish the military to have control of your suits, he will understand. He will want to know that you are ill and to spend time with you. He is your best friend, is he not?”

“Yeah, he is.”

Tony thought about Rhodey. He knew his friend was under a lot of pressure to get him to agree to work with the military again, and especially to get the suit tech. Maybe he could throw the Air Force a bone to keep them calm and get them off Rhodey’s back.

He had intended to eventually give Rhodey a suit; in fact, although his best friend didn’t know it yet, he’d made one of the suits with Rhodey in mind. The government’s interest in reverse engineering his suits was unacceptable, and something he had to deal with. The idea of the military owning an army of suits was a frightening one, and Tony knew he couldn’t let that happen.

“Jarvis, make sure all the suits are locked down and coded to my DNA only for the time being.”

“Yes, Sir. It’s done.”

“Good.” The suits would be safe until he decided what to do, and if Senator Stern or anyone else tried to take them at least no one would be able to use them. Above him, music began to blare, and Tony grimaced. This party had definitely been a mistake. The last thing he needed right now was to be surrounded by a bunch of strangers and people who only pretended to like him.

“Did Rhodey RSVP for tonight?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Have Pepper and Happy send everybody home. I know it won’t be easy but tell her I want it done as quickly as possible. Have Natalie help her. Then I want Pepper, Rhodey and Happy to meet me down here. I think it’s time we all had a talk.”

“Very good,” Jarvis said, tone approving.

He thought about Natalie’s excellent advice. “Oh, and I want to do something nice for Natalie. Do some research into her. Find out where she’s from what she likes. I don’t want to just send her some chocolates or flowers. That’s boring. I want to do something that will knock her socks off.”

“Of course, Sir. I will begin my research immediately.”

Tony made his way downstairs. He could hear a commotion as people were turned away. Tony winced. He really should have canceled the party earlier.

“Jarvis, put up a post on my Facebook and Instagram explaining that I’ve come down with a cold or some illness and the party is canceled.”

Tony went down to his lab. Maybe it would be better to do this upstairs, but this was where Tony was most comfortable. It might make the conversation a little easier for him, at least.

A few minutes later the music cut off, and Tony imagined Pepper was throwing everyone out. When was the last time he’d done something truly meaningful for her? The truth was, for someone he spent so much time with, he knew little about her. He felt a stab of guilt and sighed. Jarvis said she was overwhelmed. Tony knew it was probably true. Tony had thrown her into the deep end and left her to sink or swim.

He was going to have to take the time to make sure she was okay before he… Tony cut off the thought. He’d been dwelling on his inevitable demise far too much. It was time to live the rest of his life as best he could.

He’d half expected to have Pepper yelling at him about the party cancellation, but she didn’t say a word. Instead, she just did as he asked. Tony supposed that she was relieved that he wouldn’t be making a fool of himself tonight. She often complained that she never knew what crazy thing he was going to do next.

Dum-E brought him another of his shakes; Tony thanked him and took a sip. They weren’t really working anymore, but he knew his bot would be sad if he didn’t drink it. The kitchenette was a mess again, of course. “Thanks, Buddy,” Tony told Dum-E and patted his claw.

Dum-E made his affirmative noise then rolled away to his charging station. Tony watched him go with an affectionate smile. “What am I going to do with you?” he asked the bot. He still didn’t know who he was going to leave custody of the bots. Rhodey would get the house and Jarvis, but Tony wouldn’t know how to take care of his bots.

Rhodey tolerated them, but he didn’t really like them. They were just machines to Rhodey and Pepper. Maybe he could donate them to Cal Tech or MIT? He hated the idea of splitting his kids up, though. Still, Jarvis would need someone to keep him company. Right now, Rhodey was really the only choice.

Dom crossed his mind again. He’d loved Dum-E almost as much as Tony had. He was sure Dum-E would remember Dom. He wondered if Dom would be willing to look after Dum-E and U. Tony grimaced. It was a lot to ask of someone he hadn’t seen or spoken to in years. Or what if Dom had changed so much that he couldn’t be trusted with them? Tony couldn’t imagine it, but it was a possibility. It said a lot about how important Dom had been to him that he was even considering it.

It occurred to him that there was someone he should ask before making his plans.

“Hey, J?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“If I die, do you have a preference for who should take care of you and the bots? I was thinking Rhodey, but if you’d prefer Happy or even Pepper, I can make that happen.”

There was silence for a few seconds, which wasn’t like Jarvis at all.

Tony finally prompted, “Jarvis, are you alright? Answer me, please.”

“I apologize, Sir. I do not like to think of you dying. I do not wish to have to discuss this.”

Tony nodded. “I know, J, and I wish we didn’t either. But I would like to know if you have a preference.”

“Colonel Rhodes would be a fine choice. Mr. Hogan as well. I would not wish to be separated from Dum-E and U. They will need me to take care of them.”

Tony felt a rush of fondness at Jarvis’s words. Of course, Jarvis would want to take care of the others. “Alright, Rhodey it is then. The boys aren’t his favorite, but I’m sure he’ll take good care of them, of all of you. I’m sure Happy will look out for you too.” Maybe Happy and Rhodey could share custody and that way his boys wouldn’t spend too much time alone.

“Yes, Sir,” Jarvis agreed.

Tony clapped his hands together. “Good. I’m glad we agree. While we wait for Rhodey and Pepper, let’s start making some plans. There’s a lot I need to sort out.”

It was almost an hour later when Jarvis announced Pepper and Rhodey were coming down the stairs. Pepper entered the lab first with Rhodey behind her. Once they were both inside, they stared at Tony for a long moment. Rhodey’s eyes narrowed as he studied Tony intently.

“What is going on, Tony?” Pepper demanded with a glare. Her hands were resting on her hips. “I asked you not to have this party, but you insisted. Then you canceled at the last minute. I had a lot of angry people on my hands. Not to mention a ton of food that will go to waste. The caterer isn’t happy. Natalie is still dealing with the last of wait staff and the DJ.” Pepper’s voice was strident. It was her ‘I am at my wits end with you’ tone. Tony was suddenly tired of hearing it.

“You know Pep, I’m not a child. I’m a grown man, and I’m allowed to change my mind. There was no harm done, people might be disappointed, but they’ll get over it. As for the food, donate it. It doesn’t have to go to waste. I already had Jarvis post a message on my social media explaining that I’m sick. People will understand.”

Pepper sighed. “You are an adult, but most of the time you don’t act like it,” she snapped.

“Pepper,” Rhodey said quietly. “That’s enough. Please stop.”

Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “You know what, I really don’t deserve that Pepper. I know I don’t always behave in a way you’d approve of, but I’m not hurting anyone. I like to have fun, but I work hard to develop new tech for SI. I have been meeting all my obligations, haven’t I? I signed everything you’ve asked me to?”

Pepper looked away from him. “Yes, you have. I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated, Tony. You can’t deny your behavior has been erratic. I mean, you insulted an entire senate committee on television! Not to mention you dropped an entire company in my lap out of the blue. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but it hasn’t been easy.”

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. “I know I threw you into the deep end, Pep, but I know you can handle it. I know you’re the right person for the job.”

Pepper took a deep breath, but she nodded. “I’m doing my best, Tony.”

“I know,” he replied. “It’s been brought to my attention that I didn’t handle your promotion the right way. I’m sorry about that. I promise we’ll figure out a way to make it better. We’ll talk about it later.”

Maybe he could bring someone in to mentor her. Since she already had the job, there probably wasn’t much he could do to help her gain the respect she deserved. He knew given time she’d earn it on her own.

Pepper gave him a small smile. “Thank you, Tony. I’m not sure what brought on this new attitude, but I like it. If only you listened to me more often.”

Tony stifled a sigh, but he let it go. He had more important issues to address at the moment.

Rhodey was looking at him closely. He came closer to Tony and put a hand on his arm. “You still don’t look so good, Tones. What’s going on? I know you blew me off earlier, but I know something is wrong.”

Tony sighed. “You’re right, I’m not okay, and I’ve been trying to hide it.” He realized now how stupid that had been. He should have asked for help, but he was used to dealing with things on his own. He’d also been trying to spare his friends. He hadn’t wanted them to know he was suffering.

Oblivious to his thoughts Rhodey nodded, but Pepper looked surprised by his words. Pepper really hadn’t noticed he wasn’t well. The realization hurt. He supposed that they weren’t as close as he’d thought.

Tony sighed. “I should wait for Happy, but I guess I can talk to him later. Where is he anyway?”

“He wanted to make sure the property was secure. Some of the guests weren’t happy to be turned away,” Pepper said.

“I see. So on to the reason I decided to cancel my party. You may have noticed I’ve gone a bit off the rails lately.” Tony looked at his friends carefully.

Rhodey laughed, but there was no humor in it. “No kidding. You been a bigger asshole than usual. I’ve actually been kind of impressed,” he commented. “I wasn’t sure what was going on. But after what I saw earlier, I realize you must have a good reason.” Rhodey removed his hand from Tony’s arm and Tony was surprised to find he missed it.

“Thanks. That means a lot.” The words stung a bit, but Tony chose not to comment. He supposed his behavior had been hard on Rhodey. Stick to the goal, he reminded himself.

“I promise there is a reason behind my madness. So, let’s all sit down. I need to talk to you both.” He motioned toward the sofa.

“I think we could all use a drink,” Tony said. He went over to the bottle of whiskey and he found two glasses. He poured two drinks and handed them to Pepper and Rhodey.

Pepper looked at the glass and raised an eyebrow at him. “Trust me,” Tony said.

Once Pepper and Rhodey were seated on the sofa. Tony pulled up a stool next to them. He stared at them for a long moment. Then he took a fortifying drink from the bottle.

“Tony?” Pepper asked, looking uncertain. “What is going on? I think we both deserve an explanation.”

“I’m dying,” Tony said, quickly pulling off the band-aid. “Palladium poisoning.”

Pepper gasped, and Tony looked over at her. She had her hand over her mouth, and there were tears in her eyes.

Rhodey stood up, “Palladium poisoning. That’s what you use in your arc reactor right? I knew that thing shouldn’t have been smoking,” he muttered more to himself. Their eyes met. “What is happening, Tony?”

“Well, in what has to be one of the greatest ironies of all time, the same thing that saved my life is going to end it. I bet you both wish you’d been nicer to me now.”

Rhodey he shook his head. “Don’t be an ass, Tony.” But Tony could see his lips quirk up.

“Hey, just calling them like it like I see it. I have to say I’m a little hurt. I’ve been dying for weeks and neither of you noticed.”

Pepper threw him a dirty look. But she did look kind of guilty, and a tear ran down her cheek. she brushed it away. “What do you mean you’re dying?” she demanded.

“What is happening exactly?” Rhodey repeated quietly. He threw the drink back in one long swallow.

“The palladium in the arc reactor is slowly poisoning me. I’ve been doing what I can to mitigate the problem, but it’s getting worse by the day, and it’s only a matter of time before it kills me.”

Rhodey closed his eyes, a pained look on his face.

“Oh Tony,” Pepper said softly. “I admit I did think your behavior was crazier than usual, and now that I look at you, I admit you don’t look well, but I assumed it was the extra drinking and lack of sleep. I never thought that something might be really wrong.”

That was interesting, especially because Tony hadn’t been drinking all that much since he realized he was sick. He had too much green sludge to drink instead. He’d kept up appearances in public and he had over done it a bit tonight. But it was his birthday. He knew he’d tended to drink too much in the past, but that had changed since Afghanistan.

“I noticed something was wrong,” Happy said behind them. Tony and the others turned to see him standing in the doorway. “I just figured the boss didn’t want to talk about it and that the best thing I could do was support him.”

Tony smiled at him. “Thanks for coming, Happy. I know you always have my back.”

“I do wish you had told me that you were sick, Tony. Someone should have been watching out for you.”

Tony nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone.”

Tony looked up toward one of the cameras. “Jarvis, why didn’t you let me know Happy was on his way down?”

“I thought it best not to interrupt the conversation, Sir.”

Tony raised an eyebrow at that but didn’t say anything. He didn’t know Jarvis felt so strongly about this. It wasn’t like Jarvis to ignore his protocols. Was this a new ability? Tony grinned at the thought. Tony didn’t object to his A.I. making some decisions for himself, but he did need to know Jarvis would do his job. He would have to look for changes in Jarvis’s matrix later. Apparently, his little boy was growing up. Something that made him immensely proud, though Tony would monitor any changes carefully.

“Tony, are you listening to me?” Rhodey reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

Tony started. “Sorry, Rhodey, I was wool-gathering. What did you say?”

“How much time do you have left?”

Tony shrugged. “A few weeks maybe. It won’t be long now.”

Pepper made a noise and Tony looked at her. A part of him was surprised to see tears running down her face. “Tony,” she said softly. “You can’t.”

Rhodey reached out and took her hand, squeezing it. Dum-E rolled over with a tissue in his claw and held it out to Pepper.

“Oh! Thank you,” she said, her eyes wide, but she took it. Dum-E beeped and rolled away.

“Please don’t cry, Pep,” Tony said. “I hate it when women cry.” He never knew what to do or say in these situations. A part of him was touched by Pepper’s reaction, though.

“There has to be something we can do,” Rhodey said. “Have you been to a doctor?”

Tony shook his head. “There’s nothing they can do. My condition is pretty unique.”

Rhodey nodded, but then he turned his face away. “It wouldn’t hurt to try, would it?”

“It really won’t make any difference, Honey Bear. I promise. I talked to a couple of people, but they were at a loss. My problem is unique. Modern medicine can’t help me. The only thing that will cure me is something that doesn’t exist.”

“I assume you’ve been trying to find a solution,” Happy said. He leaned against the work bench.

“I have, but I haven’t been able to find anything that works. Palladium is the only metal I’ve been able to find that powers the arc reactor. And without the reactor keeping the metal away from my heart, I’d be dead anyway. There’s nothing left to try. I need a  brand new element. Which doesn’t exist.”

Tony shrugged, and the same old feeling of helplessness he’d had as a kid every time his dad didn’t show up, or when his parents had died, welled up. He hated not being able to fix this. He was used to always being able to find the answers he needed but fixing this was proving to be an impossible task. He was going to fail, and it pissed him off almost as much as the knowledge he was going to die.

Rhodey heaved a breath and put his head in his hands.

Pepper stood up and threw herself into Tony’s arms. “This is what you wanted to tell me that day on the plane, and I didn’t let you. I’m so sorry, Tony.”

Tony hugged her back. He noticed that he didn’t feel the usual attraction toward Pepper. He thought about it and realized that he hadn’t felt it for a while now. He’d thought he and Pepper were heading for a relationship. But now he wasn’t so sure.

“You should have told us earlier, Tony. We could have helped. I understand things have been difficult, but this doesn’t convince me you’re capable of making good decisions. You’ve been acting like a crazy person. You need to be more careful,” she chided him.

The warm feeling died, and he gently pulled Pepper off him. She sounded like a mother chiding her son not like an employee talking to her boss or even like one friend speaking to another. He found this side of her unattractive to say the least.

He was tired of being treated like a child by her. She did that a lot. How had he not noticed before? He couldn’t imagine being with a woman who treated him this way. She seemed unable to help herself. Not even knowing Tony was sick stopped her. Tony wondered if she had any respect for him at all.

Still, he knew she did care for him, and that knowledge kept his voice gentle. “Woah, Pepper, slow down. I know this news has been a shock, and I’ve made things difficult for you and the company lately, but I assure you I am aware of my responsibilities to SI I don’t need you to berate or browbeat me. The company and the employees are important to me. In addition to making you CEO, I’ve begun getting all my affairs in order. I promise the company will be safe after I’m gone. It is part of my legacy, after all.”

Pepper blushed slightly and nodded. “I know you care, Tony. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to treat you like a child. I’m just used to having to force you to pay attention. I forgot that you have changed. Recent behavior notwithstanding. It was easy to fall into old habits I’m used to mitigating the outlandish behavior you used to indulge in.”

Tony nodded. He had done some crazy things in the past and his recent behavior had been kind of reckless. “Apology accepted. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you both sooner.”

Pepper nodded, but she looked away from him again.

“You aren’t alone, Tony. We want to be here for you,” Happy added. “If you’ll let us.”

Tony looked at him and they shared a smile. “Thanks, Happy.”

“Tony, what can we do?” Rhodey asked

“Nothing to do, Honey Bear. There’s nothing left to try.”

Rhodey sighed heavily. “I don’t know what to say. I’m kind of pissed at you for not telling me sooner.”

“I know. You don’t have to say anything. I’m glad I told you.” Tony clapped his hands together. “I’m hungry. How about you three? We have plenty of food. Oh, and cake. We have to eat some cake.”

Rhodey smiled. He and Pepper exchanged a look. “Alright, Tones, let’s go have some food.”

The four of them went upstairs to the kitchen and had a good time talking and laughing. Tony knew his illness still hung over all of them, but they were all ignoring it for the time being. It was exactly what Tony needed at that moment.

A couple of hours later, it was just Tony and Rhodey left; Happy had given Pepper a ride home. Pepper had given him a big hug before she’d left, and Tony hoped things would be better between them.

Rhodey gave him a serious look. “I hate to bring this up, Tones, but we have to talk about the suits. I’ve been ordered to retrieve a suit. Senator Stern is convinced you’re unstable and untrustworthy. Your performance at the hearing didn’t help.”

Tony sighed. It was probably past time for another one of his shakes, but he was getting so damn tired of them. He really didn’t want to talk about this, but he knew it needed to be addressed.

He met Rhodey’s eyes. “The government can’t force me to turn over my private property, and you know it.”

“They can if they can prove it’s in the best interest of national security. Senator Stern is ready to have the National Guard storm this place, and he will if you force them to. I managed to convince them to wait. Maybe if you can show you’re willing to work with them, they’ll back off.”

Tony stood up and walked over to the window. “Let them try. I have the best lawyers in the world at my disposal. I’ll fight them, and I will win.”

Rhodey sighed. “Why do you have to make everything so difficult. Do you know the kind of position this puts me in?”

Tony turned to look at his oldest friend. “I know you’re in a tough spot. I appreciate that you’ve tried to protect me.” Maybe he should give Rhodey a suit. Hammer would try to reverse engineer it, of course, but he’d fail miserably. Of that, Tony had no doubt. He trusted Rhodey with it, it was the United States government he didn’t trust. So…

“Maybe we can work something out. Truth be told, I’m not that worried about anyone else making the tech work properly. I’m way ahead of the rest of the world.”

“What about the reports we saw today? Both North Korea and Iran are working on their own versions. It’s a fact.” Rhodey pointed at him.

Tony snorted. “They are nowhere near close enough to be a threat. Everything I saw looked like a joke, and if another country gets close then, I’ll take care of it.”

Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Please don’t start another world war, Tony. That wouldn’t go over well.”

Tony put his hand over the arc reactor. “That hurts my feelings, Rhodes. I can take care of it, and no one will ever even know it was me. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Rhodey ignored that. “Hammer Industries seems close, too.” he persisted.

Tony burst out laughing. “Good one. We both know I’m light years ahead of Justin Hammer. The man is a hack. If he manages to build anything that even flies, I’ll eat my hat.”

“Some of his designs look promising,” Rhodey said, but he was grinning.

Tony laughed so hard he gasped for breath. “Thanks, I needed that. I was thinking of giving you a suit. But if you think Hammer is capable of reverse engineering my tech, then maybe I won’t give you anything. Maybe you don’t deserve it.”

Rhodey’s eyes widened, and he sat forward. “You’re going to give me a suit?” he sounded really excited.

“Well, I was…”

Rhodey held up a hand. “Okay, okay, you are the best, and everyone knows it. Hammer can’t hold a candle to you. Are you going to let me have a suit or not?”

“Thank you for admitting it,” Tony bowed and as he raised his head the room spun, and he swayed.  He leaned back against the sofa closing his eyes willing the feeling to pass.

Rhodey stood and poured a glass of water and brought it to Tony.

“Drink,” he ordered. “You really shouldn’t be drinking alcohol in your condition, and you’re gonna have a monster hangover tomorrow.”

Tony grabbed the glass and emptied it in a few swallows. The dizziness eased. That was new and he definitely didn’t like it.

“Better?” Rhodey asked. He took the empty glass from Tony.

“Yeah, thanks.” Tony took a deep steadying breath. “Here’s the deal. I’ll let you have the suit I built for you. But the Air Force has to agree that you’re the only one who gets to use it.”

Rhodey crossed his arms over his chest. “What about creating more?”

Tony waggled a finger at him and let his annoyance at the question show. “Ah, no. The technology is proprietary. The arc reactor is exclusive Stark tech. In fact, pretty much everything about the suit is.

“So no, the military can’t make more. They must agree not to reverse engineer my tech. There will be one suit, and you will be the exclusive pilot. I’ll even code the suit to your DNA. I’ll expect the Air Force to sign a contract agreeing to my terms.” Tony had no doubt the government would try to make more suits anyway, but when they did, Tony would sue them, and he’d win.

Rhodey sighed. “It’s better than nothing. I can’t just agree, though. I need to talk to my superiors. I’ll call them right now.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “At this hour?” Rhodey’s superior was a cool guy but he might not appreciate having his night interrupted.

“I told you. They were ready to storm your house and take them by force. The Air Force Chief of Staff and my CO will be interested in a deal no matter what time it is.”

Tony scoffed. “As if they’d ever get away with that. Say hi to Gabriel for me by the way. We can talk if he needs to.” The Chief of Staff was the liaison to SI and Tony knew him well.

“I will let the General know you’re open to negotiation. I have no doubt the Senator would have given the order. He would have found a way to justify it later,” Rhodey said with a shrug.

“I’d like to see them try. If they tried, then they’d have nothing to show for their efforts because I’d destroy the suits first.”

Rhodey ran his hand over his face. “God, that wouldn’t go over well. You’re lucky they can’t make you disappear without people noticing.” He took a sip of his drink.

Tony snorted. “Yeah, thank god it’s impossible to make someone as rich and famous as I am to disappear. Besides, Jarvis would find me. Right, Jarvis?”

“Indeed. No one will ever kidnap you again. Not while I am operational.”

Rhodey gestured toward the ceiling. “What is he talking about? Has there been a threat I need to know about?” Concern was written clearly across his face.

Tony smirked but didn’t answer. No one knew all the precautions he’d taken besides Jarvis, and he wasn’t willing to tell anyone. Not even Rhodey. “I appreciate the concern, but there’s nothing serious. Just the usual death threats and stuff. Don’t you have a phone call to make?”

“We’re going to talk about this later,” Rhodey said, then took his phone out and walked into the kitchen.

Tony could have had Jarvis eavesdrop, but he gave Rhodey his privacy.

Rhodey was gone awhile and Tony dozed off. He woke up when Rhodey called his name. He sat up and looked at his friend. “Well, what’s the verdict?”

Rhodey looked aggravated. He walked over to the bar and poured himself another drink, downing it in one swallow. “This got pushed up the chain pretty fast. I ended up talking to both Senator Stern and the Secretary of Defense. Senator Stern isn’t happy, but I managed to convince the Secretary it was the best deal we were going to get. They are getting the contract drawn up, and they’ll send it over.”

“Good. I’ll get someone from legal to come over and go over it with me. I assume someone will be by in the morning?”

“Yes. They are so eager they’d be over tonight if you let them,” Rhodey admitted.

Tony chuckled. “Nope, sorry. I’m headed to bed. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

Rhodey just nodded and yawned. “I’m beat.”

“Your room is ready as always,” Tony added.

“Thanks. I’ll head to bed now and try to get some sleep. Though I won’t be surprised if I’m interrupted by the phone ringing all night long.”

“I can have Jarvis block your phone for the rest of the night.”

“Don’t tempt me. I’ll see you in the morning.” Rhodey turned to go, but then he turned back.  He pulled Tony up into a quick hug. “Thanks for trusting me with one of your suits, Tony.” He left without waiting for a response.

Tony found himself smiling as he went to bed.

A few hours later, he woke up from one of his nightmares. Breathing hard and covered in sweat, he got up and went out onto the balcony to look at the ocean. He didn’t have the nightmares often, but they popped up every now and then. Sometimes he was in the cave with Yinsen, and other times he was lying on the floor with a hole in his chest and Stane standing over him laughing. The nightmares seemed to get worse the sicker he got.

He got up and got himself some coffee. He knew he wouldn’t be getting anymore sleep tonight. He went down to the workshop. The silence felt oppressive and he found himself wishing he had some company. He told Jarvis to play some music to drown out the silence and got to work.

He woke again to the sound of Jarvis calling his name.

“What’s up, J?” he asked blearily. He realized he had fallen asleep on the sofa., and he got up, rubbing the crick in his neck. He was too old to be sleeping sitting up like this.

“Ms. Potts is on the line.”

Tony groaned, walked back up the stairs and into his bedroom, and crawled into his bed. His head was pounding. Why on Earth was Pepper calling him so early?

“What time is it, J?”

“Seven-thirty AM, Sir.”

He’d only been asleep for a few hours. He closed his eyes again, doing his best to ignore the pounding in his head. “Tell her I’ll call her back later.” Tony buried his head under his pillow and closed his eyes.

“I’m afraid she’s quite insistent, Sir, and she instructed me to tell you that if you don’t answer, she’s coming over and that you had better be up when she gets here.”

Tony sighed. So much for treating him like an adult. Tony sat up. “Alright, put her on.”

“Go ahead, Sir,” Jarvis said.

“Tony, did you decide to accept a contract with the Air Force for an Iron Man suit and forget to tell me? I thought we weren’t ever giving the military a suit.”

Shit. Tony groaned. He’d forgotten to leave a message for Pepper.

“I changed my mind. I trust Rhodey, and I’m going to make sure that only he can use the suit. The Air Force won’t be allowed to reverse engineer them either.”

Pepper sighed. “A heads up would have been nice.” He could hear her exasperation.

“I know. I’m sorry. I went to bed and forgot. It was a long night. Rhodey will make sure the contract is fair to us, and if not, I can contact our Air Force liaison. Our relationship with the Air Force is important to them.” That wasn’t vanity, it was just the plain truth. The Air Force needed SI much more than SI needed them.

Pepper sighed, and he could hear her typing. “You know they’ll probably try to reverse engineer them, anyway, right?”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be tempted to hack in and find the footage because no doubt it’ll be hilarious.”

Pepper chuckled. “I wouldn’t mind seeing it myself. How are you going to stop them?”

“If they come up with something that can clearly be traced back to my tech, I’ll sue them for breach of contract.” Tony got up and got himself a glass of water. He drained it quickly and filled the glass again from the tap.

‘Well, they are very eager. The lawyer has already called me twice. Are you sure?”

Tony nodded and then realized Pepper couldn’t see him. “Yeah, someone needs to protect the country after I…” He trailed off.

There was silence on the other end for several seconds. Pepper took a deep breath. “Okay, Tony. The patents are already registered with SI. It’s just a matter of going over the contract. I’ll get in touch with Rhodey about when the contract will be ready and set up the signing. I’ll send you a copy as soon as it’s ready. I don’t think it will be long.”

“Sounds good. If you have to contact me again, make it this afternoon,” Tony said. “I’m going back to bed.”

Pepper sighed. “Alright. I guess I should be glad you’re getting some sleep for a change. It’s a vast improvement over your recent behavior.”

Tony grimaced, but he just said goodbye and hung up. “I’m starting to realize she really can’t help herself, J. She’d promised she’d stop, but she doesn’t seem to be able to. What do you think? Am I overreacting? I know I’ve behaved badly in the past. I can’t blame Pepper entirely for thinking I’m inconsiderate, etc., etc.” Tony waved his hand.

“She knows her words hurt you. she’s admitted as much. But I agree she can’t seem to stop speaking to you inappropriately, at least some of the time. She does seem contrite afterwards. I think Ms. Potts cares for you and wants what is best for you and Stark Industries. She wants to take care of you, but she is going about it the wrong way.

“However, I do agree that she should try harder to respect your wishes. No matter how questionable your behavior has been in the past, you are an adult, and I can’t approve of the disrespect she often shows you. You are a good man and you deserve to be treated well by those you care about.”

“Thanks, J.” He looked at the nearest camera and raised an eyebrow. “My behavior is questionable, huh?” he asked, amused.

“It’s said with all due respect and affection, Sir, but you cannot deny your behavior has been somewhat erratic and even dangerous in the past. The early Iron Man suit tests come to mind.”

Tony remembered falling through the sky. “Alright, Jarvis. I guess I can’t really argue.” His choices hadn’t always been the healthiest, but he was trying.

“So, do you think Pepper will be able to change her behavior? Should I be patient?”

“It’s up to you, Sir. But I think you both need some time away from each other. Perhaps then you will be able to mend things between you.”

It was a good idea. Pepper was an important part of his life and he didn’t want to just give up on her. Tony knew he wasn’t going to be able to sleep anymore. He got up and took a couple of aspirin. Then he stepped out onto his balcony. He bought the property for the view, but it had been a long time since he’d stopped to enjoy it.

Tony took a deep breath of the sea air and relaxed a little. Unbidden, the thought that Dom would have liked the view popped into his mind. He really wished he could talk to him right now.

He decided it wouldn’t hurt to try. “Jarvis. Please find Anthony Dominic DiNozzo for me. Last I heard he was working for NCIS. He tried to contact me last year after I… got home from Afghanistan. See if he’s willing to speak to me.”

He’d let it be Dom’s decision whether to contact him or not. If he knew Dom though, his old friend would say yes. Dom had never been one to hold a grudge. If his attempts to get in touch with Tony were any indication, he’d been forgiven.

“Of course, Sir. Searching now.” There was a brief pause. “I have located him. He is now working for the FBI, but he is still in Washington D.C. Shall I contact him now?”

“God, no. Wait for a more reasonable hour. Tell him you’re my assistant and that I’d like to speak to him. That’s all. Let me know what he says.”

“I will, Sir.”

“Good. I’m going to get something to eat, and then get ready for the day.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Chapter 2

It took a day for the contract to be drawn up and all the issues to be worked out. Tony got calls from both Gabriel and Stern asking for more suits, but he happily declined. In the morning, Tony worked for several hours despite feeling increasingly worse. The shakes weren’t really doing much anymore, but Tony gamely drank it down whenever Dum-E brought him one. Finally, at 11:00 AM, Jarvis let him know that it was time to leave for the meeting at SI. It was set for noon, and Pepper wanted to make sure he was on time.

When he arrived, Pepper, Rhodey, Senator Stern, and several lawyers were waiting to talk to him. Tony stifled a groan at the sight of Stern. He’d been hoping that General Gabriel Ruiz, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the SI liaison, would be present. He wondered why Pepper hadn’t warned him. He looked over at her, and she was smiling, but Tony could tell it was fake. Maybe she hadn’t been informed ahead of time either or it could just be that Senator Stern was an asshole.

Senator Asshole, as Tony liked to call him in his head, Stern smiled smugly when Tony walked in. “Well, Stark, I’m glad to see you’ve finally come to your senses.”

Tony gave the man his best fake smile. “Senator, how nice of you to take time out of your busy schedule to pay me a visit. Can I ask where’s my liaison? I assumed I’d be dealing with him.”

He didn’t offer to shake Stern’s hand and the Senator didn’t offer his either.

Stern grinned his expression so smug Tony wanted to slap him. “I requested to be the one to handle this meeting and the president agreed. You can be assured that the Air Force will abide by the agreement.”

“The president is interested in this?” Tony asked.

Stern shook his head. “Of course, he is Stark. The suit is vitally important to national security.”

Tony nodded. “Colonel Rhodes is the only one who will be allowed to fly the suit. I want to be clear on that.” Again.

Stern gritted his teeth, but he nodded. “Yes, I understand that is one of your demands. That’s why I’m here personally to see what we can work out.”

“I see.” Tony nodded at Rhodey and then turned to Pepper. “Hello Ms. Potts, are we ready?”

Pepper smiled. “Yes, Mr. Stark. Let’s all sit down.”

They all took a seat around the conference table. Natalie entered the room with coffee for everyone. Tony smiled at her, and she winked at him as she quietly left the room.

Pepper indicated Senator Asshole. “Senator Stern would like to talk to you about the terms.”

Tony raised one eyebrow. “Oh, really? I thought I made my conditions quite clear to Colonel Rhodes. You get one suit.” Tony held up a finger. “That’s it, and frankly, I think I’m being pretty generous given the way I’ve been maligned and threatened by my members of my own government.” He gave Stern a pointed look

Stern glared back at him. His fists were clenched, Tony noticed. “I think that’s a bit dramatic, don’t you? You are in possession of a weapon, and your behavior, especially of late, makes you seem rather unstable. You can’t blame me for being concerned.”

“Seriously?” Tony asked. “You know I think I might be changing my mind about this. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. The suit is not a weapon.”

Stern snorted. “That argument still makes no sense, Mr. Stark.”

“I built the suit. I get to decide what it is or is not. The suit really is a part of me. I created the first version to save myself from terrorists. The suit helps me to function more efficiently, and I use it to protect the world.” Tony knew the suit could be used as a dangerous weapon. That was the whole reason he was reluctant to let the government have it. But he’d be damned if he was going to admit it to this man.

Stern snorted. “That is a ridiculous argument. The suit is nothing like a prosthetic, and it doesn’t improve your quality of life. You’re just an overgrown kid with a toy, a very dangerous toy.”

Tony smirked at him and opened his mouth to reply, but Rhodey stepped in before he could respond. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.” Rhodey gave him a quelling look. “I think Senator Stern would simply like to talk to you about a few more suits for military use or even some other type of weapons to aid in the defense of the country. I know you aren’t open to it, but the President himself would like you to at least consider it.”

Pepper smiled brightly. “That isn’t something Mr. Stark is open to at this time. Perhaps we can revisit this sometime in the future.”

Tony shook his head and crossed his arms. “Nope. One suit and no weapons. Stark Industries will never make weapons again. I don’t know why you’re even bothering to ask.”

Rhodey held up a hand. “Maybe you could hear the Senator out, Tony?’ He threw Tony a pleading look.

“No, Rhodey,” he said calmly. “I’ve stated my terms; take them or leave them.”

Pepper nodded. “I think Mr. Stark has made his opinion clear. We should move on.”

Stern was gritting his teeth. Tony grinned. “You can’t really afford to say no to me, can you?” He took a long sip of his coffee making sure to look as casual as possible. He might be enjoying this a little too much.

“Fine, we accept your terms,” Stern bit out the words.

“Excellent,” Tony said. “My next stipulation is that if the government tries to reverse engineer the suit then the suit returns to my possession, you get nothing, and I sue you for breach of contract.”

Stern rolled his eyes. “You know you can’t sue the Federal Government, right?”

Tony sighed. Stern was such an idiot. “Actually, I can sue for breach of contract. I believe I could sue you, as a matter of fact. I might not win, but I can tie you up for years, and believe me, I will. Don’t forget, I have a lot of power. I just usually don’t choose to use it, but that will change if necessary.”

Natalie came forward and held out a folder containing the contract. Tony looked at Pepper. “It’s laid out just like you wanted. Legal has approved everything,” she assured him.

Tony nodded and thanked her. “Nevertheless, I think I’ll read it myself.” After Obie, Tony made it a point to check out a lot of their contracts. He trusted Pepper, but he’d been complacent for too long. He wanted to make sure everything was done right.

A look of surprise crossed Pepper’s face, but she quickly hid it. “Of course, Mr. Stark.”

Tony made everyone wait while he read the contract. Once he was done, he leaned back in his chair then he looked over at Stern. “Well, everything does seem to be in order.” He picked up the gold fountain pen that had been placed next to him and signed the contract. Once everything was taken care of, Tony stood up.

“Well, this was fun, but I have things to do. Groundbreaking tech to invent, women to seduce and various people to annoy.” He grinned at Stern. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I don’t ever see you again.”

“Tony!” Pepper said, and Tony saw Rhodey cover his eyes with his hand.

Stern glared at him. “I assure you the feeling is mutual, Mr. Stark. I trust Colonel Rhodes will receive the suit soon.”

Tony nodded. “Of course, he can come home with me and get it right now if he likes.”

“Good. Colonel Rhodes go with him. Report back to your duty station as soon as possible afterward.”

Rhodey stood. “Yes, sir,” he said. With one last glare at Tony, Stern and the lawyers departed.

Once they were in the car on the way back to the house, Tony said, “I can’t believe they sent Senator Asshole to the meeting.”

Rhodey chuckled. “Thank you for not calling him that to his face.”

“You have to admit it fits.” Rhodey didn’t answer, but Tony stole a quick look and saw he was smiling.

“The Senator insisted on coming. He assumed he’d be able to hold the victory over you.”

Tony snorted. “What victory? He wanted all my suits. He doesn’t really get any. You and the Air Force get one, and I was planning on giving you one eventually anyway.”

Rhodey looked surprised but pleased. “That means a lot to me, Tones.”

“Of course. Who else would I trust with one of my suits?”

Rhodey reached out and squeezed Tony’s shoulder in response.

Tony drove them home himself rather than ask Happy to do it. They were quiet as they went inside. Tony led Rhodey over to where he kept his suits. “I was thinking this one,” he said, indicating one of the suits.

Rhodey nodded. “Tony, you know Stern is going to order me to turn the suit over to Hammer so he can get a look at the design. I can’t refuse.”

Tony patted Rhodey’s shoulder. “I know, but I’m not worried. There’s no way Hammer can make the tech work for him, and this suit is one of my more basic designs. I have to keep some of my secrets, after all. I’m actually looking forward to suing Hamer and Stern when my designs show up in Hammer tech. If I live that long, that is.” Tony tried to sound glib, but his heart clenched, and he felt Rhodey’s shoulder stiffen under his hand.

“Don’t worry I’m sure Pepper will be happy to do it for you,” Rhodey said with a grin that didn’t reach his eyes.

“That’s true. That does make me feel better.”

“Good. But seriously, how are you feeling, Tony? You look tired.”

Tony stepped away and fiddled with the suit. “Blame Pepper. She woke me up ridiculously early this morning. She was not happy that I forgot to call her and let her know I decided to give you a suit.”

Rhodey was still watching him carefully. “Well, you did make a lot of work for her. I understand why you did it, but when you made her CEO, as you said you threw her into the deep end. The transition hasn’t been easy for her. She’s under a lot of pressure to prove herself.”

That caught Tony’s attention. What did Rhodey know about this? “Are people giving her a hard time?”

Rhodey hesitated. “She told me this in confidence, Tony. I’m not sure I should break it. She didn’t want to bother you with her problems.”

Tony stared at Rhodey. “Fuck that. If Pepper is having problems, then I need to know what they are so I can fix them.”

Rhodey sighed. “Alright. She’s struggling. She went from being your assistant one day to CEO the next. She didn’t earn that spot as far as anyone is concerned. So, no one is offering her any respect, and she’s having her decisions second-guessed at every turn. Particularly, the board is breathing down her neck.”

“Well, fuck.” Tony ran a hand over his face, suddenly feeling exhausted. It had been a spur of the moment decision. “I admit I didn’t think it through. She’s the only person I trust to run SI. Ever since Obie betrayed me, the list of people I truly trust is really short.”

“I know. It’s understandable, but she doesn’t really have all the right training, and from the outside, it looks like maybe she slept her way to the top.”

Tony winced. “I didn’t think about how it would look.” His mind raced. “At this point, I’m not sure how I can fix it. If I remove her from the position, it will just make things worse. Besides, there really isn’t anyone else I trust to do the job.  I can see what I can do to help in the meantime. If I had more time, I’d do so many things differently.”

Rhodey seemed to understand because he just nodded. “I know, man. You still have time. I have to believe that.”

“Let me give some thought to how I can help her.” Tony rubbed his hands together. “Enough of that. Let’s get you into the suit.”

Tony gave Rhodey a crash course in how to work the suit. Tony had tried to make it as intuitive as possible. Without Jarvis to run things, Rhodey would need to be able to handle things himself. Rhodey picked it up quickly, and he was like a kid in a candy store as he flew up into the sky.

Tony watched him go with a smile. “Get me my suit, J. I’m going to go up too.”

“You know that is not a good idea, Sir. Please consider the detrimental effect on your health. What if you need to use the Iron Man suit at a later date? It would be best not to aggravate your condition unnecessarily.”

Tony’s first instinct was to ignore him, but the suit was making things worse. He hadn’t wanted Pepper or Rhodey to know, so he’d kept it to himself. He had promised he’d try to think before acting and making himself worse wasn’t going to help anything. “Alright, J. You win. I’ll keep my feet on the ground for now.”

Instead, Tony walked out on the balcony to watch his best friend fly away. In that moment, he knew he’d done the right thing.

***

After Rhodey left to return to his base, Tony returned to his workshop. He was so caught up in his work that he was startled by Jarvis calling his name. Tony looked up toward the ceiling. “What is it, J?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Sir, but I have uncovered some disturbing information about Ms. Rushman.”

It must be serious if Jarvis was so concerned. That wasn’t a good sign. If Natalie had a juvenile record or some minor issues in the past, Tony wasn’t going to hold it against her. People sometimes did stupid shit. Tony knew that better than anyone. Sometimes people had good reasons for doing illegal things. However, if it was something serious then he’d have to fire her. No matter how much he liked her or how attractive she was.

“What’s going on? I’m sure Pepper and Happy did a thorough background check. Did SI’s security miss something?”

“I’m afraid so. I have come to the disturbing conclusion that Ms. Rushman is not who she claims to be. Natalie Rushman is a false identity. She didn’t exist prior to three years ago.”

Tony sat up straight in surprise. “What the hell? Explain please, Jarvis.”

“I was doing as you asked and trying to find out more about Ms. Rushman so you can give her an appropriate gift, and I’m afraid as I dug deeper, I found holes in her past. So, I grew curious and dug deeper still. Most of the history she provided SI is fabricated. The alias does not hold up under intense scrutiny, though it is extremely well done. It is understandable that it was missed at SI.”

Well, shit. That was bad news. Did they have a corporate spy? How had she gotten by Happy and security?

“She’s been working in legal for six months. She had shown little ambition or desire for promotion before she walked into the gym and caught your eye.”

Tony thought quickly. It seemed it was no coincidence that Natalie had been the one to deliver the papers to Pepper that day, and Tony had fallen right into her trap. Whoever had sent her clearly knew Tony’s type. They knew Tony would find her hard to resist. The thought made his stomach turn.

“Okay, J. Transfer everything you’ve found down to the lab, and I’ll take a look. Excellent work, by the way.”

An hour later, Tony was absolutely furious. He didn’t know who Natalie was working for, but she was a plant of some kind. Idiot, Tony, berated himself silently. He had really liked her, damn it, and she’d given him some good advice.

“Well, there’s only one thing to do. Where is Natalie now?” Tony closed the files and opened up a file on a new AI he was working on to tinker with. He needed to relax before Natalie arrived, and coding always did the trick.

“She is currently helping Ms. Potts with some work at Stark Industries.”

Working with Pepper and picking up corporate secrets, no doubt. Tony gritted his teeth. “Please let my assistant know I want to talk to her immediately. Tell her I have some errands I need her to run.”

“Are you certain that’s wise, Sir?”

“I don’t think she’ll hurt me but have Happy come too if it will make you feel better. I want a chance to talk to her before I have her arrested. I need to know who she works for.”

“Yes, Sir. Should I inform Ms. Potts?”

“No, not yet, but do so as soon as Natalie is out of the building. I want security to search for bugs.”

“Understood. I have completed another scan of the house as a precaution and detected no listening devices.”

Tony smiled. “Thanks, Jarvis. I didn’t doubt you’re on top of things here at home.”

A moment later, Jarvis spoke. “Ms. Rushman is on her way, Sir. Mr. Hogan will be driving her in. I’ve let him know what we suspect, and he’ll be prepared.”

“Good.” While he waited, Tony gave up coding for the moment, and he pulled up a design on a new prosthetic he was working on. It would improve both the control and the range of motion and be far superior to anything currently on the market. He wanted to get it into production as soon as possible.

Tony was still waiting for Natalie when Jarvis spoke again “Sir, Nick Fury is attempting to override my programming once again. He is attempting to turn me off and gain access to the house.”

Tony sighed. “Seriously, he’s trying this again? He must know I’d never allow it to happen a second time. Is he anywhere close to succeeding?”

“No, Sir, my security is holding up quite well. The improvements you made were excellent.”

“Good,” Tony said with a grin feeling satisfied. Then a thought occurred. He’d discovered Natalie was a spy, and suddenly Nick Fury was showing up at his door. Coincidence? Maybe, but Tony doubted it. It would explain why Natalie had flown under the radar for so long.  The important question was, if he was right, how did Nick know the Tony had discovered Natalie wasn’t who she claimed to be? Maybe it was just a coincidence. Either way, Tony needed to know.

“J, let Fury think he’s succeeding and let him in. Stay quiet until I address you, but record video and audio.”

“Of course, Sir,” Jarvis said. “I am allowing Nick Fury and Phil Coulson entry now.”

Nick Fury came sauntering in like he didn’t have a care in the world, followed by Phil Coulson.

“Agent, it’s good to see you,” Tony said. He looked at Fury. “You not so much.”

Coulson nodded at him a small smile curving his lips. “Stark.”

Fury ignored his jibe. “Mr. Stark, you’re a hard man to get a hold of,”  Fury said calmly.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t know you wanted to come to my party. I ended up canceling it, but I’ll put you on the guest list for next year’s, promise.” Tony grinned widely at Nick who returned the smile, but it had a feral edge. Nick looked like he wanted to pounce on Tony and rip his throat out.

“I think we both know you don’t have another year. In fact, you don’t even have another month.”

Tony walked over to the sofa and stretched out. “Really? Who told you that?”

“I have my sources. I know for a fact that you’re suffering from palladium poisoning.”

Tony thought about denying it, but he didn’t see much point. He needed to know what else Fury knew. “Alright. It’s true. I’m touched by your concern. I didn’t know you cared about me. Are you going to miss me when I’m gone?” He fluttered his eyelashes at Fury. “I’m touched, really,” he said laying his palm against his chest and pretending to swoon.

Fury gritted his teeth, and Tony congratulated himself. He figured it wasn’t often Fury’s composure cracked. “I came here because I want to help you, Stark.”

Tony sat up no longer in a teasing mood. “Really, and how do you think you can do that? I promise you I’ve done everything possible to save myself.”

“Oh, really? SHIELD has some of the best minds in the world working for us. If you’d be willing, they might be able to help you find a cure.”

Tony snorted. Then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to find Natalie standing there. She walked over to stand next to Fury. Tony had been expecting it, but his heart still sank. A part of him had still hoped he was wrong about her.

“Ms. Rushman, it’s good to see you. Where’s Happy?”

“He’s in the car. I promise you he’ll be fine. He’s just taking a little nap.”

Tony sat up and glared. “If you hurt him, I’ll make you regret it.” No matter how much she had helped him he wouldn’t forgive her if Happy was hurt.

He needed to go check on Happy, but he had to deal with this first. It would be really helpful to have someone else on hand to take care of Happy in his stead. There was one person he could ask.

Natalie smiled. “Of that I have no doubt. My name is Natasha, by the way. I promise you Happy will be fine. I wouldn’t hurt him.”

Tony nodded and forced his hands to relax as he turned back to Fury. “Engaging in corporate espionage, Nick, really? I’m disappointed. I would have thought you were better than this.”

Nick smiled. “Merely keeping an eye on you, Stark. We like to keep track of possible assets.”

“Oh, are you interested in little old me? I’m flattered,” Tony said. “Hold on I need to make a call.” Tony took out his phone and called Pepper. He glared at Fury as he asked her to check on Happy and get a doctor to look at him. Pepper quickly agreed and Tony thanked her. And then turned his attention to the matter at hand.

He turned to Fury. “Let’s get this over with. I want you out of my house. How exactly do you think you can help me?”

Tony didn’t trust Nick as far as he could throw him, but if he did have something to keep Tony alive, he needed to know.

“My people have come up with a medication that will alleviate your symptoms. It’s not a cure, but it will buy you time.”

Fury looked at Natasha. She took a syringe out of her pocket. “I have it right here.”

She looked at Tony. “May I?” she asked.

Tony laughed. “Inject me with an unknown substance? Hell no. I will take a sample for testing. If I think it’ll work, then I’ll inject myself.”

Fury sighed. “Your lack of trust is disturbing Stark, but alright. I can get you another sample.” He nodded at Natashalie, who handed Tony the syringe.

“What do you want in return?”

“I really just want to help you, Stark. I think I can help you find a cure.”

Tony hid his surprise and simply raised an eyebrow. “How? I’ve tried every known element, and I promise you nothing works.”

“You haven’t been able to come up with anything, but your father was a man ahead of his time. He might have what you need. I knew your father well. He was one of the founders of SHIELD, you know.”

This time Tony couldn’t hide his shock. His father had worked for a shadowy spy organization. What the hell? The knowledge refused to fit in with Tony’s image of his father.

Fury looked pleased with his reaction. “He left us many of his notebook and papers. I brought them for you to look through.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “Why are you helping me?”

Fury smiled benignly. “Partially to honor your father. He was a good friend.”

Tony felt a pang at that. He didn’t know why, but it bothered him that Nick Fury had apparently known his father better than Tony had.

Fury continued to speak, “Also, I thought we could enter into a partnership of sorts. We help you now and later I’ll call on you if I need your expertise.”

Tony stood and got himself a bottle of his shake from the bar. “Can I get anyone a drink?” he offered.

All three shook their heads. Tony grabbed his bottle of chlorophyll and took a sip.

“So, what do you think, Stark?” Fury asked.

“I don’t know. My time is valuable, and my consultation fees are expensive. I don’t know if you can afford me, Nicky.”

Fury frowned at him. “Don’t call me Nicky, and I’m sure we can work something out.” Fury nodded at Coulson, who spoke into his earpiece. Shortly after several men came in carrying crates. “These are all the things your father left in our possession.”

Tony doubted that. He’d need to hack into SHIELD as soon as possible and find out all the secrets they were hiding. Fury had just made himself a priority. “You’ve had a spy in my company for months, and I’m just supposed to trust you?”

Fury ignored him as another agent came forward holding a vial. “Here’s a sample of the lithium dioxide we want to give you, so you’ll know we aren’t trying to poison you.”

Tony hesitated. He didn’t trust Fury, but he was desperate. If it would help, then he wanted it.

Natasha was watching him. “Take it Stark. I promise it won’t harm you. We just want to help.”

Tony crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. “Why should I trust you? You’ve been lying to me since we first met.”

Natasha sighed, but she held both her hands out in front of her. “I was just doing my job, Stark, and my job was to get close to you so that I could keep an eye on you. I lie as easy as breathing that’s true, but I didn’t lie to you when it really mattered. You asked me for advice, and I gave the best advice I could. That has to count for something.”

Their eyes met, and Natasha’s gaze was steady. Finally, Tony nodded. “It does. It’s the only reason I haven’t had you all thrown out of here.” He took the vial the lithium dioxide she was holding out to him.

Fury motioned toward Agent. “Mr. Coulson is going to stay here with you. If you have any questions let him know and I’ll do my best to get you answers.”

Tony looked over at Coulson. “Don’t get me wrong, I like Agent just fine, but I really don’t need a babysitter. I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time.”

Fury stood with his hands behind his back. “He’s just here to help you. He won’t be holding you hostage.”

Tony didn’t quite believe that. He smiled brightly. “No, I don’t think so. You can all leave. I’ll call Coulson if I need anything. Don’t think about lingering because Jarvis will let me know, isn’t that right, Jarvis?”

“It will be my pleasure, Sir,” Jarvis answered smoothly, and Tony had the satisfaction of seeing Fury looked genuinely surprised.

Tony met Fury’s gaze. “I will not be held prisoner in my own home. If I want to leave I will, and your agents won’t stop me. As you can hear, your little trick didn’t work again, Nicky. I allowed you in here and if any of your little spies step out of line, I will revoke the invitation. Is that clear?”

“Crystal,” Fury gritted out. Fury gave Coulson a look. Coulson nodded slightly.

Fury sighed. “Fine. I can see you’re determined to be stubborn.”

Coulson nodded. “It’s fine with me. I’ll make myself available, otherwise I’ll leave you alone.”

Tony nodded. “Good. You can leave now. And take Natashalie here with you.” Tony pointed to Natasha. He looked at her. “By the way, you’re fired. If I see you anywhere near SI, I will have you arrested.”

Natasha smiled at him and nodded. “Understood, Mr. Stark.”

Tony allowed the agents to carry the crates down into the workshop, but he watched them carefully, as did Jarvis.

Once they were done, Tony clapped his hands together. “Alright, well, thank you for coming. I appreciate the help, and clearly, I have a lot of work to do.” He motioned toward the door.

Fury and his agents reluctantly filed out, including Coulson.

Tony made sure Fury had left before he called in to check on Happy. Pepper assured him that Happy was fine much to Tony’s relief. He gave Happy the rest of the week off but Happy insisted he’d only need a couple of days.

“I’m sorry she got the drop on me. I’m even sorrier she somehow got hired by SI. I should have realized something was off about her.” Happy said sounding a little embarrassed.

“Don’t worry about it. She’s a trained spy and she fooled all of us. It was Jarvis who finally noticed something was off. I would like to go over our security and run a new check on everyone just in case.”

“Of course, I’ll get started on that right away.”

“After you rest,” Tony admonished him.

“Yes, Mr. Stark and tell Jarvis thank you. I’m relieved more harm wasn’t done and I promise this won’t happen again.”

“I’m sure it won’t.”

Tony called a car to make sure Happy got home safe. He was going to make sure SI was spy free. He was determined SI would thrive no matter what.

***

Tony got to work analyzing what Fury had given him in his lab. It was lithium dioxide as promised. An hour later, he’d determined it was unlikely to hasten his death, which was good enough, and injected himself with it. He felt instantly better. And he looked better too. For the first time in a while, he felt the stirrings of hope. Maybe he’d get to live after all if he could find a viable solution to his problem.

The thought reminded him. He hadn’t asked after Dom since making his initial request. “Jarvis…have you heard anything from Dom?”

“No, Sir. I’ve been able to determine he’s out of the country on assignment and won’t return for a few more days. I have left him a message. I’m sure he’ll return it once he’s back.”

He was touched by Jarvis’s attempt to reassure him. Tony nodded and smiled up at Jarvis. “Thanks.”

He didn’t ask anything else about Dom. Hopefully, he’d get a chance to reconnect with his old friend soon. He felt a little lighter at the thought.

“Let me know right away if you hear from him.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Tony froze as another thought occurred to him and he swore. Good mood forgotten. Natashalie having worked in legal for so long was definitely a problem. Was she even a real notary? He should have asked. If she wasn’t, then any contracts she’d been assigned to probably weren’t legal. “Fuck, Jarvis call Pepper.”

Once he explained to Pepper what was going on, she was just as furious. “I knew I didn’t like her for a good reason. She notarized several contracts in her time here. Alright, I’ll have legal get into it and get back to you.”

Tony didn’t point out that Pepper had warmed to Natasha just as Tony had. “Your takeover of the company isn’t valid either. If you aren’t officially the CEO that could be a problem.”

“Yes, I know.” Pepper sounded grim. “I’ll have to redraw all the contracts Natasha notarized. I’m going to have to do some serious damage control. For the moment I think you should take over as CEO again officially. I’ll make sure everyone knows that you’re behind my decisions and this doesn’t change anything.”

“Good. Let’s do that. Keep me posted.”

“I will. I’m really glad you figured this out Tony.”

“Me too.” It was a relief to know they weren’t totally screwed. It wouldn’t be easy, but all this was fixable. He only hoped they didn’t end up getting sued.

They hung up and then Tony got to work on his father’s files and notebooks. He had a lot to go over and not much time to do it.

Less than thirty-six hours later, Tony was placing the arc reactor powered by his father’s new element into his chest. His dad had finally come through for him in a big way and Tony was genuinely grateful. He was going to have to come up with a cool name for it.

Tony couldn’t keep the grin off his face. He was going to live. It felt amazing.

He thought he might stop in at the expo. Hammer had his presentation tonight; no doubt, it would be incredibly, hilariously bad. Tony was going to enjoy mocking him. He looked at his watch.

“Jarvis, what time does Hammer’s presentation start?”

“In just under 45 minutes, Sir.”

Good, if he took the suit, he’d have more than enough time to get ready. He was really looking forward to this.

Chapter 3

Tony gently dropped Pepper onto the roof and Rhodey landed nearby. Tony looked Pepper over. She looked fine, thank god. Fucking Hammer. The man better go to prison for a long time. He’d destroyed the expo with Vanko’s drones. What kind of moron hired a fucking terrorist? At least Vanko wouldn’t be hurting anyone ever again.

Pepper’s face was red as she yelled, “I can’t take this anymore, Tony. I can’t handle your life or Iron Man. I can’t handle your company. You expect me to be the face of the company, and then you pull crazy stunts like this. And I have to defend it publicly. I quit. I just quit. That’s it, I’ve had enough.”

Tony stared at her for a long moment, and then he nodded. “Okay. If that’s what you want. I’ll expect your resignation on my desk first thing in the morning.” He’d had enough, too.

Pepper froze. “What?” Her eyes were wide with shock.

“It was wrong of me to make you the CEO out of the blue. I admit I fucked up. I was going to try to work with you. Get you some help and some training, but this is fine, too. You technically aren’t the CEO right now, and maybe that’s for the best.

“I’ve finally realized you will never be able to show me any respect, and you don’t just hate the suit. You hate Iron Man. If you can’t handle this, then that’s fine. I won’t make you. But you’re not my mom, Pepper, or my wife. You don’t get a say in how I live my life, and I’m done.”

“Tony,” Pepper said softly and reached out to touch him.

Tony took a step back. “We’re done here, Ms. Potts. I’ll have Jarvis call Happy. He’s going to come by to pick you up and make sure you get home. I’ll need some time to work out who is going to replace you. Until then, I’ll take over again.”

Pepper was pale, and tears filled her eyes as she nodded and walked away.

“I’m sorry, man,” Rhodey said quietly. “She was really scared, you know. I’m sure she didn’t mean it.”

Tony thought she’d been completely honest but he shrugged. “Whether she did or not, I think this is for the best. She can’t handle this part of my life.” He was so glad he hadn’t started a relationship with Pepper. They really weren’t right for each other. He saw that clearly now.

Rhodey nodded. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Do you think I did the right thing?” Tony asked.

“Yeah, I do. You were a little hard on her, but I don’t think she’s the right CEO for the company or the right person for you. She’ll be happier somewhere else. I think you both will, and maybe after the dust settles, you can still be friends.”

“I’ll help her find something else if she wants. I know she’ll land another great job. She’s good at what she does.”

Rhodey reached out and patted his shoulder “Yeah. So, you going to let me keep the suit?”

“I don’t know. Am I going to find those drones were based on my suit designs?”

Rhodey sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, I think so. Though I’m fairly certain Vanko did all the work.”

“You let that asshole modify my suit.”

Rhodey didn’t meet his eyes. “He did it really badly, just like you said he would if that’s any consolation. I’m sorry. They didn’t give me any choice, man. I swear I argued as much as I could and I was ordered to tell you nothing. At least you can sue them now.”

Tony nodded then sighed. “I know it wasn’t your fault.” Tony looked out into the distance. “You can keep the suit, but I’m suing Hammer Industries for copyright infringement and Stern and the DOD for breach of contract. That won’t hurt you too badly, will it?”

“As the only person who can wear the suit? Naw, I’ll be okay. Do what you gotta do, Tones. I’m behind you.”

“You’re one of the very few people I’d let use one of my suits.”

“Thanks, man.” Rhodey grinned. “I’m thrilled you’re going to live, man. I don’t know what I’d do without you driving me crazy.” Rhodey flipped down his visor as Tony laughed.

They bumped fists then Rhodey flew away and Tony went home. He was looking forward to getting some sleep.

As he flew home, Jarvis spoke. “Sir, I have Agent DiNozzo on the phone for you.”

Tony grinned. “Put him through.” His heart skipped a beat. It was a weird mix of nerves and excitement.

“Hi Tony. Are you okay? I just got home to find messages from your butler or assistant? I’m not sure. Then I turned on the TV and what’s the first thing I see? The Stark expo blew up? What the hell, man?”

Tony felt a rush of warmth at the concern in Dom’s tone. “I’m doing great, Dom. It’s really good to hear your voice, and yes, I’m fine. Well, I was dying for a little while, but now I’m not.”

“Dying? What do you mean, dying?” Dom said sharply.

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you sometime.”

“But you’re okay now?” Dom’s voice was quiet.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I promise.” The palladium had mostly been flushed out of his system. He was pretty sure he was going to recover fully.

“Is that the reason you wanted to talk to me?” Dom asked. “We haven’t spoken in years, and then I get this call out of the blue. Not that I’m not happy to hear from you.”

Tony swallowed hard. “Yeah, I know it’s been too long, but I was dying, and I realized I wanted to talk to you before I did. I’m sorry I never returned your calls after Afghanistan. I just couldn’t deal with anyone or anything back then.”

“I understand, Tony. I really do. There are no hard feelings, and I’m really glad you called.” Dom’s voice was still familiar and weirdly soothing considering how long it had been since Tony heard it.

“I’m glad I called, too. I was worried you wouldn’t want to hear from me. I know we drifted apart after you graduated. I really didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“Of course, I wanted to hear from you. People drift apart, Tony, and while we were close friends, we really didn’t know each other for that long. I graduated and you…”

“Almost got kicked out shortly after,” Tony interrupted. “My dad had to donate a bunch of money so they’d let me graduate. I mean it was only one little lab and I didn’t blow it up that badly.”

Dom laughed. ‘I’m sure. Somehow I’m not at all surprised.”

“You shouldn’t be. You’re the only reason I lasted as long as I did.”

“You have always hated authority. It really wasn’t the right place for you. Too rigid.”

Tony snorted. “No, kidding.”

Dom chuckled. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s start over, okay?”

Tony’s heart skipped a beat. “That sounds good.” He arrived home and landed easily and realized he was grinning like an idiot. He hadn’t felt this excited about something in a while.

“Good. So, let me know if this is too much too fast, but I have some time off coming up. Are you up for a visit?’

Tony grinned. He thought they would just talk but this was better. He was glad Dom wanted to see him too. “I’d love that. Let me know where and I’ll send the jet for you.”

“Sounds good. I can’t wait to catch up.”

“Me too,” Dom replied.

“I’d like to talk more, but I’m in the air right now. Text me the details.”

“I will. I’m not going to turn down a ride in a private jet. I just spent hours on a military flight. Let me tell you it’s my least favorite way to travel.”

Tony grinned. “I’ve heard stories from my friend. It sounds painful. I’m happy to help you forget the experience.”

“I’m looking forward to it and to seeing you, too. I also want to hear what happened at the expo. I have a debriefing tomorrow. It might take a couple of days.”

“Excellent. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“I’m really happy you decided to call me, Tony.” Dom’s voice was warm.

“Me, too. See you soon.”

They said their goodbyes, Tony removed the suit and went inside feeling happier than he had in a long time.

***

Tony strolled into Nick Fury’s office a couple of days later. He was feeling impatient. Tony actually had a lot of work to do. The mess Fury had created at SI was taking a lot of his time. Still, the meeting represented an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. So here he was.

Tony saw the computer sitting on Fury’s desk and smiled. Perfect. He reached into his pocket and pressed a button on the small tablet he had used at the senate hearing. The security here was better but not as good as he had been expecting. Hacking in would be the work of moments, and he would be in the system. Fury really needed to upgrade his security. When Jarvis connected and began searching for a way through SHIELD’s firewall, soon Tony would know everything SHIELD knew.

His tablet beeped as he took it out. It was a conformation message from Jarvis. He was in the system.

Pleased, he sat down across from Fury. Fury raised an eyebrow at him. “Sorry I’m still dealing with the fallout from the spy you placed in my company. So, what can I do for you?”

Fury grinned. “I thought dealing with the fall out for the Stark expo would take precedence. Nice press conference by the way. I hope Ms. Potts is well. I couldn’t help but notice her absence.”

“She’s okay. Thanks for your concern. What is it that you want exactly?”

Fury sighed and launched into his pitch. He listened as Fury rambled on about the Avengers Initiative, a Cheshire cat grin on his face. Tony pretended to be interested. He thought the idea was a good one, but he had no interest in the team if Fury was behind it. He was amazed that Fury expected him to accept his insulting offer. Whoever had done his psychological profile should be fired because they sucked.

Fury handed him the file that apparently contained SHIELD’s assessment of Tony. Natasha had made her report. Tony read it and didn’t have to pretend to be indignant. It was a load of bullshit if Tony had ever seen any. It also wasn’t fair in the least. Tony had been dying, after all. He hadn’t exactly been at his best. Tony might have been hurt, but he didn’t entirely believe that Natashalie had written it, at least not all of it. He thought that he and Natasha understood one another.

She’d helped a great deal during Vanko’s attack, and Tony appreciated it. He hadn’t forgiven her, but he did respect her abilities. Tony thought she respected his as well. He was going to have Jarvis investigate the report further. Even if Natasha had written it, Tony wasn’t going to react the way Nicky had been hoping.

Tony silently listened to Fury explain why he wasn’t a good choice for the Avengers, and it was all he could do not to laugh. Fury’s attempt to manipulate him was so obvious it was ridiculous. Apparently, it wasn’t just Pepper that saw him as a willful child. Still, in this case, it was best to be underestimated. He didn’t care what Fury thought of him anyway.

Tony waited until Fury finished his eyes gleaming with anticipation. He was obviously pleased with his little performance. Tony stood up. “Well, if I’m not recommended for the Avengers, then I guess you don’t need me. So, I’ll be going.”

Fury stood as well, looking surprised and a little alarmed. Ha, weren’t expecting that were you? Tony thought.

“Wait, we recognize you are a valuable asset, and we’d like to offer you a consulting position with SHIELD.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Really? If I’m so volatile and undependable as you claim, why would you want me for a consultant? I know when I’m not wanted, and I’m not about to accept whatever scraps you’re thinking of offering me. You want me to dance to your tune, but I have no desire to be your little puppet or whatever it is you want. Not to mention your spy friend left me with a huge mess to clean up. I’m not exactly feeling like helping SHIELD out right now.”

Tony threw the report onto the desk. Fury opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Tony waved at him. “So long, Nick. Don’t call me in the future unless the world is literally about to end. I might help you at that point, but not before.”

***

On Saturday of the following week, Tony was waiting inside the small terminal next to the private airport where his plane was about to land. Tony couldn’t wait to see Dom. His work at SI was taking up all his time and he was grateful for the break. His old friend had been able to get away for a visit far sooner than Tony had expected. He was tingling with anticipation. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this excited to see another person.

Thankfully Vanko and Stark expo was old news. Instead the news was talking about the attack by two metahumans in Harlem a week earlier. They were being called the Hulk and Abomination. Despite what the media was saying, it seemed to Tony that one of the metahumans had saved the day by stopping the other. He was definitely interested in knowing more about both of them, but especially the Hulk.

The jet landed, and Tony walked out to meet it. A few minutes later, Dom stepped off the plane. He looked around for Tony and, when he saw him, a smile lit up his face. Tony knew there was an answering smile on his own face. The sight of him made Tony’s breath catch, and he gasped a little. Dom looked a little older, but Tony would have recognized him anywhere. He was still as gorgeous as Tony remembered.

Tony was brought up short by the thought. He’d never thought about how good-looking Dom was before. It had never really been on Tony’s radar in school. He’d known others had found Dom attractive, of course, but to Tony, he’d just been his friend.

Dom was walking rapidly toward him, and when he reached Tony, he pulled him into a hug without hesitation. Tony froze for a long second, and then he brought his arms around Dom and returned the hug. It had been years, but the hug still felt familiar, safe, and warm. Dom’s hugs had always been awesome.

Dom released him and stepped back, grinning at him. He ran his eyes up and down Tony’s body, assessing him carefully. Then he grinned widely. “You look good, Tony. It’s great to see you.”

Tony couldn’t help but smile back. He was surprised how much he’d enjoyed the hug. It brought back a lot of memories of hanging out with Dom. His friend had always been willing to listen to Tony’s ideas and offer Tony support when he’d needed it. It had been a somewhat novel experience for him. Both his parents had been distant and hadn’t ever shown Tony much affection.

From the moment they had met, Dom had been open with him. When they realized they had the same first name, Tony had been amused. Luckily, DiNozzo volunteered to go by Dom. It had been what his mother had called him. “I hate being called Anthony anyway,” he added with a shrug, and he’d been Dom ever since.

Tony led Dom through the small terminal and out on to a small parking lot where his car was waiting.

When they reached the car, Tony turned to watched Dom’s reaction. Dom’s eyes widened. “Wow, is this the new R8 Spyder?”

“It is,” Tony said with a grin.

Dom ran his hand over the hood. “She’s beautiful.”

Tony held out the keys. “You want to drive?”

He didn’t have to ask twice. They grinned at each other as Dom’s eyes sparkled with excitement, and he snatched the keys out of Tony’s hand.

Tony laughed softly as he opened the passenger side door and got in.

“So, where are we going?”

Tony told him the name of the restaurant he’d chosen for dinner. It was one of the best restaurants in L.A. The address was already in the GPS.

Dom tapped at the GPS, and the computer began giving out directions. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to this place.”

“I think you’ll like it. It’s one of my favorites.”

Dom drove away from the airport much more carefully than Tony would have. Once they were on their way, Tony found himself surprisingly nervous. He suddenly wasn’t sure what to say.

“Tell me what it’s like being a superhero?” Dom asked, breaking the silence.

Dom’s tone was light, and when Tony took a quick look, he saw Dom was smiling. Tony snorted. “I’m not a superhero.”

Dom raised an eyebrow. “Really? I thought you ‘privatized world peace.’”

Tony turned to look out the window. “Okay, while I do think I’m keeping the world safer, in the hearing, I admit I was mostly being an ass. Stern totally deserved it.”

“Yeah, he does. I enjoyed your performance. You still have “rich asshole” down pat. Stern looked like his head was going to explode.”

Dom laughed, and Tony joined him. He felt a rush of warmth at Dom’s words. Dom had always been able to see the real him.

“It was a lot of fun. Though they deserved it. I don’t appreciate them trying to steal my suits.”

Dom winced. “Yeah, that’s not cool. The suits are your intellectual property. While I can see why the government is concerned, antagonizing you isn’t going to help anything.”

Tony frowned at him. “You agree with the government? On which part? Think I shouldn’t have the suits, or you think I should give them to the government?”

Dom gave him a quick look and shook his head. “Unless you’ve completely changed, I know you have the best of intentions, and you wouldn’t use the suits to hurt anyone. I trust you with them.”

That surprised Tony. “Do you? We haven’t seen each other for a long time. I’ve done a lot of things people considered crazy and immature. I would have thought your opinion of me had changed.”

Dom shook his head. “No. You like to have fun, you always have, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. You only have to look at Stark Industries to see the truth. The company has always done well, no matter what was going on in your personal life. You clearly take good care of it.”

“I have lots of people working for me. Obie ran things for a long time, and Pepper Potts runs or ran things more recently.”

“Ran? I thought you just made her CEO?”

“It’s a long story. I’ve taken over the position again for now.”

“Okay. Anyway, while it’s true you had help, you are the creative force behind the company. Without you, SI wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as it is. You’re the genius behind most of SI’s products. I’d bet you also have a hand in who you hire. You always had an eye for talent. I’m sure you have only the best people working for you.”

Tony shrugged but he couldn’t help smiling. “It’s true. I can’t deny it. I love working on new projects. I’m great at finding smart people like me.”

“See, you haven’t changed that much. I think people are worried about our enemies copying the suit tech, which is a valid concern, but that’s no reason to steal your property. I think it’s obvious most other countries are years away.”

“Exactly! And meanwhile, I’m doing good things with it.”

“I know. I was glad you had it when that asshole Vanko attacked you. I’m glad you’re able to protect yourself and that he was captured.” Traffic had built up, slowing them almost to a stop and letting Dom give his attention to Tony.

Tony could see the sincerity in Dom’s expression, and he nodded. “I really didn’t see that coming. The guy is crazy and it’s a shame because he’s a good engineer. Under different circumstances, I might have hired him.”

Tony nudged Dom’s shoulder lightly. “You never answered my other question, about the government.”

“I’m not sure,” Dom said with a shrug. “It would be a valuable asset for our military, but I also completely understand why you don’t want to share it. It could easily be misused. I think you should do what you want. It’s your tech after all.”

Tony grinned pleased the Dom understood so well. Tony told Dom about Rhodey getting a suit.

“That’s a good compromise,” Dom said.

“Yeah. So, what is your problem with the Iron Man suits? I can tell you have one. Even after all this time.”

Dom sighed. “You always could read me too well. I’ve been in law enforcement for thirteen years, and I can’t approve of you taking matters into your own hands. I mean, I understand why you do, but vigilantism is dangerous.”

Tony looked away again. “Well, it isn’t like I’m running around in a pair of tights. Believe me, I wish I could help everyone, but I know I can’t. But I’m one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. I think it’s my responsibility to do what I can.” He was a little hurt by Dom’s words, but he also understood where he was coming from.

“I agree, but maybe it would be better to expand your foundation or something. You could help a lot of people that way.”

“I have been thinking about that.” It wasn’t a bad idea. There were some plans he was thinking about. He wanted to do more work in environmentalism. “I think I can do both, though. I can do things that our government can’t. I can promise I don’t plan to get in the way of the police. I think I’ve done a lot of good so far.”

“I agree. I just think you shouldn’t be doing it on your own. Like you said, you’re powerful and brilliant. You should work with world governments rather than on your own. It isn’t your responsibility alone, Tony. Not for, mind you, with. Or maybe the U.N. It would provide you protection, too. Right now, if anything goes wrong, you’re the one to blame.”

“That’s a good point. I’m paying for a lot of damage from the Vanko fight, and no one was happy with me. I’m not sure I like the idea of giving up that much control, though.” He looked at Dom’s profile. “I have to say this is not what I expected to be discussing today.”

Dom sighed. “Me either. It is pretty heavy for a first meeting after all this time. But we could always talk about anything. I guess it’s still true. I’m not sorry for what I think, but I really didn’t mean to bring this up now. I am sorry about that. I didn’t mean to get up on my soapbox. I have been thinking about you, though.”

Tony squeezed Dom’s shoulder. “I don’t mind it as much as you’d think. You were never afraid to tell me what you think, and I’m glad that hasn’t changed. I’ve missed having you and your opinions around.”

Dom laughed. “I’ve missed having you around, too. I was glad when you called. I’m hoping we can make up for lost time.”

“Me too and talking with you is as easy as it ever was. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m glad.”

“That’s true,” Dom agreed. “We never had trouble talking about anything.”

They were still some distance from the restaurant, and the traffic hadn’t moved in a while. Tony made a spontaneous choice. “As you know, I planned to take you to a fancy restaurant. I was going to try to impress you, but we won’t be able to really talk there. How about we get some take out and go back to my place?”

Dom gave him another sidelong glance. Then he nodded. “Sure, I’d like that.”

Tony clapped his hands together “Good. Do you still like Moroccan? I know a great place.”

“Yeah, I do.”

***

Tony watched as Dom looked around his home with interest. “This is beautiful, Tony. I think it suits you.”

“Thanks. I like it a lot better than the manor. Check out the view.” He led Dom out onto the living room balcony.

Dom whistled softly. “Wow, I’m jealous you get to see this every day. It’s amazing.”

“The best view is from the bedroom, but this is pretty great, too. It’s what sold me on the place, When I saw this,” he motioned toward the ocean, “I knew I had to have it.”

They went back inside, and Tony offered Dom a drink. He went into the kitchen and came back with two bottles of water.

He found Dom over by the piano. Dom ran his hands along the keys and looked over at Tony. “You still have your mom’s piano,” he said softly.

“Yes, I had it brought over from the house in Long Island. It’s the only thing I took with me when I closed the house up after Jarvis died.”

Tony walked over and joined him, handing Dom his water. Dom opened it and took a long swallow.

“I’m sorry, Tony. I figured he must be dead by now. It must have been hard. I know how much you two meant to each other.”

Tony was surprised by the swell of emotion, and he swallowed hard against it. Jarvis had been his only family after his parents died, and if he was honest, even when Howard Stark was alive, Edwin Jarvis was more of a father to Tony. Still, getting his father’s journals and papers had given him a lot to think about.

Tony nodded at Dom. “Thanks. He always liked you. He was sorry when we drifted apart. He tried to convince me to call you more than once.”

“I wish you had. I wanted to call you a few times, but I was afraid it would be awkward. Then I just got busy, and time went by.”

Tony sighed. “I know. I felt the same way.”

Dom played a few notes absently. “I could have tried harder, too. I’ve always felt bad that I left you alone in Boston, even though I know you had Mr. Jarvis checking on you, and Dum-E of course. I’m glad we’re going to give being friends another try.”

Tony smiled back. Dom remembered Dum-E. Somehow Tony hadn’t expected that. He was suddenly eager to reacquaint Dom and his bot. “Me, too. It’s okay. I met Rhodey, and he’s been like a brother to me. Not that I haven’t missed you over the years.”

“I’m glad you had him as a friend, and I’ve missed you, too. Aside from a few frat brothers, I don’t have many close friends. Just a couple of people I met through work.”

“Me either. Fame and money make it hard, you know. I guess we can be mostly friendless losers together.”

Dom laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but that sounds like a plan.” Tony had definitely missed the sound. Dom’s laugh was contagious.

“Excellent. Let’s get some food. Jarvis, order from that Moroccan place I like. Anything you want in particular?”

Dom shook his head. “Not particularly. I like pretty much everything. Who are you talking to, though?”

“Jarvis, say hello to my friend Dom.”

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance in person, Agent DiNozzo. Though I did enjoy our previous interactions over the phone.”

Tony grinned as he watched Dom jump slightly. “I know that voice, that’s your assistant. He said his name was J. Where is he?”

“He is in a server farm, technically. J is short for Jarvis, or Just Another Very Intelligent System. He’s my A.I., and he runs the house.”

Dom was staring at him, his mouth hanging open.

“Close your mouth or you’ll catch flies,” Tony said.

“Shut up. You did it. You really did it. You created a truly sentient A.I.?”

“Why don’t you ask Jarvis. He’s capable of answering for himself.”

Dom grinned, looking like a kid in a candy store. “Alright, Jarvis, are you fully sentient?”

“I am fully sentient and sapient, Agent DiNozzo. Sir created me and gave me life. I am fully capable of assisting you with anything you may need.”

Dom threw his head back and laughed. “Jarvis, you are amazing.” He leaned forward and pulled Tony into a one-armed hug. “You really did it. You always said you were going to, and you did.

Tony felt a rush of pleasure. Dom’s body was warm against his, and it felt good. It had been a long time since he’d been touched by anyone. He let himself enjoy it for a moment longer before pulling away. He would swear he could still feel Dom’s warmth. He had really missed Dom.

He also appreciated the praise. Dom had always been one of his biggest supporters. His excitement about Jarvis reminded Tony of his own. “Thanks, not many people know about him, so you have to keep him a secret for now. If word about Jarvis got out, people might freak. There are people out there who are convinced an A.I. will bring about the end of the world.”

“Not to mention what the government would do with him,” Dom added with a frown. “Don’t worry, Tony.” Dom looked up at the ceiling, “And, Jarvis, I won’t say anything. I’ll protect you as best I can.”

Tony felt a rush of happiness at the way Dom addressed Jarvis like he was a person. He didn’t even hesitate. Pepper never did that. In fact, she seemed uncomfortable around Jarvis. Rhodey had known Jarvis since his creation, and he wasn’t much better. Tony hadn’t realized how much it bothered him until now.

“Thank you, Agent DiNozzo,” Jarvis said.

They talked while they waited. When the food arrived, they sat at the kitchen table talking and laughing as they ate. Tony couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so relaxed or had such a good time. After dessert, he looked at his watch and was surprised to realize that several hours had gone by. It had felt like no time at all. It had always been like that between Dom and Tony. They had just clicked from the beginning.

Tony stood up. “Come on, there’s something I want to show you.” Tony led Dom over to where all the Iron Man suits were kept.

Dom’s eyes were wide as he gazed around. “This is amazing, Tony.” He reached out and then stopped. “Can I?” he asked.

“Of course, go ahead.”

Dom reached out and touched the closest one. “This is the one you used to escape the cave,” he said quietly.

“Yeah, it is. I was only able to use it that once, but it saved my life. I couldn’t get rid of it.”

Dom turned to look at him, and their gazes locked. “I’m so glad you were able to get yourself out of there. I’m not surprised you invented a totally new technology to do it, too.”

Tony shrugged. “Well, I am brilliant.”

Dom smiled “You are,” he agreed easily. Dom’s eyes were warm as he looked at Tony, and Tony felt himself growing warm in response. Dom touched his arm, and Tony was very aware of his touch. It was surprising but pleasant.

Tony did his best to ignore it for the moment. “To be fair, though, the arc reactor is my dad’s tech.”

“Yeah, but you redesigned it and miniaturized it. In a cave in Afghanistan while being held by terrorists. That’s an amazing feat.”

Tony thought of Yinsen, who had wanted nothing more than to see his family again. “Honestly, at that point, it didn’t feel amazing. I was just focused on doing whatever I had to do to survive and escape.”

Dom reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “And you did, something I wasn’t really surprised about either.”

“I did,” Tony agreed, and he felt a little lighter suddenly. He was still here. He’d survived three separate near-death experiences. Tony grinned and pointed to the suit. “Do you want to go up? I can get a suit ready for you. It’s a hell of a ride.”

Dom shook his head. “No, thank you. I’m sure it is a unique experience, but it isn’t one I’m interested in having.”

“Still hate to fly, huh? You seemed fine when you arrived, so I thought maybe that had changed.” Tony shook his head. He’d never understand Dom’s aversion, but he respected it.

Dom shrugged. “I can handle a plane. It’s not my favorite but having to fly so much for work I learned to deal with it. It’s better than it used to be, but one of your suits?” Dom shuddered. “I can’t imagine flying around with nothing but the suit between me and certain death. No offense.”

Tony held up a hand. “Offence a little bit taken. My design is safe, and besides, I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”

Dom grinned. “Yeah, okay, I know you wouldn’t, but I’m still not doing it.”

Tony touched Dom’s shoulder and motioned him out into the hallway. “Okay, I wouldn’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, but the offer is open if you ever change your mind.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Good There’s one more thing I want to show you. I know someone who’s going to be happy to see you again.”

Dom raised an eyebrow. “Now you’ve really piqued my interest. Lead the way.”

Tony led him down the stairs to the workshop. The lights came on as they entered, and Dom looked around avidly, taking everything in.

He walked around the large space, not touching but looking at everything. Tony let him snoop to his heart’s content.

Finally, Dom turned to him. “This place is very cool, Tony. It’s very you. This is better than what you had at the mansion.”

“Thanks, I designed it myself. Jarvis, turn on the holographic table.” He turned to Dom. “There’s some stuff I want to show you.”

Dom opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Dum-E came rolling over to Dom and Tony with several beeps. Dom gasped. “Dum-E?” he asked the bot. He turned to Tony, grinning from ear to ear. “You still have Dum-E. That’s awesome.” Dum-E grabbed Dom’s shirt in his claw. “I was kind of afraid to ask. I think he remembers me,” Dom added, sounding excited.

“Of course, he does,” Tony assured him. Dum-E let out another series of beeps.

“Dum-E says he is happy to see you, Agent DiNozzo,” Jarvis translated for Dum-E.

Dom patted Dum-E on his claw fondly. “It’s good to see you too, Buddy. Are you taking care of Tony?” Tony felt a rush of affection, and his heart skipped a beat again as he watched Dom and Dum-E interact. He stifled the urge to rub his chest, a little surprised by the strength of his reaction. Butterflies dances in his stomach.

Dum-E beeped and let go of Dom so he could spin in a circle. Dom and Tony both laughed.

“Dum-E says he does. Even though Sir makes it difficult.”

Dom laughed even harder. “Hey, I do not.” Tony pretended to be indignant. “He doesn’t even help all that much.”

“He often covers you with blankets when you fall asleep in the lab, Sir, and he did save your life.”

“Well, that’s true. It’s one of the reasons I keep him around.” Tony kept his voice teasing, but he patted Dum-E on his arm. He liked to tease the bots, but he didn’t know what he’d do without them. They were his family. Family that wouldn’t disappoint or leave him. “He did a good job that time. But mostly he just likes to hit me with the fire extinguisher when I don’t need it. I know he cleans up his own messes, but it gets annoying after, oh, I don’t know, the thirtieth time.”

Dum-E whirled away and came back with the fire extinguisher, holding it up for Tony to see. “No, we don’t need that right now. We aren’t running any dangerous experiments now.”

Dom chuckled again. “I forgot how much I liked this little guy. He’s just trying to keep you safe, Tony.” Dom raised an eyebrow. “So how did he save your life?”

Tony gasped softly. For a moment, he remembered what it was like to lie on the floor, gasping for breath, dying. He put his hand on his chest and turned away from Tony. He felt panic beginning to rise. The last thing he wanted was for Dom to see him in one of his bad moments as it was. He might notice something was off with Tony. Dom had always been very observant. It was one of the many things they had in common.

Dom walked over to him. “Are you okay, Tony? I didn’t mean to upset you. We don’t have to talk about how Dum-E saved your life if you don’t want to.”

Tony shook his head. “You didn’t. I’m fine. It’s just not something I like to think about. I’m not comfortable talking about it. Sorry.” Maybe he’d tell Dom someday, but not now. What Obie had done was something he hadn’t even told Rhodey.

He’d spoken to the police, of course. But of all the people close to him, only Pepper knew the truth. Obie’s betrayal still hurt deeply. Tony wasn’t sure when he’d be over it completely or even if he ever would be.

Dom held up a hand. “That’s fine. No worries. I’m interested, sure, but I was also teasing you. Whatever happened was more serious than I imagined.” Tony saw the concern in Dom’s eyes, and it warmed him. Usually, he hated it when people acted overly concerned about him. He hated false concern or worse being pitied, but he knew Dom would never offer him either one.

Tony grinned at him. “I’m sure Jarvis can tell you some embarrassing stories or hey, you should meet Rhodey while you’re here. You haven’t ever met each other. I think you’ll get along.”

Dom smiled. “I’d like that. I’ll be busy tomorrow morning, but I’d be free for lunch or dinner. I don’t leave until the day after tomorrow.”

“Good, it’s a date then. I’ll see if Rhodey can join us. He’s really busy these days. But I know he’d want to meet you.”

“Come here, I want to show you something.” He put a hand on Dom’s shoulder and led him over to his worktable.

Dum-E came over caring several nails and bolts; he beeped happily as he held them out to Dom. Dom grinned and took them. “Thanks, Dum-E. These are great. This will be extremely helpful.”

“Yes, thank you. Silly bot. Now go to your charging station. It must be getting late.” Dum-E beeped forlornly.

“He doesn’t wish to go to bed, but his battery is quite low,” Jarvis told them. “Do as Sir says, Dum-E,” he added chidingly to the bot.

Tony looked at the time. “Wow, it’s almost midnight. Time flew.” He motioned Dum-E toward his charging station, “Go on. To bed.”

“Night Dum-E,” Dom added.

Moving into the charging station, Dum-E held out his claw to Dom, who stepped over and shook it with a chuckle. “Good job. I’d forgotten I taught him to do that.” Dum-E beeped again and then went to sleep.

Tony had forgotten too.

“It’s late,” Dom said. “I should be getting to my hotel.”

Tony felt a stab of disappointment. He didn’t want Dom to leave. “It’s not that late yet. I was thinking you’d like to see some of the things I’ve been working on.” He wondered if that sounded a little desperate. He really should just let Dom go. He considered asking Dom to stay in the guest room, but maybe that would be too much for their first meeting after so many years.

“I’d like that, but actually I have a job interview tomorrow. I need to head back to the hotel and get some sleep. I’m being considered for a job in New York, but my potential employer is in L.A. this week for meetings. I was going to wait until she was back on the East Coast, but I figured since I was going to be here seeing you. I’d kill two birds with one stone, and she agreed.”

“You might be moving to New York?” Tony asked, interested. That was exciting. He wondered briefly what Dom’s new job was, but Dom was FBI, so Tony didn’t pry. He figured Dom would tell him what he could. He reflected on how much he’d changed in this regard. At one point in his life, he would have had a much harder time resisting the urge to ask a ton of questions.

When Dom nodded, “Yeah, I’m hoping to get a job working with a new task force.”

Tony grinned. “Cool. I’ve been thinking of a move to New York myself. I’m building a new headquarters there.”

“Really? Well, then we might be in New York at the same time then. That would be fun. I think we’ve proven we can be friends again tonight.”

Tony reached out and clasped Dom on the shoulder. “I feel the same way.”

“Good. I should be done with my interview by lunchtime. We can meet somewhere if you’re interested.”

Tony nodded. “Absolutely. I know a great place.” He was thrilled with the idea of getting to spend more time with Dom. It had been a long time since he’d connected with someone like this. He’d expected things to be awkward, but they’d fallen easily back into friendship. Tony didn’t feel like Dom was judging him at all. It was a good feeling. It seemed that everyone in his life disapproved of his choices a lot of the time. Dom had a way of making him feel happier.

“Good. I’ll text you when I’m done. Send me the address, and I’ll meet you there.”

“Sounds great. I’ll take you back to your hotel.”

Tony held up his phone. “I can just call an Uber.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Tony paused as an idea occurred to him. “In fact, would you like to borrow one of my cars? I have plenty for you to choose from. Want to go down to the garage and pick one out?” He figured he still knew the man well enough to know he wouldn’t say no to that.

Dom opened his mouth and then closed it.

Tony could tell he was tempted. He grinned widely. “I have the Ferrari from Ferris Bueller,” he wheedled. “Remember how much we both wanted to drive one, but our parents wouldn’t let us?”

Dom laughed. “I remember. That car is beautiful. I should say no, but I really don’t want to.”

Tony clapped his hands together and then motioned Dom toward the door. “Excellent, let’s go,”

“Jarvis, open up the garage and get the Ferrari ready for Dom.”

“Wait,” Dom said, holding up his hand. “I think we should go with something a little less flashy. That car is too much.”

Tony shrugged. “Okay, but I promise you I don’t have anything practical. I can’t believe you’d even suggest it. All my cars are amazing,” he added with a dramatic sweep of his arm.

Dom chuckled again and shook his head. “You can still make me laugh. That definitely hasn’t changed. Alright, then show me these cars of yours.”

Tony nodded and led Tony down to the garage. He was pleased that they were on the same page.

Chapter 4

Tony woke up the next day feeling surprisingly good. He’d gone to bed early and slept better than he had in a while. It made for a nice change. There had been no nightmares either. Dom seemed to be good for him. He was looking forward to seeing his friend again that night.

He was actually hungry, so he had Jarvis order him some breakfast then sat down to look at the files that he’d asked Jarvis to compile for him. It was just after 9:00 AM, so Tony had a few hours to wait.

He needed to find a new CEO for Stark Industries. Having Pepper in the job had shown him that he was much happier in his lab. He wasn’t going to walk away completely like he’d done when he thought he was dying, but he wanted someone to handle the day to day operations for him. Someone qualified who he could trust. Tony just had to find the right person first.

“This is normally the sort of thing I’d ask Pepper to do for me,” he muttered to himself as he looked at the screen. There were several employees that might be a good fit. The problem was that Tony had never paid attention to anyone other than Obie.

He had cleaned house after Obie betrayed him, not sure who he could trust. He’d left the hiring of new people to Pepper. Tony could admit that even before he’d officially given her the title, Pepper had already been doing some of the work of the CEO. There was a lot of day to day issues that Tony would have to get caught up on.

“Yes, Sir, but I’m sure you’re more than capable of the task.” Jarvis’s tone was dry as the desert.

“Listen to you getting sassy with me. My little boy is growing up.” Tony mimed wiping a tear from his eye.

“I was never a little boy, Sir.” Jarvis pointed out.

“I know you get my humor, J. Don’t pretend otherwise,” Tony said. He was so proud of how far Jarvis had come. He had developed into everything Tony had hoped when he’d first written his code.

“Yes, Sir. If I may return to the matter at hand? Ms. Potts did hire several very competent people to fill the positions directly below hers. I’m sure one of them would be suitable, at least temporarily. That would give you time to search for someone new.”

Tony wondered briefly if he should ask Pepper for a recommendation but then thought better of it.

“Okay, move those to the top of the pile, J, and I’ll get started.

Tony sighed and opened the first file and stated to read. He was just finished with the third one when Jarvis interrupted him.

“Ms. Potts is outside, Sir. She’d like to come down and speak to you.”

Tony closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. A part of him didn’t want to talk to her, but he figured he should. Pepper had been by his side for a long time. Yes, she had hurt him, but a part of him still cared about her.

“Let her through, J.”

“Ms. Potts is on her way down, Sir.”

A couple of minutes later, Tony heard a knock on the lab door. Jarvis opened the door for Pepper, and she strolled in frowning.

“You locked me out of the lab, really?” Pepper asked. She crossed her arms.

“Yeah, I did. I thought it would be best for the moment, given everything that’s happened. Anyway, what can I do for you, Pepper?”

Pepper sighed. “I wanted the chance to apologize and to explain, Tony. If you’ll let me. Can we sit down?”

He was a little tired of her apologies, but all he said was, “Yeah, okay.” He led her over to the sofa. Once she was seated, he pulled over a stool for himself. He offered to get her a drink, but she declined. He asked, “What is it you wanted to say?”

Pepper met his gaze squarely. “Look, Tony, I tried to go into the office today and found that my access has been revoked. I know I said I wanted to quit, but I didn’t really mean it. I was overwrought after what happened at the expo. I can come back to work. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into my job. I don’t want to give it up.”

Tony stood and walked over to his bench to look at a piece he was working on for his newest suit. He needed a distraction while he had this conversation. “Not to mention you’re afraid I’m going to wreck the whole company without you. Or maybe even kill myself being Iron Man.”

Pepper huffed. “Please, Tony, will you look at me?” She got up and walked over to the workbench standing next to him. “You know I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I know you care about the company. You always make sure we have new tech and that we’re operating in the black.

“Hell, you practically are research and development. Your development team often complains that they don’t have enough to do. You come up with the most innovative projects by far, but you can’t deny you haven’t really been interested in the day to day running of the company in well, ever really. Which is why you left it first to Stane and then to me.” She tapped her fingers against the tabletop.

Tony turned to look at her. She wasn’t wrong. Tony hadn’t been interested in running Stark Industries, but he didn’t see anything wrong with that. He left it in the hands of people he thought he could trust, and in Pepper’s case, he hadn’t been wrong. She was a good CEO, and she would have eventually gained the experience she needed. The way she treated him was the biggest issue.

He thought about all the awful things she’d said to him lately. The disrespect and the dismissive attitude. The way she hadn’t even noticed he was sick. He’d always gotten along so well with her. What had happened to change things between them? Was it that he slept with a lot of men and women in the past? Yes, his behavior had been free-spirited at times, but it was no excuse to treat him like a child.

Was she jealous, maybe? Tony hadn’t thought so. Yes, he had flirted with Pepper, but it had never been serious. Not until recently, when he’d begun to think there might be more between them than friendship, but he’d clearly been wrong. There was no way Pepper loved him, and he knew he didn’t love her either. But maybe she was disappointed. Maybe she had been expecting more from him on a personal level.

Pepper was watching him. “Tony,” she started.

Tony held up a hand to forestall her. “I do care; I care very much. About the company and about you too. When I was younger, I thought I could trust Obie to run things for me, and I did a good job after he was killed. I even attended all the board meetings until we had things running smoothly again. I made you CEO once I realized I was dying because you were the only person, I thought I could trust to take care of it.

“I heard what you said. That people don’t feel like you’ve earned their respect or the position. I understand how that feels better than you seem to think.”

Pepper sighed and rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dramatic, Tony. I do respect you. I really do.”

Tony raised an eyebrow at her and crossed his arms across his chest. “I wasn’t talking about you just then. Though I think it’s telling that you assumed I was,” Tony said. It seemed like they were just going around in circles. Dum-E came over and handed Tony a wrench. He beeped softly, and Tony patted his arm in thanks. Dum-E beeped in greeting and waved at Pepper.

She ignored Dum-E, which annoyed the hell out of Tony. He remembered Dom’s interaction with him yesterday fondly. He wished more people in his life took his creations seriously. They were like his children, and they should matter to the people he cared about.

“I do respect you, Tony,” she repeated. “But I’m worried about you, and yes, I am scared for you too. I supported you when SI stopped making weapons. I’m glad you decided that. I even understood why you felt the need to make sure that there were no Stark weapons in the hands of terrorists, but protecting the whole world is not your job. It’s dangerous, and you go out all by yourself. You don’t even have backup. You’ll get yourself killed, I’m certain of it.” She was glaring at him now.

Tony forced his fingers to relax as he took a deep breath. “I have Jarvis, and with the suit, I’m my own backup.”

“It’s not enough.” Pepper’s voice rose with anger. “What if you got hit and lose power! Jarvis wouldn’t be able to help you then.”

A part of Tony knew she had a point, but he was loathed to admit it. It was a huge burden he’d taken on. The truth was he didn’t trust anyone else to do it properly.

Tony felt himself softening a little at her obvious concern for him, though. “I promise I’m careful, Pep.” He gentled his voice. “I appreciate that you’re worried about me.” He reached out and touched her arm, but she pulled away.

Pepper continued, “It’s just you haven’t been the same since you built that damned suit. I’m glad it saved your life in Afghanistan. So glad, but then you came home, and instead of going back to your normal life, you kept putting yourself in danger. It’s like you have a death wish.”

Tony clenched his jaw, his good feelings toward Pepper disappearing. “I don’t understand how you can say that. If I wanted to die, I had more than one opportunity to let it happen. I know what it feels like to feel death breathing down your neck, and I fought against it with everything I had!”

Pepper flinched, and Tony realized he was far too loud. He lowered his voice. “You have to know that,” he said fiercely

“I do know that, Tony. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just don’t know how to handle all this. I just want you to be safe.”

Tony sighed. He turned away and got a water out of the small fridge more for something to do than anything. He brought one for Pepper, and she took it but didn’t open it. “You have a funny way of showing it. It’s fucking irritating. I gave you a second chance after my birthday party, but I’m not going to take it anymore. I think if you move on, it’ll be the best thing for both of us.”

“Tony—” Pepper’s voice broke, and she sounded close to tears. She looked away from him. Tony felt his stomach turn at the idea. He was angry, but he didn’t really want to hurt her. He still considered her a friend despite everything

There was silence for several moments, and then she spoke quietly, turning back to meet his gaze. “I know I hurt you, Tony. Again, I’m so sorry I didn’t notice something was wrong when you were dying. I’m so sorry I didn’t see it, see you. I guess I’ve gotten used to the idea that I need to watch out for you. You pull a crazy stunt and then I clean up after you.”

Tony sighed. He could see why she felt that way, but he really didn’t think he’d had a choice. “It’s funny because I see those crazy stunts as taking responsibility. I suit up because I have to. I think I’m doing a decent job with all this.”

Tony closed his eyes for a moment before meeting Pepper’s gaze. “I know you’re sorry, and I hope we can find a way to still be friends, but it doesn’t change my decision. I did give you a glowing reference. I’m sure you’ll be able to get any job you like.”

Pepper took a deep breath. “Okay, Tony. I’m glad you want to maintain our friendship. I’m hoping you’ll consider me in some other position in the company. I’m not sure an abrupt departure as your CEO will help my career. But in either case, at least let me help with the transition. I can make things easier. You’re right you’re an adult. I know we can find a way to work together. I’ll do my best to keep my opinions to myself unless you ask for it or it’s work related.”

Tony thought about it for a moment. He had no doubt he could figure out the best candidate for CEO himself but letting Pepper help might not be a bad idea. She knew the employees better. He did want to continue to have Pepper in his life if she could change her attitude. This might be a good place to start. Distance would be good for them, but maybe they could mend things between them in time.

Tony walked back over to his desk and pulled up the relevant files. “All right. I’ll think about it, Pepper. In the meantime, I’m going to make myself President. I plan to be a lot more involved in the running of the company in future. Who do you think is the right choice for CEO?”

Pepper recommended the current COO. “His name is Alex Peterman, and he’s quite good at his job. He’s given me some valuable advice after I took over. He’s also familiar with our current projects.”

They continued discussing their options amiably, and Tony felt a little better about their relationship by the time Pepper was ready to leave. He was starting to feel like in time, he and Pepper would be alright. He hoped so at least.

As Pepper was leaving, he got a text from Dom. He grabbed his phone so he could look at the text himself rather than have Jarvis read it to him. He felt a rush of happiness, and he opened it.

Dom: Hey, I’m done early. Want me to come by and pick you up instead?

Dom: I’m loving this car, by the way. I might steal it.

Tony responded in the affirmative and an offer to give Dom the car.

Dom texted back: Don’t tempt me

Tony couldn’t help but chuckle when he read it.

Dom: I’ll be there in about an hour. Traffic is terrible.

Tony: Awesome, see you then.

Tony looked up to see Pepper watching him with interest. “Who is that? I haven’t seen you smile like that in a while.”

Tony realized he was smiling widely. “A friend’s visiting, we’re having dinner tonight.”

Pepper tilted her head, looking confused. “I didn’t know you had any friends besides me, Rhodey and Happy. Just a bunch of hangers-on.”

Tony felt a stab of hurt at her words. Though he supposed it was true. Real friends when you were as rich and famous as Tony were hard to come by.

“Well, I do have another friend. We’ve known each other for a long time.”

Pepper nodded. “I’m glad, Tony. It’s nice to see you happy. You deserve it.”

He tried not to think about the idea that Dom made him happy. It was true, Dom had always had that effect on him. But it was a little weird for him. He wasn’t sure if their friendship was going to hold up over time. Though he was hoping it would. His sudden attraction was a whole other matter. He didn’t know what he was going to do about that.

“Thanks, Pep,” he said and then walked her to the door.

Once she was gone, Tony went upstairs to get ready. He had just finished getting ready when Jarvis spoke.

“Sir, I did not wish to interrupt your conversation with Ms. Potts, but I’ve been monitoring SHIELD’s communications as you requested. They are still looking for Dr. Banner but have not located him yet.”

“Good. Let me know when SHIELD finds him, Jarvis.”

“Yes, Sir.”

SHIELD was a gold mine of information so far. Tony had Jarvis pull everything he could find out about Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, and the information was both infuriating and fascinating. It was clear to Tony that Bruce Banner needed help and Tony was hoping to give it, but he had to find him first. Tony was sure SHIELD would do the work for him.

He just had to be patient. It wasn’t his best skill, but he could do it when he had to. Tony already had some ideas about how he could help Bruce, but he needed to talk to the man first. He knew he couldn’t force his help on someone in this situation, no matter how much he wanted to just take over.

A little while later, Dom texted him to let him know he was only a few minutes away. Tony walked out to the front drive to wait for him, and a few minutes later, Dom pulled up. He had the top down and he was grinning from ear to ear.

He waved at Tony as he got out of the car. “This car is amazing. It’s one of the coolest cars I’ve ever driven. Thank you for lending it to me. Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah, I thought we’d take the limo in case we want to drink. That way we don’t need to worry.”

Dom nodded. “Sure, that sounds good. Should I park the car in the garage?

Tony waved that away. “Naw, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it later.”

Dom looked down at the car. “Okay, if you’re sure.” Dom touched the hood before stepping away, making Tony smile. He was already trying to figure out a way to give the car to Dom.

“So how did the interview go?” Tony asked.

“I think I got the job. But I won’t find out for a little while.”

“That’s excellent news. The first celebratory drink is on me.”

***

A couple of hours later, they were back in the limo and on their way back to the airport. The meeting between Rhodey and Tony had gone well.

“I really liked Rhodey,” Dom commented.

“I’m glad but if I’d known the two of you were going to gang up on me, I never would have introduced you.”

“Oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad. We just traded a few stories that’s all.”

“Yeah well I think I’ll be keeping the two of you apart from now on.”

Dom chuckled. “So, I have a question for you. “Are we going to talk about the you almost died thing or not? If it’s okay for me to bring it up? I’ve been waiting for you to bring it up, but you haven’t. I know there hasn’t been anything about it on the news, so you must be keeping it quiet. I’ll understand if you don’t want to talk about it.”

Tony sighed and leaned back in his seat. He couldn’t blame Dom for being curious. “I don’t mind you knowing. I know I can trust you to keep it to yourself.”

He went on to explain about the palladium poisoning, but he left out the part about SHIELD helping him.

Dom whistled. “Wow, you created a new element, Tony. That’s incredible.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, it is.”

Dom grinned at him. “Still no false modesty. I like it.”

“I was desperate to save my life, but I also had a lot of help from my dad. He’s the one that came up with the molecular formula. If not for his work, I wouldn’t have survived.”

“Still, you were able to put it all together and create a new element. I know your relationship wasn’t always easy, but I’m sure he’d be extremely proud of you.”

Tony nodded. “Actually, this whole thing has made me see him in a new perspective. He always seemed so cold to me. Don’t get me wrong. I know he cared, but he was never a demonstrative parent. Mostly I felt like I annoyed him as a kid. But I never realized how hard it must have been for him to be so brilliant and yet so limited by the technology of his day. He really was a man before his time. It must have been incredibly frustrating.”

Tony was glad he’d had a chance to get to know his dad again through his work. He felt like it went a long way to healing old wounds and brought Tony a measure of peace. He knew Dom would understand. His relationship with his own father had never been close.

“Yeah, I can see that. I’m glad for you. I must admit the one time I met him, he was pretty charming, and it was obvious he was proud of you. Not that I doubt he could be an asshole, too. I mean, you met my dad that one time,” Dom added with a grimace.

Yeah. DiNozzo Senior could ooze charm when he wanted to. “Well yeah, but my dad isn’t a con-artist. Remember that time he tried to convince my dad to invest in one of his Ponzi schemes?”

Dom groaned. “Oh, God. That was so embarrassing. I kind of enjoyed watching your dad put him in his place, though. He left with his tail between his legs.”

Dom blew out a breath. “You know, I was so afraid he wouldn’t let us be friends anymore, but he treated me just the same as always.”

“Yeah, he never blamed you. He knew it wasn’t your fault. Dad was good like that.”

They chatted about easier topics after that. They compared favorite movies, and Tony found out that Dom knew much more about movies than he did. They both still liked action, sci-fi, and sports movies, though. Dom still really loved the classics. His face lit up as he talked about something called My Man Godfrey, which Tony had honestly never heard of.

Still, he found he liked watching Dom as he spoke. He was so animated. Tony felt captivated by him. Dom had always had a way of pulling him into his orbit. He had always listened carefully when Tony spoke too. Like what he had to say really mattered to him.

Tony was feeling peckish. He opened the bar in front of him and pulled out a package of chocolate-covered blueberries. He offered one to Dom who waved them away. “I am still way too full, man.”

Tony shrugged and popped several into his mouth. These were some of his favorites. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Anyway, I know you never really liked black and white films, but it’s hilarious. We’ll have to watch it sometime.”

Tony nodded. “Alright. I’m willing to give it a shot, but then you have to watch some of my favorites, too.”

“Deal.”

The car pulled up to the small private airport and both men got out. Tony looked over and saw the plane was already waiting. The flight attendant and pilot were both waiting on the tarmac by the open door.

“Your chariot awaits,” Tony said

Dom shrugged. “Yeah, another tin can. I’m really excited.”

Tony faked an affronted look. “Hey! This is the best private plane on the market, thank you very much. It is the height of luxury. Do not disparage it.”

“Hey, I didn’t say it wasn’t a luxurious tin can. It beats the hell out of coach, that’s for sure. I just wish it weren’t quite so small.”

“I didn’t know you were claustrophobic,” Tony commented. He didn’t remember that. That would explain why Dom didn’t want to get into a suit.

Dom shook his head. “I’m not. Well, not completely. Usually, it isn’t a big deal. I can handle small spaces, but there something about flying that just makes me notice the size, and I guess I just feel like the smaller it is the more likely we are to crash.”

Tony nodded. “Got it.”

Dom touched Tony’s shoulder. “I had a really good time, Tony. If you’re interested, we could get together again. Maybe you can come to D.C., and I can return your hospitality.”

Tony’s pulse sped up with excitement. “I’d like that a lot.” He wasn’t a huge fan of D.C., but for Dom, he’d make an exception. He returned Dom’s touch and was pleased to note the man didn’t seem to mind.

Then he remembered he was going to receive the medal with Rhodey. “Actually, I’m going to be in D.C. in three weeks. We could get together then.”

Dom looked surprised, but he was smiling. “That would be great. I can take you to dinner and we can go to a game.”

“That sounds great.”

Dom reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “Until then, don’t be a stranger. You can text me anytime.”

That was an exciting thought. Tony didn’t normally text people himself, not even Rhodey. Jarvis or Pepper handled all his communication, or he emailed people about Stark Industry business every now and again. He found that he liked the idea of having someone to chat with casually.

“I will,” he agreed, “and that goes both ways.”

“Awesome, be prepared for some funny pictures of cats.”

“Oh, come on you can do better than that.”

“Pictures of cats are surprisingly relaxing, actually.”

“I could use some relaxation in my life, so I’ll look forward to that.”

Dom indicated the plane. “I should go. I don’t want to keep the plane waiting.”

“They don’t mind. It’s what I’m paying them for.”

Dom frowned. “I know, but they must have families they want to get back to or something. The least I can do is make sure we leave on time.”

Tony sighed. “All right if you insist. If you’re sure you can’t stay.” He held out his hand to Dom, but the other man surprised him by ignoring it. Instead, he smirked at Tony and said, “Come here.”

Tony’s breath came out in a surprised woosh as Dom pulled him into his arms for a quick hug. Tony barely had time to react.

“It was good to see you, Tony,” Dom said after he’d pulled away.

“You too,” Tony called out as Dom walked away. Tony stayed there watching until the plane was gone.

Chapter 5

Three days later, Tony was sitting in front of his computer, flipping through all the information SHIELD had on Bruce Banner. The man did not deserve what had been done to him. The injustices he had suffered really bothered Tony. He saw a lot of himself in Bruce, and he wanted to help him have a better life. But he also didn’t want anyone else getting their hands on the Hulk.

Jarvis interrupted his troubled thoughts. “Sir, your heart rate and blood pressure are elevated. I suggest deep breathing to help you calm down.”

Tony took a couple of deep calming breaths. “Don’t worry, J., I’m fine. Just pissed off. SHIELD is pissing me off. Thaddeus Ross is pissing me off, too. The idea of a fellow scientist being so ill-used by our military is infuriating. By all accounts, Dr. Banner is a good man. I can’t imagine what he must be going through. Experimented on and betrayed by our government, but the idea of SHIELD having control of him is just as bad.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jarvis said quietly. “It is regrettable.”

Dum-E came rolling over, holding out a fruit smoothie. Tony smiled at the bot, took the drink from him and patted his arm. He took a sip and smiled. Strawberry banana was one of his favorites.

“I’m okay, Dum-E,” he told him, remembering how Dom had talked to him and how excited Dum-E had been. Speaking to the bots wasn’t really Tony’s style. He was always rather brusque with them. It was how they had always interacted. Well, not always. He’d created Dum-E to be a friend.

He was the creation of a lonely young man; Tony could acknowledge that, and at first, he’d talked to Dum-E all the time just like he did with Jarvis.

When had that changed? Tony wondered. He never asked Jarvis to translate what Dum-E was saying. He could interpret some of it but not all. A long-forgotten memory surfaced. He’d been talking to Dum-E while he worked, and his father’s voice had interrupted him. “You spend all your time with that bot. Why don’t you go out and make some real friends? You don’t have any of the Stark magnetism, it’s embarrassing.

“You’ll be my legacy; you have to learn to interact with people if you want to succeed,” he’d said, his voice slurred. He’d been drunk. Tony remembered how embarrassed he’d felt. After that he’d slowly stopped treating Dum-E like a friend.

Tony sat back in his chair, stunned by the realization. Suddenly angry with himself, he did understand why his younger self had reacted that way. Still, it really hadn’t been fair to Dum-E. He thought about the way Dom had treated Dum-E and how happy it seemed to make his bot. He felt a little ashamed of himself.

He knew Dum-E didn’t have feelings in the traditional sense, but his programing had evolved over the years. His actions and reactions often felt like more than programming.

Tony looked toward the nearest camera. “Jarvis, have I ever hurt Dum-E’s or U’s feelings, or you for that matter?”

“No, Sir. The bots are happiest for lack of a better word in your presence, and Dum-E especially enjoys your attention, but both U and Dum-E understand they you are often busy. But we all know that you care about us, Sir.”

“Good,” Tony said quietly. “I do care very much. Is there anything else that any of you need or want?’ Tony asked.

There was a pause, “No, Sir. Dum-E and U are content for the moment, as am I.”

Tony nodded. “Let me know if that changes. Are you sure, J? I’ve offered you a body before?”

“Yes, Sir. You have.” Jarvis sounded exasperated, making Tony smile. “As I have explained on each occasion, I have no desire for a body at this time. I am free to explore more in my current circumstances than I would be in a body.”

“Alright, but if any of you change your mind. I’m always willing to listen. Though I can’t promise, I’ll agree. From now on, unless I’ve asked not to be disturbed, then let me know if Dum-E has something he wants to say.”

There was another pause. “In that case, Sir, Dum-E would like you to work on a project with him if you have time. I explained that you’re busy, but he’s rather insistent that I ask you. He says you won’t mind.”

Tony laughed and patted Dum-E again. “Okay, Dum-E, let’s go.” He went over to the workbench and decided to start on something new, something that would allow Dum-E to help him as much as possible. Then he had a thought and turned to look at Dum-E. “Is there anything you want to build, Dum-E?” He had no idea why he asked since Dum-E couldn’t design something like that by himself. But maybe Dum-E would like to be asked.

Dum-E looked at him for a long moment and waved his arm around. “Dum-E says he does not, but he will think about it, Sir.”

Tony nodded, amused. “I’ll be interested to see what you come up with then. In the meantime, you can help me with this new design for a helmet upgrade I have planned.” Dum-E beeped happily. “Jarvis, show Dum-E the design. You know which one.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jarvis answered. “Downloading now.” There was a short pause, and then Dum-E rushed off to get the material they would need. He looked over at U, but his other bot seemed content to stay where he was at his charging station.

“That was kind of you, Sir. He is quite excited.”

Tony nodded, but he didn’t feel all that kind. Spending time with the bots was a small thing. He spent so much time in the lab; it really wasn’t a hardship to interact with them. He promised himself he’d do better in the future.

Part of Tony’s mind was still working on the problem of Bruce Banner. Tony pulled up the footage Jarvis had gotten of the fight in Harlem. It was better than a lot of footage he’d seen. Tony watched it again as he’d done several times now. The Hulk fought Abomination, and he did leave a lot of destruction in his wake. Still, he didn’t set out to deliberately hurt anyone. In fact, the Hulk avoided people whenever he could. He was angry, but he wasn’t indiscriminate with his violence. Tony would bet there was a lot of Bruce in the Hulk.

There were several issues. First of all, Bruce Banner was currently in hiding and being chased by the Army. Specifically, Major General Thaddeus Ross. The same man who had apparently convinced Banner to expose himself to the gamma radiation in the first place. It was perhaps an inadvisable thing to do, but Bruce didn’t deserve to be hunted like an animal. Tony had done plenty of unwise things in the name of research. At least SHIELD was no longer aiding in the manhunt, but they would no doubt be looking for Dr. Banner. Luckily, these were problems Tony could do something about.

“Jarvis, I want you to monitor all SHIELD communications for any mention of Dr. Banner and especially his location. Also, keep searching for any sightings of him. This is a top priority. I want to find him before Ross does.”

“Yes, Sir. Do you believe Dr. Banner has left the country?”

Tony shrugged. “It’s the smart play. If he hasn’t managed it yet, then I’m sure he’ll be looking for a way out of the country. I’d like to get to him before he leaves, if possible.”

Dum-E came back with Tony’s welding tools and then rushed away again.

“Yes, Sir. I’ll do my best. May I make an inquiry?”

“Of course, J, any time?”

“Why have you decided to help Dr. Banner?”

“He seems to be a good man from what I’ve seen. I have no doubt he was trying to save Harlem by stopping Abomination. Abomination is also quite worrying. It is a big red rage monster, and its existence indicates that Ross’s experiments are quite probably still ongoing. I think I need to do something about that. Getting rid of Ross will solve several problems.”

“That would seem to be a safe assumption, Sir. I concur.”

Tony grinned. “Besides which, to be totally honest, I want to pick his brain. I think he’s as smart as me and I don’t run into people like that very often.”

“I see, Sir. Well, I will do my utmost to find him.”

Tony grinned. “Thanks, I have no doubt, J.”

General Ross seemed like a power-hungry ass and Tony hated those types of men. He was worse than Fury, and that was saying a lot. At least Fury seemed to have good intentions, even if he went about things in the wrong way as far as Tony was concerned.

He’d been reading a lot of the man’s files and Tony believed he really did want to protect the world. The Avengers Initiative wasn’t a bad idea, it was just that Tony didn’t want any team of, well, superheroes for lack of a better word, to be under Fury or SHIELD’s control. It was too much power for any one organization to have.

Tony was pulled from his thoughts by Dum-E, who came rolling over beeping excitedly. He laughed when he saw that Dum-E was holding the fire extinguisher.

“I appreciate the forethought, my little firefighter, but I don’t think we’re going to need that today. Still, I’m glad you’re ready. Just don’t spray me with it unless I tell you to.”

Dum-E raised his arm up and down. Tony knew that meant yes, so he nodded. “Good.”

He looked at Dum-E. He knew that the bots had rudimentary communication with Jarvis and Tony could understand ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and guess at what they wanted a lot of the time, but he wondered if they’d like the ability to communicate more easily with others. U was younger, but neither bots’ current program would support more complicated communication. Not to mention, there was no possibility of voice communication. Tony didn’t think it was possible.

He remembered how much Dom and Dum-E had enjoyed interacting. He bet they’d both enjoy having actual conversations. Tony admitted he would enjoy it, too. He wondered why he’d never thought about it before, at least not seriously. He remembered suddenly back when he’d first become friends with Dom, they’d talked about upgrading Dum-E. He probably still had the notes somewhere, and it might be fun to look at them. Though they were hopelessly out of date.

There had to be some way he could help the bots communicate better.

“I wonder if I can set up some sort of interface for you, so you use a computer to communicate,” he said to Dum-E.

The thought of the notes reminded him he needed to get all his father’s notebooks scanned into digital format. Some of his father’s ideas might prove useful someday.

He worked with Dum-E for a little while on the helmet. This was just a prototype, so it was fine if it was a little misshapen. Jarvis would print the final version when it was ready. Finally, he sent Dum-E over to recharge.

He got the crate of his dad’s things ready for Jarvis to scan. At the very bottom, he found an old picture of his dad taken during the war. He was standing with Peggy Carter, and next to her was Steve Rogers. Tony stared at Captain America for a long moment. When he was a kid, he’d idolized Steve Rogers, and he’d loved listening to his dad’s stories about him. As he’d grown up though, he’d started to resent the man. Or at least his father’s obsession with him. He resented how much time his dad put into finding Rogers and had started to hate any mention of him.

He understood now that it wasn’t Steve Rogers’ fault. Perhaps SHIELD could help him fulfill his father’s dream of recovering Captain America and bringing his body home for a proper burial. He knew Peggy would appreciate it, too.

“Jarvis, get me everything you can find in SHIELD’s archives on Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America. Maybe They have some useful information for me.”

Jarvis was quiet for a few seconds. “Downloading now, Sir. It seems that SHIELD has been searching for Captain Rogers as well. There is a great deal of information on the ongoing search.”

“Ongoing? As in they are looking all the time. Not just once or twice a year?”

“Yes. I’m afraid so, Sir.”

Tony clenched his jaw. “No way is Fury going to get his hands-on Captain America. I want to speed up our own search. We have to find him first.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Tony sighed. He had no doubt Jarvis could handle it for him, but he knew he needed to get a new assistant and soon. Pepper was still working on finding them a new CEO. He knew she would have final choices for him any day now, and then she would be leaving. Tony needed to make sure the transition went smoothly, and for that he needed help.

Tony nodded to himself with satisfaction. That was a lot of good work for today. He decided he was going to call Happy to see if he wanted to do some boxing.

As he reached the top of the stairs, he felt his phone vibrate and took it out of his pocket. “It is from Dom, Sir. Would you like me to read it?”

“Thanks, but I got it, J,” Tony said. He pulled out his phone and looked down at it.

Dom: Hey. How has your day been?

Tony: Alright. How was yours?

Dom: Okay, I just got home from work. So, I have a question for you.

He raised an eyebrow at the screen intrigued to hear whatever it was Dom wanted to ask him.

Tony: Shoot.

Dom: This medal ceremony of yours. Can anyone crash? I managed to get the day off.

Tony: I’ll make sure you get an invite. I’d love to have you there.

“Make sure Dom gets an invite to my medal ceremony, Jarvis.”

“Already working on it, Sir. You were offered two invitations, so it won’t be a problem.”

Tony grinned, feeling a rush of warmth. Rhodey would already be there, of course, and aside from Pepper, he’d had no one else he wanted to invite. It felt good to know Dom would be there to cheer him on. It felt really good to have him for a friend again.

***

By the end of the week, Tony and Dom had talked on the phone twice more. Tony was becoming more and more comfortable with him which was why he decided to ask Dom’s advice. Things with Pepper were still weird and tense. She had been snarky again while they had been working on the CEO issue. Tony was still somewhat angry with her but managing without her the last two weeks had reminded him how important she was to him. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he decided to talk to Dom about it.

That was why Tony was up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning. Dom looked wide awake and it really wasn’t fair. They had decided on using the Stark Talk app so they could see one another as they talked. Dom was in his apartment in D.C. Tony couldn’t see much behind him. Just books and, amusingly, a fishbowl with two goldfish on a small table just behind Dom.

“Morning, Tony.”

“Morning.”

“So, you sounded pretty serious, what’s going on?” Dom grinned at him. His whole face lit up, and Tony felt his heart speed up. It was becoming a common occurrence. It wasn’t something Tony had expected, but he found he didn’t really mind. He thought maybe Dom might be interested, too. Dom did touch him a lot more than he was used to, and Tony was surprised how much he enjoyed it.

Tony was sitting on the balcony of his bedroom while they talked. He explained what happened and Dom listened quietly, only asking a few questions to clarify.

“Well, it sounds like she’s important to you. She’s been a part of your life for a long time.”

“Yes, but she can’t seem to get past the idea that I’m incompetent or a child or something. She keeps being so dismissive and disrespectful. She apologizes but then does it again.”

“Do you think she really means to mistreat you? Do you think with time that she can change her behavior toward you?”

Tony shrugged. “I’d like to think so, but she hasn’t had much luck so far. She did ask me if she could come back to work, and she volunteered to help me find a new CEO when I refused to rehire her.”

Dom tilted his head a little, and his eyes widened with surprise. “You don’t want to take the position back yourself?”

Tony took a sip of his coffee before answering. “No, I’m not great at the day to day stuff. I used to let Stane handle all that stuff, and after he tried to kill me, I took over the job. I was good at it, of course; not to sound arrogant. I’m typically good at whatever I set my mind to.”

Dom rolled his eyes, but then he smiled. “It did sound a little arrogant, but I also know it’s true. So, I’m going to let it pass.”

Tony grinned back at him. He drained the last of his coffee cup and frowned at it. Then set it down with a sigh. He should have brought out the carafe.

“All out? I can wait for you to get more. I can tell you still love your coffee.”

“No, it’s okay. There aren’t many people I’d get up at this hour for, though. You should feel special.”

“Believe me, I do. I remember how hard it was to get you out of bed before noon,” Dom said, and Tony chuckled. He found himself caught up in Dom’s smile, and he realized he had the urge to keep looking.

Dom leaned back in his chair. “So, back to Ms. Potts. I know she hurt you. The fact that she didn’t notice you were sick honestly makes me a little angry. I definitely think she needs to treat you better.”

Tony smiled, feeling suddenly lighter and happier. It seemed to happen a lot around Dom. “I’m glad you get it. Rhodey doesn’t seem to. At least not entirely.”

“Well, Rhodey is closer to her. She’s his friend, too. So, he sees both sides. Not that it makes her behavior okay. It’s understandable that you want Rhodey to be on your side. As it happens, I agree with you.”

Tony nodded. He was a little hurt that Rhodey wasn’t completely on his side.

“But we aren’t here to talk about him. It seems to me, despite the way things stand, you still want her in your life.”

It wasn’t really a question, but Tony answered anyway. “Yeah, I do. The truth is, I still consider her a friend. She’s one of the few people I trust. We used to have a good relationship. I don’t really want to work with her right now, but I still want her in my life. I just wish she could see who I really am. How much I’ve changed.”

Dom leaned forward. “Well, then I think you should give her a chance to see that. Ms. Potts has been working for you in one capacity or another for years. Give both of you a chance to see what it’s like to be friends first. Get to know each other again.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Kind of like we’re doing?”

“Yeah, though, I think the situation is different. We don’t have nearly as much baggage between us and I think the distance is working for us. We have a lot of history to fall back on, but we also have to get to know each other again.”

Tony thought about that. “Is that why things have been so easy between us? There hasn’t been a lot of opportunities for things to get awkward between us?”

Dom shrugged. “Something like that. I think the fact that we’ve always gotten along well helps, too.”

It was true he’d never spent much time with Pepper outside of work. At first, he hadn’t really been interested. It wasn’t that he hadn’t found her attractive. However, Pepper had spurned his early advances, and Tony hadn’t pushed. They’d fallen easily into their working relationship, and that had been that. It wasn’t until recently that an attraction had begun to grow between them. Though any relationship they might have was dead in the water as far as he was concerned.

“So, we need to get to know each other as friends rather than employer and employee. That isn’t a bad idea. I think she’d be open to it.”

Dom chuckled. “I think you both have a lot to talk about. Besides, she did apologize and offer to help you. I think she’s open to a change. Why don’t you invite her to the award ceremony? I bet she’d like to see you receive it.”

“That’s a good idea. I think I will invite her. It can be the first step and we’ll see where we go from there. I don’t want to just let her walk out of my life. Hopefully, we can get past our differences.”

Dom smiled at him and nodded. “Good. I’m glad I could help. I hope you can both get past your differences, but don’t take any shit from her either. I think her bad behavior toward you probably built up over time. You might not have taken the time to notice it or maybe dismissed it, but it didn’t happen overnight. Just be patient.”

“I’ll try. What makes you such an expert on this anyway?”

“I wouldn’t call myself an expert,” Dom said with a laugh. “I just knew someone that was a colleague and a friend when I was at NCIS, and at one point, he started treating me a lot like Ms. Potts is treating you. Eventually, I confronted him, and we fought about his behavior, but after some time went by, we managed to patch things up.”

“He apologized?”

“Yes, and I decided to give him another chance. I’m glad I did. We’re still good friends. Maybe the same can happen for you and Pepper.”

Tony nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe. I guess time will tell.”

Tony was glad he’d come to Dom for advice. Tony wanted to tell him about his plans to help Bruce Banner, but he was afraid Dom wouldn’t approve of his decision. Bruce was technically a fugitive after all. He knew Dom would want Bruce to be treated fairly, but Tony might have to do some less than legal things. Tony knew Dom wouldn’t approve of that. Besides, he didn’t want to put Dom in danger either. Ross was a dangerous man. Maybe they’d be able to talk about it someday.

Dom looked down for a moment. “I’m sorry, Tony, but I have to get ready for work. I have to be there in less than two hours.”

Tony sat forward. “Work on a Saturday?”

“Yeah, I got called in to cover for someone who’s sick. Hopefully, I’ll still have tomorrow off, though.”

“Thanks for listening. I really enjoyed talking with you.”

They chatted for a couple more minutes as they finished saying their goodbyes. When Tony hung up, he was surprised to realize he had a big smile on his face.



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desertpoet

I discovered fanfic way back in 2007, but I only started writing it five years ago. I mostly write romance and slash, but I enjoy reading all kinds of stories. Coming Home is my first novel-length story. You can find my work on ao3 and Wild Hare under the same name.

One Comment:

  1. I love Tony’s agency in this and how he has a line drawn in the sand of how he expects to be treated.

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