Tony leaned against the bar and surveyed the crowd. On the dance floor, people gyrated against each other, not even pretending to be dancing to the mind numbing music the DJ was playing. When had they gotten so young? When had he gotten so old?
Sighing, he downed his drink and put his empty glass on the bar. The bartender immediately filled it back up with scotch and new ice on top the old. Tony had tossed him a credit card when he arrived and told him never dump his ice, and keep his glass full. Any serious drinker knew that the ice absorbed some of the alcohol and each drink got progressively stronger. If he’d been in the mood, Tony would have done the math on it. It was a sad day when he wasn’t in the mode to do math.
A skinny blonde who looked twenty-five and acted twelve shimmied up to him. A pack of hangers-on followed her, forming a semi-circle around her. “Hey, Tony, good to see you.”
He nodded. She was too skinny for his taste and looked a little too well used. Her pupils were dilated until they looked black. And way too stoned.
“Milan, remember? We’ve met.” She held out a hand.
“In Milan?” He didn’t remember, but as many people as he’d met during his life, that wasn’t surprising. He didn’t take her hand. Sadly, she didn’t get the hint. Some of her fake friends did, and their eyes widened.
“No, silly! I’m Milan!” She giggled a high, girly giggle. “We met in… um… someplace with a lot of sand… one of those places with foreign people.”
“That certainly narrows it down.” Her giggle hurt his ears. Which, considering the assault of the tecno-rap-fusion-crap music, was saying something.
“You were there with some guy in a uniform – you’re not gay, right?” Her friends laughed and patted her back as if she’d said something that cured cancer.
“If I say yes will you go away?” Tony smiled the smile he reserved for the press and the stupid.
“Oh, my God! You’re so funny!” She giggled again and her pack of hangers on echoed her. A few of them looked nervous. They’d figured out that Tony was blowing her off and that she wasn’t smart enough to get it. The headline tomorrow would scream ‘Milan Hyatt snubbed by Tony Stark!’
“Milan, he’s way too old.” One of them said to her. “Let’s go dance.”
“I want to score with Tony.” Milan slithered up against him, seeming not to notice that he was backing away.
“Sorry, I only score with certain kinds of women.” He slid to one side to escape being trapped against the bar. “Ones that don’t require a biohazard warning.”
“Funny! You’re just so funny! And cute!” She reached out a painted nail to touch his face and Tony dodged it.
“And you’re so stupid.” He mimicked her inane giggle.
“Let’s go party. I have some – “ She looked around, her pack of groupies doing the same. “I have some great blow – it’s from some Mexican country. Like way down past Texas.”
“Wow, that’s really – Okay, I can’t do this anymore.” He shook his head. “Go away.”
“Sure, where do you want to go? I’ve got a booth in the private club.”
Tony pushed her arm down when she tried to slip it around his waist. “If I’m ever drunk enough to go party with you – I’m pretty sure I’d be dead from alcohol poisoning first.”
“What?” Light seemed to be finally dawning behind her blank eyes.
“Get the fuck away from me. I don’t do junkie skanks.” He handed his empty glass to the bartender who filled it once again.
There was a collective gasp from her hangers-on. Some had an avaricious glint in their eyes and their expressions were far from supportive. Tony recognized them for what they were. Parasites that fed off of people with money and fame until it was gone – then they were off to the next person with fifteen minutes on the fame clock.
“You can’t – don’t you know who I am?” The blonde drew herself up to and tried to stare imperiously at him. Her gaze only reached his chin, even with her streetwalker heels.
“No.” Tony turned his back on her. He picked up his freshly refilled glass and signaled the bartender. “Is there anywhere quiet to drink in this place?”
“There’s a lounge upstairs.” The bartender handed Tony’s credit card back. “Through the lobby, just past the main desk. It’s a little more… your speed.”
“Thank you. I should probably be insulted, but my speed is less than it used to be.” Tony tossed a couple of hundred dollar bills on the bar then jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the retreating blonde and her pack. “Is she somebody?”
“Milan? Yeah, her grandpa was the guy who built hotels or something like that. She’s one of those trust fund babies with nothing better to do than party.”
“Well, she’s giving the rest of us a bad name.”
The lounge upstairs was indeed Tony’s speed. Quieter music, prettier women – and men, if he decided to go that way – soft chairs, and less flaunting of fame and money. He recognized a few movie stars, musicians, a model or two that he might have already screwed at some point, and some old money trust fund babies that he might have screwed at some point.
He settled into a chair close to the bar. The waitress refused his card, she recognized him and told him that it wasn’t necessary. Tony smiled seductively, and tucked a hundred down her low cut shirt into her bra. “Keep my glass filled with your best scotch and don’t dump my ice, sweetheart.”
“Yes, Mr. Stark.” She smiled in return, her knees weakening a little.
“And call me Tony.” He watched her ass as she walked away. Nice and firm, good bounce, long legs – candidate number one.
“Is this seat taken?”
The soft, feminine voice made him turn. A brunette in a dark red dress stood with her hand on the back of the chair next to him. Sexy, but not slutty. Long legs, nice boobs, beautiful face. Candidate number two. “Please, sit down.
“Andrea.” She said as she lowered herself gracefully into the chair.
“Tony.” She looked vaguely familiar, but he didn’t recognize her and really didn’t care who she was.
“What are you drinking, Andrea?” He crooked a finger at the waitress.
He arched an eyebrow. “Not a Cosmopolitan or an Appletini?”
“I like my liquor without the fancy frou-frou crap.” She smiled. “If I want fruit – I’ll order a salad.”
The waitress brought a drink and set it down on the table. “Scotch, rocks.” She quickly dumped Tony’s half empty drink into a clean glass and added fresh ice and Scotch.
“Thanks, sweetheart.” He winked at her.
She blushed and hurried away.
Tony sized Andrea up. The diamonds at her throat, ears, and fingers looked real. She looked thirty but was probably forty, tanned but not overly so, slightly zaftig but nowhere near what anyone would call fat. He smiled as he slid his eyes over her body. He liked curves.
They exchanged pleasant small talk. The weather. Movies. Music. It all meant nothing, they were sizing each other up like boxers waiting to meet in the middle of the ring.
He finished his drink. “Will you excuse me for a moment, Andrea?”
“Of course.” She nodded.
Getting up, Tony walked toward the men’s room at the back of the lounge. He crooked his finger at the waitress and she hurried to follow him. In the hallway, he held up another hundred. “I left home without protection.”
“I can get some at the gift shop.” The waitress took the request in stride. “Any particular brand, Mr. Stark?”
“No – just make sure they’re large.” He slid the bill along her lips. “And it’s Tony, remember?”
“Tony.” Her voice trembled.
Leaning toward her, he pressed a kiss to her lips, his tongue teasing them for a moment before pulling away. He tucked the bill in her bra. “Hurry, I think we’re done with the foreplay.”
“Yes, Mr. – Tony.” She put her fingers to her lips as she turned and hurried away.
Tony went into the men’s room and relieved himself. At the sink, he studied his reflection critically as he washed his hands. “I’m fucking gorgeous. I can have whatever woman I want tonight. Got two of them on the line right now – probably do a threesome if I asked.”
It didn’t help. His ego still felt battered. There was something wrong with him somewhere. Pepper had proven immune to his charms, and Sunset had gotten tired of him after a few months. Obviously, he had faults he couldn’t fix.
“Fuck ‘em.” He ran a hand through his hair and smoothed his mustache and goatee. If one night was all he was good for – then so be it.
The waitress peered around the edge of the men’s room door. “Tony?”
“Right here, sweetheart.”
She smiled nervously and came inside the men’s room, easing the door shut. On the one hand, this was Tony Freaking Stark! On the other, her boyfriend would kill her.
He took the box of condoms and opened it, pocketing the condoms and tossing the box. When was the last time he’d left home without some of these? Since Pepper.
The waitress was watching him, her lips parted slightly and her cheeks flushed.
“Not tonight, honey, sorry.” He ran a finger along her cheek. “Maybe next time.”
Seeing the disappointment in her eyes, Tony smiled. She was young, maybe mid-twenties and looked reasonably innocent. Too bad he wasn’t in the mood to teach tonight. He wanted a seasoned woman.
“I need a room. Good scotch, ice, and roses. Ten minutes max.” Giving her face one last caress, he walked out of the mens room who’d be happy to get right down to business.
Andrea greeted him with a smile as he returned to his seat. She had liked the rear view as he had walked away, and the returning view was even better. He moved smoothly, gracefully – almost like a dancer. The white shirt and black pants showed off his trim waist, lean hips, and great ass. She wanted that ass with both hands.
“It’s getting a little late.” She told him.
“It is. Strange how everyone in LA is usually in bed by eight-thirty.” Business people lived on New York time and actors had early calls. Tony Stark, however, went by his own clock.
The waitress brought fresh scotch and ice and slipped a room card to Tony. He pocketed the card. “I believe we’re done with the small talk, Andrea, don’t you think?”
“Definitely.” Andrea smiled, her eyes hot.
They left the lounge, Tony’s arm around her waist and headed for the elevator. One of the waiters was holding it for them and Tony slapped a bill in his hand as he stepped inside.
The ride to the penthouse was long enough that Andrea was able to press Tony against the back of the elevator and get her hands on his ass. She squeezed it as they kissed, her tongue sliding along his and into his mouth.
Tony’s hands were busy as well, one cupping her ass and pulling her to him while the other dipped into the neck of her dress. Her breasts were firm and if he were any judge of them – which he had to be at this point – they were real. Either that or the best fakes in the world. If he couldn’t tell, he didn’t care.
They broke apart as the elevator doors opened with a soft chime. Inside the penthouse suite a cart held a bottle of scotch, two glasses, and a bucket of ice. Red roses were in vases on the table.
“The roses aren’t necessary.” Andrea told him, nibbling at the nape of his neck. “I don’t believe in romance anymore.”
“Me, either.” He shut the door and pulled her to him. “But I have a reputation to uphold – wouldn’t want the staff to think I’m not treating you right.”
She laughed at that and pressed herself against him once more. Her mouth met his again and her hands went to the waistband of his pants.
Tony caught his breath in a gasp as Andrea slid the zipper down and wrapped her fingers around his cock. He put his arms around her and pulled her tighter against him. This was what he wanted, a woman who wasn’t afraid of what she needed. One who’d strip and fuck his brains out without having to be coaxed and led like a frightened virgin.
“Do you need a V? I have some.” Andrea panted against his throat.
“A what? Vodka? We have scotch.”
“No.” She laughed. “A Viagra.”
“A what?” Tony pulled back and stared at her in surprise. “A what? Vi – what?”
“Viagra.” Andrea stroked his half hard cock encouragingly. Her other hand slid up his chest and over his shoulder to tangle in the hair at the nape of his neck.
“I don’t need a Viagra. Never have – never will.” He was offended that she thought he needed any help to get it up. Granted, his cock was not responding as fast as it usually did, but that was because his mind wasn’t in the game. Yet.
“It’s okay, lover. “ She nipped at his throat and continued to stroke him. “You’ve had a lot to drink, and we’re getting older. Things take a little longer.
Say what? His cock was hardening under her attention, but Tony had lost interest. “I haven’t had that much and I’m not that old. The problem is – “
Pulling her hands away, he tucked himself in and zipped his pants up. He sighed. “The problem is, you’re the wrong woman.”
“What?” Andrea backed up, shocked at being rejected.
He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. “Don’t take it too badly. It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, well, maybe it is you, just a little.” He shut the door in her face.
Sighing, Tony pushed the button for the elevator. How had this happened to him? When had he become someone who needed more of a connection than just skin on skin? Something crashed against the closed door and he jumped.
“So much for the roses.” He smiled and stepped into the elevator as the door opened. No way she’d thrown the scotch.
Downstairs, Tony knew he was in no condition to drive home and was still sober enough to realize it. He didn’t feel like calling Happy and getting that silent, disapproving stare. Stopping in the front lobby, he leaned on the desk. “I need a room.”
“Don’t you have one?” The clerk stared at him.
The night manager stepped up and pushed the clerk to one side. “Is something wrong with the penthouse, Mr. Stark?”
“There’s an angry woman in it. I don’t think I’ll get much sleep.” He shrugged.
“I understand, sir.” The manager tapped on the keyboard in front of him. “I do have an excellent suite available, sir.”
“Just so long as there’s a bed. And a bottle. Several bottles.” Tony he pulled out his wallet and laid it on the desk. “Pick a card, any card.”
The manager hesitated a moment before pulling the top card, a black one, out of its holder. He slid it through the card reader and handed it back. “Do you require anything else, Mr. Stark?”
“Just ice to go with the scotch.” Tony put the card away and tucked the wallet back into his pocket. “And privacy.”
“Of course.” The manager coded a key card for the suite and handed it to the clerk. “Escort Mr. Stark to his suite.”
As Tony and the clerk entered the elevator, the manager was already on the phone. He made two calls. One to order the scotch and ice a.s.a.p., and the other to his source at TMZ. This was even better than the first tip he’d given them on Stark tonight.
The silence was deafening in the limo the next morning. Pepper had taken one look at Tony dozing in the corner of the backseat, wrap around shades on and a glass dangling from his hand, and slammed the door.
Getting in the front seat, she fixed her gaze firmly out the windshield. “Drive.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Happy put the car in gear and backed out of the driveway.
Several times on the way to Hammer’s offices, Happy thought about breaking the silence. He could talk about something safe. The weather, maybe, or movies. What he really wanted to do was ask what the hell was going on with the two of them.They’d finally realized they wanted to be together after all these years, it’d be going great, and then suddenly they were barely speaking.
He’d picked Tony up this morning at the Four Seasons, bringing a clean suit as ordered. The boss had looked like hell when he crawled out of bed to drink the coffee room service had delivered. Not as bad as he had at other times in the same situation, but there was something different about him – a depression that seemed to be hanging over him. Happy had seen Tony down, but never actually depressed.
There was no way he could talk to Pepper about it, so Happy kept his mouth shut. They’d work it out, they were just in a rough spot; they’d kiss and make up pretty soon. He hoped.
At Hammer Industries, Tony stepped out of the limo carefully. He wasn’t feeling very well, the world seemed determined to tip around at odd angles. The scotch was still in his system, even though the buzz was long gone.
“Shall we go in?” He motioned toward the main doors as Pepper got out of the front of the car. “Personally, I can’t wait for another fun day at work.”
Pepper ignored him. Halfway to the doors, her Blackberry chirped for her attention. It was from one of the Twitter accounts she followed, one that gossiped about Tony on a regular basis.
She opened the tweet to see a picture of Tony and a brunette woman kissing and groping. ‘Tony nibbles on something besides Pepperony!‘. She clicked on the link. There were more pictures. Pepper’s heart thudded painfully and she couldn’t breathe.
“What are you doing?” Tony almost collided with her as she stopped.
“You son of a bitch!”
“Don’t worry, I’m not that hung over. I can sit and pretend to be interested.” He frowned as Pepper shoved her phone in his face. “What the hell – “
“How could you?”
“How could I what?” He squinted at the pictures on the screen. “Oh… crap. I…” Fuck! He hadn’t even considered that there might be a security camera in the elevator. “I can explain, Pepper.” He told her. “Nothing happened.”
“Nothing happened?” She shoved her phone back in her pocket. “You’ve got your tongue down her throat and your hand down the front of her dress!”
“Okay, well – yeah, that happened – but that was it! Really! I promise!”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
“I don’t know – why don’t you? I’ve never lied to you.” Tony knew he was in deep shit with Pepper, but he was angry she thought he’d lie to her. “I’ve done a lot of things – but I’ve always told you the truth. Nothing happened. Nothing.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Really? Just a little kiss and feel?”
“Exactly. Then I left. I realized – “ He realized what? That it didn’t feel right without a connection? Or because she wasn’t Pepper? “Nothing happened.”
“You kissed some – woman – some other woman.” Pepper’s voice shook. “And you – touched her.”
“It’s been a long time since I had sex.” Tony said desperately, knowing even as he said it was the wrong thing but he had no idea what the right thing to say was. He had no experience with relationships. Except the one that had crashed and burned when he was a kid. “You said we should take a break.”
She sucked in her breath. Tony had only been interested in sex and nothing else between them. The pain was almost like a physical blow.
“Pepper, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Tony reached for her, wanting to comfort her, to explain – anything to erase the hurt from her face.
Jerking away from his outstretched hands, she turned and stalked inside.
He looked at Happy for help. The other man shook his head and got back into the limo. With a sigh, Tony followed Pepper inside. This was not going to be a good day.
“And when will you be taking the CEO position once again, Mr. Stark?”
“Excuse me?” Blinking away his fantasy of crawling under the table and taking a nap, Tony tried to remember the man’s name. One of Hammer’s flunkies. Someone who was probably getting fired. “I’m not taking the CEO position back. Ms. Potts is CEO for the foreseeable future.”
“Oh?” The man sat back and raised his eyebrows. “Ms. Potts has led us to believe that she will be stepping aside. Perhaps now isn’t the best time for Stark to take possession of Hammer Industries if your own company is in such a state of flux.”
“There’s no state of flux.” Pepper assured him. “Mr. Stark merely took a temporary leave of absence to focus on other issues – I’m sure you’ve seen the improvements that were evident in the Iron Man suit at the Expo.”
Tony stood up. “Will you excuse us?” He slid a hand under Pepper’s elbow and jerked her to her feet. Ignoring her protests, he pulled her out of the room and down the hall to the first door he could find.
Dragging her inside, he slammed the door shut and leaned back against it. “What the hell are you doing? I am not taking the CEO position back! Pulling a stunt like this isn’t going to change my mind!”
“It’s not a stunt, Tony! You don’t understand! There’s the Expo and the lawsuits – and taking over Hammer! It’s too much for one person to handle! I’m overwhelmed!” How could he not understand how she felt about this? He hated running one company but didn’t understand how running two would be impossible?
“Then hire someone to help! Stane was COO, OCC, or some other set of initials – we never replaced him. Do that! Find someone – find however many someones you need! We’ve got tons of executives! Promote them!”
“I can’t just close my eyes and pick at random!”
“Why not? Any of them would be better than me!” Tony raked his hands through his hair. “I’m not my father, Pepper! I can’t do what he did!”
“I’m not asking you to be your father – “
“You are! I’m not a businessman, I’m an engineer – I create things – I make things! I – make – things! That’s it! I can’t sit and go over budgets and plans and bonus structures – and – and – what the fuck else a CEO does! I just can’t! Pepper, please – “ He stepped toward her and reached for her. How could she not understand how he felt about this?
“You have to, Tony! This is your company!” Pepper stepped away, avoiding his touch. She ignored the hurt in his eyes, this wasn’t the time for personal feelings. “This is your company – not mine! It’s your name on the letterhead, Mr. Stark!”
They stared at each other for a long moment, both red faced and breathing heavily, each waiting for the other to back down. A line had been drawn and neither was willing to be the one to step over it.
“Fine. Then look for another CEO to replace yourself with. Then you can quit.” Turning, Tony jerked the door open and left.
He stalked out of the office, slamming the door behind him. Luckily, the majority of Hammer’s employees were off on paid leave and there was no one to stare at him. He punched the elevator button and when it didn’t open quickly enough to suit him, he took the stairs.
It was fifteen flights down, and by the time he got to the bottom, Tony’s anger had settled to a slow simmer. He and Pepper were at an impasse and he had no clue how to correct it. She loved being CEO, he knew it – felt it in his bones. She loved it the same way he loved sitting in his workshop and banging out new designs. It was what they were meant to do. First best destiny and all that crap.
Sighing, he shoved open the door to the lobby and walked out of the stairwell. The scent of coffee caught his attention and he realized he wasn’t in the lobby, this was some sort of cafeteria. “What the hell?”
“The lobby is one floor up. You’re in the basement.”
The voice startled him and he looked around, finally spotting someone sitting alone at one of the tables. “Sunset?”
“Hi.” She smiled timidly.
“I thought everyone was off.” Tony walked over to her table and sat down. “What are you doing here?”
“The drone project, remember? My team is one of the few still working.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot about those.” He cocked his head, mentally running through the details on the drone situation. That was one of the few things he’d paid attention to in the boring meetings he’d been forced to attend.
Sunset laughed. “There they go, the wheels are turning. I could always tell when you were really thinking – that little tip of the head and your eyes kind of go blank.”
He smiled. “Tilting gets the blood over to the right area.” When she laughed again, he joined her at the table. “Where’d you get the coffee? I could use some.”
“I’ll get you a cup.” She got up and went behind the counter and poured him a cup from one of the coffee makers. “Not as good as you’re used to, but it’s caffeine.”
“That’ll work.” He sipped at it and made a face. “Wow this is crap. Caffeine is all it is.”
“Mr. Hammer doesn’t spend too much money on his drones – and I’m not talking about the metal ones in my lab.”
“I can see that.” Tony looked around the room. It was sterile and plain. Nothing like the cafeteria at Stark headquarters – or any of their offices. “It looks like a hospital.”
“Probably what it was modeled on. Cheap and boring.” She agreed. “That way we won’t spend too much time here.”
“We’ll have to have it all remodeled.” He looked around the room again. SI cafeterias were relaxing places with good food. “Some paint, some plants – real coffee. You won’t know the place.”
“I’ve seen pictures of SI offices, they look great – will we get the complete makeover?”
“Oh, yeah. I can’t have people working for me in ugly places like this.” Tony grinned. It felt good to talk about something other than the CEO issue for a change. “It’s a matter of style.”
“Engineering by Armani and Chanel?” She joked.
“Why not?” He flashed the smile and pose he reserved for the press.
They both laughed and then lapsed into a silence that grew uncomfortable as the moments passed.
“So you’re working on the drone – “ “I saw your design for the – “ They both spoke at once, laughing nervously again.
“We shouldn’t be this awkward. We used to see each other naked.” Tony ducked his head and looked up through his eyelashes at her. A part of him wanted her to flirt back. Another part was terrified that she would.
“Once we were naked we weren’t thinking. At least I wasn’t.” Sunset smiled.
“Yeah… “ He was relieved to see the smile on her face. “So… the drone project – how’s it coming?”
“Not so good.” She made a face. “Vanko is – was – more on your level than mine. I can’t figure out how he made them work.
“He was a genius – crazy, but a genius.” Tony smiled slightly. Vanko hadn’t been as smart as he’d thought he was, though, he’d ended up on the bottom of a very large pile of metal.
“He’d have to be. It looks like he took the original designs and merged his own with it.” She pulled a pen out of her pocket and sketched a rough design out of one of the drone parts and then drew another, similar one next to it showing some modifications. “And then – I swear I recognize your signature in some of the design and in the AI code.”
“It probably is. Hammer got his hands on the Mark II suit and had access to the programming, which meant Vanko did as well.” Tony made a face. “I hadn’t really anticipated that happening when Rhodey took off in the damn thing.”
Sunset smiled. Tony could relate to machines, but people confused him. “So I’m dealing with two geniuses, no wonder I’m having trouble.”
“You’re hardly the village idiot, Sunset. You’ve got a degree from MIT the same as I do.” Tony studied the sketch she’d made.
“I’m hardly a double degree summa cum laude, but I can hold my own. Usually.” She frowned. “But these drones, I’ve hit a wall. I mean – I can look at them and they’re working, but I don’t see how.”
“Look at them?” Tony arched an eyebrow inquiringly. The drones had been confiscated by SHIELD. As far as he knew, none of them had been released for anyone to examine. He couldn’t even get one and he’d been the guy who’d kicked their metal asses. “How are you – do you have one?”
“No, well, yes sorta.” She bit her lip. Tony was the boss now, but the project had been kept under wraps from the beginning. Only a handful of people at Hammer knew about them.
He tilted his head. “It’s either yes or no. ‘Sorta’ is a gray area. Like being a little bit pregnant.”
“We have parts of drones – but not a complete one. I think these were either spare parts for the ones Vanko built, or ones that weren’t finished.”
“Can I see them?” He’d been dying to get his hands on one of Vanko’s drones since he’d first seen one – and that was before they started flying around and shooting at him. “Maybe I can help.”
“Well, you’re the boss, so I don’t see why not. At this point, I’m looking at taking something apart to try reverse engineering, but I’m afraid if I do that I won’t be able to put it back together.” She shrugged. “I haven’t felt this stupid since my freshman year.”
Standing, Tony motioned toward the elevator. “Let’s go have a look.” Now that he knew some of Vanko’s drones were right here under his nose, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on them. “Do you have the designs?”
“No. Vanko either took them with him or they were in his head.” She punched the button for the floor her lab was on. “We do have video. There were security cameras running the whole time, but we can’t get a clear enough image to see what he was doing. It gets distorted when it’s magnified.”
“Maybe I can help with that.” Pulling out his phone, Tony sent a message to Jarvis to get the security footage of Vanko’s time at Hammer. “I’ve got a pretty good… uh… system that might be able to get some clear images.”
“If anyone does, it’s you.”
Tony grinned at her, not feeling the least bit modest. He was good at what he did, damned good.
Sunset’s lab was just as gray and dull as the cafeteria had been and he frowned as he looked around the work area. “Jesus, this is right out of some sterile sci-fi movie. I keep expecting to see stormtroopers come through the door.”
“You’re not too far off the mark.” Sunset told him. “There were plenty of spies, snitches, and security around all the time.”
“Where’s – ohh…” Spotting a drone torso on one of the work tables, Tony headed for it. His hands were almost itching to touch it. “What’s it connected to?” He eyed the cabling running from the guts of the torso down thru a hole in the table top.
“Right now we’ve got it wired into the electric supply. When it’s on, it pulls a ton of power.” She tapped her passwords into the computer terminal next to the torso. “We blew out the power on the entire floor the first time we turned it on. Thank God for the circuit breakers or we might have taken out the whole building. I still haven’t figured out how Vanko powered them up without doing the same thing.”
Because he had his own power supply. “Probably did what you’re doing. Con-Ed will be bringing a huge bill to cover it.” He picked up a screwdriver and used it to open an access panel. Inside were things he recognized as his own design, but merged with something else, something crude and ugly. Vanko’s style was less about aesthetics than brute force.
“Where’s the code for the AI?” Tony turned away from the torso.
“In here.” Sunset brought up the program. “It’s – “ She frowned as he brushed her aside and took possession of her keyboard.
“Hmm…” He scrolled through the lines of code. Again, he could see his own code warped and twisted around Vanko’s. Tony grimaced, he felt violated in some way. This code was his, his child, his baby – and Vanko had abused and tortured it.
“What do you think?” She asked after a few moments.
“I think this keyboard is a pain in the ass.” Tony shifted it around, trying to get comfortable.
“Do you want a standard one?” Sunset used one of the ergonomic keyboards, but some people preferred the older, standard keyboard.
“No, this will do, I guess.” He wasn’t used to using a real keyboard. Hadn’t used one in years. Everything he had was touch sensitive and he’d designed his own keyboard layout to suit his needs. “I don’t see how you work with it. What the hell did he do to my code? He castrated it – and look what he did here – oh, this is just so wrong. Why did he do this?”
Sunset smiled and shook her head. Tony was off into his own world. She knew to be ready to hand him tools or coffee when he needed them.
“Jarvis, where are you? I need you in here.” He muttered. “Come on.”
Giving up on the keyboard after mistyping a command for the third time, Tony took his phone out of his pocket and called Jarvis. “Hey, can you access the computer I’m at?”
“Of course, sir.” The AI responded.
A window popped up on the screen and letters spelled a message out. “Welcome, Mr. Stark.”
“There we go. Copy this code, Jarvis. Analyze it – keep it isolated just in case it’s viral.”
“Yes sir.” Jarvis’ voice came from the computer’s speakers.
Sunset jumped. “How did you – that’s the man from the other night.”
“That’s Jarvis.” Tony told her. “Jarvis, this is Sunset.”
“Hello, Jarvis.” Sunset said.
Tony arched an eyebrow at the clipped tone. “Be nice, Jarvis.”
“Did you get the video?” He wasn’t happy with his AI’s tone. The programmed standard greeting should have been a polite ‘nice to meet you, Ms. Bain.’ Jarvis had been barely civil.
“I did, sir, and I am analyzing it.”
“I’ll look at it when I get home.” Tony didn’t want to share the design with anyone – including Sunset. The drones were dangerous and he didn’t want the designs available for any dictator with a briefcase full of cash. Maybe she hadn’t stolen from him the first time, but why give her a second chance?
“Is there an order for these?” He asked her.
“No, they weren’t finished. Mr. Hammer was rushing us, but they weren’t ready for anything but basic testing. I told him it was a bad idea to jump ahead to using test pilots – “ She grimaced, remembering the results. “ – but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Hammer isn’t known for listening to anybody who tells him he can’t do something.” Tony had never liked Hammer – even before the Senate hearing – the man was interested in making money and nothing else. The safety of the people using his weapons was far down on Hammer’s list. “That rifle he was peddling a few years ago – the one that overheated after a thousand rounds or so? He knew about it and shipped them out anyway. Jerk.”
“The recall cost less than he made. That’s the way he looked at it.” Sunset shrugged. “He wanted it done cheap.”
“Cheap isn’t always best.” Tony frowned as he read the code scrolling by. Was that Russian? Crap. “Translate, Jarvis.”
“I’ll have the translation by the time you return home, sir.” The AI told him.
“What? Why so long?” Jarvis should have been able to translate immediately. Faster than it took for him to ask for it.
“I am scanning the code carefully, as you instructed, sir. I will have it done when you return home.” Jarvis said firmly.
The hamster running in the SCIENCE! wheel inside Tony’s mind skidded to a halt long enough for a light bulb to go off in another part of his brain. Jarvis was concerned about someone getting their hands on the code, the same way he’d been concerned about someone getting the drone design specs. Duh, Tony! “I understand.”
“God, I hate this keyboard!” Tony hit the backspace button with more force than was necessary. “How do you work with this thing?”
Sunset started to answer and he cut her off. “Never mind. Jarvis, can you project my keyboard here for me? I can’t deal with this thing.” He picked the keyboard up and shook it.
“Sorry, sir. It’s not possible at your current location. Unless…” The AI paused. “With your phone. I can set one up on a smaller – “
“Smaller scale, right.” Tony nodded. “Do it. I hate this thing.” He tossed it to one side. “Worthless piece of plastic.”How do you work with that?”
This time, she didn’t try to answer. Sunset remembered what Tony was like when he was on a tear. He was lost in his own little world, full of numbers and code and mechanical things. She arched an eyebrow, this Jarvis could apparently keep up with him, something she’d never been able to do.
Tony had his phone open and was tapping away at the touch screen, the coffee brown eyes wide as he watched the numbers scroll by. “I need to see inside it. I need a camera – small – I need it now.”
It took her a minute to realize he was talking to her. “Inside the torso?”
“Yes, now.” He snapped his fingers. “I need a camera. Now.”
His manner irritated her. She remembered Tony being less demanding and arrogant than this. Opening a drawer, Sunset took out a small camera connected to a spool of cable and handed it to him. It was designed to fit inside prototypes and other things that were easier to repair in one piece than to take apart.
Tony looked it over critically. “This’ll do, I guess.”
Sunset’s ego was stung. She had designed the camera herself. Hammer had kept the patent, but she had improved on previous designs to quite an extent. “You’re not going to find one any better.”
“Maybe.” He slid the camera through a crevice of the torso. “I could build one, I think I have built one – where’s the image?”
“Here.” She turned her computer monitor around so he could see it.
“Ah!” Feeding more cable inside the drone torso, he examined the inside carefully. There was a circular socket – empty, luckily – where an arc reactor would rest. “Jarvis are you getting this?”
“What goes there?” Sunset tapped the empty socket on the monitor. “A battery?”
“Um… probably.” Tony hoped she’d think he was preoccupied with examining the drone rather than being evasive. The last thing he wanted to do was explain what went in that socket. “Hmm…. The hydraulics system is different… is that… he used… well, I wouldn’t have done that… or that.
“It’s too quiet in here, I can’t think.” Tony muttered.
Music, loud and pounding, began pouring out the speakers of the lab’s computers. The other members of Sunset’s team turned to stare. She shrugged. Apparently Tony liked music when he worked and he liked it loud.
She smiled and turned away. Tony was lost in his work. One or two words strung together or half sentences was the best she could hope for from him until he exhausted his curiosity or himself. All she had to do was keep his coffee cup filled and he’d find the answers her team had been working on for months.
“Sir, you have a phone call – ”
Tony frowned as Jarvis interrupted his explorations. “I told you to block my calls, Jarvis.”
“ – from Ms. Potts.” The AI continued.
“I’m not talking to her.” He peered into the ‘head’ he was holding. “I told you that. I am most definitely not talking to her.”
“I understand, sir. However, she has called several times.”
“I don’t care.” Tony frowned at the circuits he’d found. They were more sophisticated than he’d thought Vanko capable of.
“She has left… messages on your voicemail.”
Tony snorted. From the pause, he gathered Pepper’s messages weren’t friendly. “Delete them.”
There was silence except for the aggressive power chords from the speakers for several moments before Jarvis spoke up again.
“Sir, you have another phone call.”
“What part of block my calls did you not understand?” Tony glared at the computer screen knowing Jarvis could see him.
“I understood perfectly, sir. However, Mr. Hogan says that he is taking Ms. Potts home and – “
“What? What time is it?” He looked around the drab room for a clock.
“It’s after five.” Sunset told him. She’d been immersed in her own work trying to document what she could of what Tony was doing and stretched to relieve a cramp in her neck.
“Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Except for analyzing the data at home, he’d done all he could do here for now.
“Mr. Hogan says they’ve already left.”
This time there was total silence, the music cutting off as Tony’s eyes narrowed and he leaned back in his chair. “They’ve left? They left? They. Left. Me. Behind.”
“Yes, sir.” Jarvis had killed the music the moment he delivered Mr. Hogan’s message. He’d known this would not sit well with his creator. “He said he will return for you as soon as he delivers Ms. Potts to her home or that you can call when you need him.”
There had to be steam coming out his ears, like one of those old cartoons. They had left him. In his limo. Taken his car and left him behind. Tony ground his teeth together. His knuckles turned white as he clenched his hands into fists. They had fucking left him behind. He was Tony-motherfucking-Stark and they’d left him behind like he wasn’t important.
Jarvis was wise enough to keep silent. The crude visual he was receiving from Hammer Industries’ security cameras revealed a mood he rarely saw from his creator. In the past, the wisest course had been to wait for instructions. He waited. He waited some more.
“Tell Mr. Hogan. His services. Are not needed.” Tony bit the words out. “I will get home. Myself. I will fucking hitchhike. Before I call him.”
“Yes, sir.” Jarvis relayed the message.
“Tony.” Sunset said softly. She could see he was hurt and angry. “Are you… okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m great.” He turned and smiled at her, burying his anger beneath the surface. “Can you give me a ride? It seems I need one.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “But don’t ask to drive.”
“That was a long time ago.” He’d wrecked his car trying to sneak a kiss from her on one of their dates. “I’ve changed.”
“Right.” Shutting down her computer, she took her purse out of a desk drawer. “What a day, I’m worn out.”
“I’m not.” He smiled. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough business for one day.”
She smiled in return. “Sure, where do you want to go?”
“I was thinking… your place.” Fuck Pepper and taking break and everything else he’d tried to do to suit her.
“Oh, sure. Okay. I’ll fix dinner for us, it’ll be like old times.” She smiled.
“Perfect.” Tony put his hand on the small of her back as he guided her out the door. “I’m all about old times.”