Log in

No account? Create an account

Pepper's Place

Keeping track of myself... and Tony

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (4 of 6) (Edited, Revised, and COMPLETED!)
Mr. Iron
Title: An Iron Man Christmas Carol: A Love Story (4 of 6)
Author: v_pepperpotts
Rating: PG-13, with an optional NC-17 chapter 6.
Spoilers: Set loosely between movies one and two
Summary: Started for the 2010 For the its_always_been Holiday challenge and the prompt: 'Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future' but I was kicked in the ass by the Ghost of Bipolar Disorders and didn’t finish. This is the edited and completed version. A story in which Tony is visited by some unexpected friends, and discovers that love is more important than he thought.

I do not own Iron Man, nor the characters. Several times I either took lines directly from the text of that book, or updated a line, keeping the content the same, but this in no way is intended to imply ownership of either the book or characters, who were created by Mr. Charles Dickens in 1843. I both thank him for the story and inspiration, and offer my sincerest apologies for mangling his work. Any errors to the body of this text are my own. Thanks for all the reviews!

Stave the First
Stave the Second
Stave the Third (part 1)
Stave the Third (part 2)

An Iron Man Christmas Carol ~
A Love Story

Stave the Fourth

In which the protagonist of our story is visited by the last of three Spirits, and learns that the situation is far direr than he knew.

Tony could only remember a few moments in his life when he had truly been afraid. Staring at this last Spirit, striking in its unfamiliarity where the others had been so unrelentingly familiar, he felt a thread of fear trickle through him now.

He was initially struck by its size. Even in his Iron Man armor, the Spirit was still larger than him. But what finally sat the most uneasy with Tony was how utterly silent it was. Because of its size, it had made noise when it moved, but so far, Tony still hadn’t even heard it breathing.

“You’re the final Spirit I was told would be coming?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant. The cowl shifted, and Tony realized, with a chill, that the Spirit was nodding. He tried to speak again, but all that came out was a nervous laugh.

“I’ve gotta admit – I’m more worried about what you have to show me than the Spirits before you,” Tony said, uncomfortably, shifting his helmet back and forth between his hands. “The others have shown me some things that…” He paused, but clearing his throat, he straightened up. “They’ve given me a lot to think about. Whatever you want me to see will be given the same attention.”

Turning, with what sounded suspiciously like a creak, the Spirit lifted an arm clad in the heavy folds of his dark, voluminous robes, and pointed into the west.

Was that a flash of metal he saw beneath the Spirit’s long sleeve? Obeying the unspoken directive, Tony murmured, “Go west, young man,” and started walking that direction, looking toward the Spirit occasionally for guidance. It didn’t move to lead him or even keep up with him. The Spirit was content to follow just behind Tony – something he found unsettling.

Not sure where he was going, Tony continued walking west, and shortly he noticed that the world around him had grown quite dim, as though a thick blanket of fog had descended to enfold them in it’s recondite impenetrability. But the gloom didn’t last long; one moment Tony couldn’t see even one inch in front of his nose, the next, he was standing on the sunlit pool deck of the Mondrian Hotel – a place he knew very well.

The Mondrian was home to the Sky Bar, one of the most popular hot spots in Los Angeles on the A-list party circuit. If you were ‘somebody’, getting a ticket to the rooftop bar, dance floor, and swimming pool, was as easy as showing your I.D., if you even needed to do that. Otherwise, you had to be a guest of the Mondrian, or dining in one of the hotel’s two five-star restaurants.

People went to the Sky Bar to see, or be seen. If you weren’t famous enough to get in on name recognition alone, you were paying an arm and a leg to gawk at the glitterati, and just maybe, be noticed in return. Tony had done equal amounts of noticing and being noticed here, though usually later in the evening, long after the sun had gone down. At the moment, the sun was still slowly sinking on the horizon, painting the sky there a medley of pinks, oranges, violets, and yellows.

Downtime there was from about six a.m. until two in the afternoon, so there was a nice Cubano beat coming from the bandstand, situation between the bar and pool decks, and nearly everyone had a drink in hand, most of them containing a slice of fruit and a colorful paper umbrella as garnishment.

There were people at the bar, on the dance floor, standing, sitting at tables or on lounge chairs, or hanging off the pool wall everywhere you looked. At first, Tony recognized none of them. It wasn’t until he got a better look at a female talk show host he knew (for whom plastic surgery had become more of a burden than a benefit) that he remembered this was the future. How far into the future, he wasn’t sure – judging by Ms. Face-Lift, it couldn’t have been more than a few years – but Tony looked around again with new eyes, searching faces for signs of familiarity.

The Spirit didn’t stop beside Tony, but kept going toward the wooden deck area, on which large, upholstered squares, covered in patches of white, blue, tan, and brown, stood topped with mounds of throw pillows in the same colors. The long two by fours composing the deck didn’t bend or creak beneath the Spirit’s weight, but Tony was careful to walk a few steps away from him, just in case.

They were approaching a group of women who were in their early thirties, trying to pass for their early twenties. Tony knew them, vaguely, from the party circuit they traveled in. He’d probably even slept with some of them, but the passage of time he hadn’t been there to witness and the plastic surgery they’d dabbled in here and there, made it more of an effort to tell than he cared to exert.

One woman in a thong bikini lay on her stomach with her head toward the center of the square on the pile of cushions. A brunette sat beside her on one corner, painting her toenails a vibrant coral color. A third lay on her back along another side of the square, and a forth woman had pulled a lounger close to the group and was lying on her stomach with her head close to her friends. Although her face was buried in the hollow of her folded arms, it was evident from her body language and occasional responses that she could hear everything.

“O-M-G, I completely forgot,” the nail-painter was saying. “Did you guys here who bought the farm last night?”

Two of the women turned their faces toward the speaker with curiosity, but the third – the one on the lounge – didn’t even open her eyes as she answered, “The Big Bad Wolf, himself – I heard. Whatever are the women of the greater L.A. area to do?”

The petite Japanese woman lying lengthwise on the square, her head near that of the bleach-blonde on the lounge, frowned, her nose scrunching as she turned her head from one of her friends to the other. “He gonna be a farmer?”

Nail-painter rolled her eyes. “No, May – he’s dead.”

“What was it, Abby - jealous husband?” asked the woman in the thong bikini, still wearing her sunglasses, even though the sun was nearly down.

Abby, the nail-painter, looked morbidly excited to be the one spreading such a prime piece of gossip. “My bell-weights trainer, Enzo, is dating one of the EMT’s who answered the emergency call, and he says, it looks like it was,” she paused to make sure she quoted exactly. “An alcohol-related incident.’ His assistant found him at the bottom of a cliff over the side of one of his balconies with a bottle in his hand, and his neck all ~thquik~” she cocked her head to an unnatural angle and made a sound meant to indicate a broken neck.

Covering her mouth with her hand, May gasped, tears coming to her eyes. “That is so sad! How terrible!”

“Who gets all his money?” the Corey Hart wannabe asked, showing not even a fraction of her friend’s sorrow at the news.

The bleach-blonde on the lounge rolled onto her side to join the conversation. “He hasn’t given it to me, that’s all I know,” she said, stretching.

“I’ll have to find a dress for the service,” Abby mused aloud. “You can wear red to a funeral, right? It’s a dark color.”

Sunglasses snorted. “You mean you’re going?”

May sat up quickly. “I am going too. He was good man and good customer.”

“How long were you his masseuse, May?” Abby asked her.

“Three year,” May answered. “Paid well. Good tipper.”

“I bet he was,” Sunglasses muttered, stretching her legs out behind her again.

Swatting her with a pillow, May shook her finger with playful admonishment. “Not like that. Not for last two year, anyway. Then he really Wolf, but not Big Bad. He have heart for only one lady then.”

The women fell silent, and Tony, having watched without questioning his companion up to now, frowned. “Whom are they talking about?” he asked the Spirit, tilting his head back a little. The Spirit didn’t answer, his attention remaining, as far as Tony could tell, on the women.

“Yeah, and look how well that turned out,” the blonde sighed dramatically, as if bored. “He would have been better off staying in the game, or at least going after a woman more his style.”

Pulling her sunglasses a short way down her nose, Sunglasses raised an eyebrow. “What, like you, Shannon?”

Shannon laughed throatily. “God, no. I wouldn’t take him, no matter how much he’s worth. I wanted two things from him, and I got them: a wild night, and a jump-start on my modeling career.” With a stretch, she sat up. “Which is why I will also be going to the funeral. It’s going to be a media circus, and I can climb a long way up the ladder on that kind of gossip. Especially if I ask my sister if I can borrow her little girl for the day.”

The women laughed.

There was a flash of metal, and a heavy hand fell on Tony’s shoulder. The scene faded away in front of them, receding into the distance accompanied by the tin can sound of the women’s mirth.

Surrounded by clouds of mist that did not feel heavy or moist against his skin, Tony only had a moment to brave the discomfort of that uneasy darkness till they were moving again – or rather not moving, but shifting. The steely gray of the mist dissolved into industrial gray walls, the familiar dark blue and white of S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms moving purposefully around them telling him instantly where they were.

The Spirit proceeded down the corridor, which ended at the entrance to a room that look eerily, Tony thought, like a turn of the century school room. At one end sat a large desk, flanked behind and on either side by an American flag, and a S.H.I.E.L.D. flag. Facing the big desk were about two dozen folding chairs with attached, foldable desk arms, standing at attention like soldiers.

Nick Fury sat at a slight angle atop the large desk, his imposing, black beetle eye shining with anticipation as he looked over the assemblage, although his posture on it’s own would have indicated that he was bored and impatient.

Directly in front of Fury, wearing a black, latex catsuit and sprawled in one of the chairs in a way that Tony felt had to be illegal somewhere, was a gorgeous woman with red hair a darker shade than Pepper’s, and hazel eyes that were large, startling, and nearly impossible to read. If Fury was able to convey boredom, this woman exuded it like a pheromone from her skin, only making you want to try harder to impress her.

Agent Phil Coulson was there as well, his usual crisp suit traded in for the regulation uniform today. He sat near the woman with the desk arm of his chair down, a small notebook open as if he were reviewing last week’s notes before class.

A fourth man entered the room – one Tony had never seen before. He was massive – large, without managing to also look fat, though he had the rounded features for it. His hair and mustache were a bright, carroty red and, as if to insist that he wasn’t already an interesting enough looking man, he wore a bowler hat.

It was this man that they were apparently waiting on.

“Dugan,” Fury grinned, bumping fists with the other man in a way that instantly told Tony that in spite of the other man’s size, his familiarity with Fury meant that he was not a man to be trifled with. “Make yourself comfortable. I’m anxious to see what you’ve brought for me,” he added, addressing the room at large.

Tony and the Ghost of Christmas Future had entered at the rear of the large room, but moved only close enough that they were within twenty feet of the four people.

Phil Coulson stood quickly, whether in a hurry, or just eager to impress, his impassive face gave Tony no clue.

“What have you got for me?” Fury asked, wearing the barest curve of a smile.

The agent didn’t smile at all. “I was able to procure the following security codes to all of the subject’s personal and corporate holdings and materials previously inaccessible to us, including all projects designated One-A-Zero-TSIM-Zero-X.” Handing Fury the notebook he had been paging through earlier, he stood at attention as though waiting for permission to go, or a review on his performance.

Fury’s eyebrows rose. Opening the book, he looked over the contents. “We could have used these a year and a half ago,” he commented. Coulson said nothing, but it was apparent Fury didn’t expect him to. “Now, you know they’re gonna be changing these codes faster than we’ll get a chance to make any good use of them.”

“I don’t believe that will be the case, Colonel,” Coulson said, unperturbed. “Given the upheaval of the last two weeks within the organization, the recent deaths, it’s my belief that no one will have prepared for an eventuality of this magnitude and their recovery time will be severely affected. In the midst of these unforeseen events, we should have plenty of time to do what needs to be done without anyone being the wiser.”

Fury glanced at the woman. “Romanov?”

The redhead’s face was a mask of indifference. “Phil’s right. Both of those most knowledgeable and most qualified to lead them are gone now, and no one expected that to happen. It will take time to regroup, and they’ll focus on the industry long before they think about the private quarters.” The faintest trace of a Russian accent colored the edges of her voice.

“Well done, Agent Coulson,” Fury said with an approving nod in the man’s direction. With a weak smile and echoing nod, Phil made a gesture that involved clicking his heels together with a shallow bow of his head, and excusing himself from the room.

“What have you got for me, Natasha?” the Colonel turned his attention back to the Russian.

For the first time, Agent Romanov’s face showed some life. A mischievous smirk curved her lips and made her eyes dance. “Nothing much,” her voice was nonchalant. “Only a closet full of new suits for you to try on.”

This didn’t sound very impressive to Tony, but the surprise on Fury’s face, and the delighted burst of laughter as he rocked back where he sat on the table, made it seem like this was the best Christmas present he’d ever received.

“All of them? Tell me you got all of them.”

She made a circular gesture with her hand, waving away the question. “Of course. You had me studying the place long enough for insertion. I had to put that knowledge to use somehow and come away from my undercover assignment with something better than the affair, and then...”

Fury nodded. “You don’t have to tell me, Nat.” He sounded sympathetic. “None of us saw it coming until it was too late to stop it.”

Looking at the woman, Natasha, Tony saw in her eyes that she didn’t believe it, but the expression vanished instantly. He wished he understood what was going on.

Glupyi,” Romanov muttered. “Foolish.”

“Yeah, well, we knew that about him a long time ago, didn’t we?” said Dugan from where he’d positioned himself, slouched in the corner, chewing on the end of an unlit cigar.”

“And what did you bring Uncle Fury, Dum Dum?” Natasha asked. She turned in her chair to see him better and her voice matched the movement of her body – sinuous and sensual, enticing without actually trying to be seductive. A perfectly arched eyebrow curved above one eye, and the bow of her lips made her look like a kewpie doll.

Dugan looked at her and snorted in amusement before focusing on the Colonel. “Gotcha the big brain.” There was no explanation, no further editorializing, he simple picked up a black box about the size of a toaster and tossed it at the gaping bald man.

Fury stared from Dugan to the box in his hands. “… this can’t be all of it.”

Another snort. “Course not; thing’s the size’a two sub-zero’s side-by-side. Had ‘im taken straight to the Helicarrier for safekeeping. Just so you know,” he added, giving Fury a warning look. “He didn’t come easy. You hook it all back up, no telling what kind of information you’ll get out of that smart-ass abacus.”

Shaking his head incredulously, Fury was grinning. “Don’t matter. Ain’t nobody got one of these. I can’t believe you made off with something like this, Tim.”

“Just so you know,” Dugan shrugged. “Not like it’s going to do him any good anymore, is it?”

“Nope,” Fury agreed. “Still, pretty bold move, though - all of you. Saved us a lot a trouble, dying like that. Damned considerate of him.”

As Fury and Dugan laughed and Natasha rolled her eyes, a light smirk of amusement on her face, the heavy hand fell on Tony’s shoulder again, distracting him from the roiling of his stomach caused by the callous disregard for the life of whatever man S.H.I.E.L.D. was essentially grave-robbing.

Their surrounding began to fade into a thick mist again, and Tony tried to turn around and see his companion, but could not even make out the hand on his shoulder beyond the faintest outline.

“Why are you showing me this? Who is the person the women and Fury’s group are all talking about?”

Getting no answer, Tony pressed on.

“This man… am I in danger of sharing his fate? Of losing everything? Is that it?”

They didn’t appear to be going anywhere, but the Spirit didn’t seem to be forthcoming with answers to Tony’s questions either.

“Can’t you show me someone who isn’t an opportunistic asshole over death? I mean – just some emotion associated with death that’s… pure?”

The hand on his shoulder tightened and with a jerk than made him nauseous, Tony stumbled and reached out only to grab hold of a familiar chair in a room he had been in only hours before.

Rhodey sat bent forward in one of the other overstuffed chairs in his living room, a long-necked bottle of a beer held loosely in his fingers and dangling between his knees. His head hung low against his chest, and Tony had known his friend long enough to recognize that he was well on his way to being smashed.

On the couch across from him with a matching beer bottle sat Brandon, one of Tony and Rhodey’s friends from M.I.T. Brandon’s eyes were focused on the other man with concern, but he didn’t immediately voice any suggestion for remedy. Or so Tony thought.

“I don’t understand,” Brandon said. “What the hell happened?”

Rhodey’s laugh was short and empty. Tony had never heard him sound so despondent.

“What happened is Tony fucked up,” Rhodey said harshly.

At his words, Tony sat down in a neighboring chair, completely focused on his friend, a sense of foreboding heavy upon him.

“I warned him too,” Rhodey added. “I told him if he wasn’t fast enough, some slick motherfucker was gonna move in and snatch Pepper out from under him, but he was too…” he searched for a word but with a deflated sigh, settled with, “scared. The bastard was too damn scared to admit he loved her and sure enough, she met someone who wasted no time in scooping her up and marrying her.”

Brandon shook his head, taking a swig of beer. “I gotta admit I’m surprised someone was willing to compete with her job.”

“Jesse’s an actor.” Rhodey rubbed his face as Tony growled, hearing the familiar name. “He was in New York a lot, filming for different shows, so he made sure to call when he was going to be home so she’d make an effort to be there.” With a rough laugh, he added, “I’m sure that only made the affair that much easier on her and Tony.”

Tony leapt to his feet, whirling to look at the Spirit, then Rhodey, then the Spirit, then Rhodey again. “What affair?” He turned to the Spirit once more. “I thought this was supposed to be about a death?” Looking at Rhodey again, he moved closer, as though he could influence his friend with his nearness. “Dammit, Sour Patch, start talking, or I swear to God, I’m-“

“Wow,” Brandon interrupted, of course, unknowingly. “Affair? How did that happen? He finally got up the nerve after the fact?”

With an exasperated shake of his head, Rhodey leaned back in his chair. “Tony never did something easy if there was a hard way to do it. He told me, much later, of course, that they were working extra late one night and argued about her husband.

“Jesse was in New York, filming a few episodes for a show he has a reoccurring role on, and the way I understand it, Tony didn’t like that he left her alone so often,” Rhodey explained with a disbelieving snort. “More likely he loved that Jesse was away all the time because it meant she didn’t have to worry about getting home for any other reason, but he probably didn’t approve of someone other than himself having Pepper, and not devoting everything to her. No matter how unreasonable that was.”

Tony wanted to scream at his friend to get on with it, but he did stop to think about Rhodey’s musings. It sounded about right. No matter how much he talked about there being someone better out there for Pepper, if he were to lose her to anyone, he knew he would be horribly jealous about having to share her. Anything that gave him the edge in her schedule would make him inclined to gloat. But if it were at the expense of Pepper being treated with all the deference she deserved, it would piss him off.

Rhodey continued. “Anyway, Tony was ranting and Pepper was asking why it was any of his business in the first place, and his only answer was to grab her and kiss her like a man dying of thirst and she the only source of water.”

Gaping at him, Brandon asked the question that was on Tony’s mind, too. “What did she do?”

“He didn’t actually give her a whole lot of time to react.” Rhodey emptied his beer bottle and fished for another in the small ice cooler on one side of the coffee table that Tony just realized was there, ready for a full day doing more of the same.

“Surprisingly, he backed off and started apologizing. He told me she just stood there staring at him, not running away like he expected, but just holding on to his shirt and looking at him until at last she just quietly said, ‘No’. He wasn’t sure if she meant, ‘No, we can’t do this,’ or ‘No, don’t stop’, but the next thing he knew, they were kissing again, and then on the couch…”

The scene was so clear in Tony’s mind, it made his stomach tighten with equal parts shame and longing.

“Damn,” Brandon exclaimed, shaking his head. “What shitty timing. They kept it going then, I’m assuming?”

Rhodey nodded. “Quite a while, though I had no idea. Whenever Jesse left home, she was with Tony. Pepper loved Jesse, but even I could tell that she would always love Tony more, and I had no clue what was going on right under my nose.”

Brandon was frowning. “I don’t understand. I thought – didn’t Tony love her?”

Another snort. “Hell yes, Tony loved her. I think it terrified him, just how much he loved her. And Pepper… well, any woman would be crazy to work for Tony as long or as hard as she did if she didn’t love him. There wasn’t a whole lot either of them wouldn’t do for each other.”

“How could he stand to let her go back to him?” Brandon asked, still frowning curiously. “That’s the part… I don’t think I’d be able to watch that happen over and over.”

“Guilt.” Rhodey looked a little sick. “For both of them, I’d guess. “They didn’t want to hurt – well – Pepper didn’t want to hurt Jesse, and Tony didn’t want to hurt Pepper… or to make her feel guiltier for cheating on her husband. You know what I mean. But looking back, the only time the two of them were really happy and not stressing themselves out about something was during those times they were together and Jesse was gone. I didn’t see it then, but everything was pretty peaceful at those times. I should have known. I should have seen that they’d finally figured out that all their tension was sexual and started doing something about it.”

“Would you have tried to stop them if you had known?”

With a scowl, Rhodey twirled his beer bottle, staring into it at the amber liquid. “I don’t know. I loved those two like family, and if they were happy… but, on the other hand,” he sighed, “knowing how the story turned out…”

Tony dug his nails into his palms to fight the urge to get up and pace.

“You said Tony fucked up,” Brandon prompted.

Rhodey snorted, scratching his forehead with his thumbnail. “What, even more than waiting until Pepper was married to tell her how he felt, or for having an affair with his assistant, a married woman, who was also one of the few people in the world who trusted him? Yeah, Tony fucked up big time. Pepper got pregnant.”

“Holy shit!” Brandon exclaimed.

“Holy shit!” Tony was on his feet and halfway to the liquor cabinet before he remembered Rhodey only stocked it for parties, and that he wasn’t really there anyway. Casting a baleful look at the Spirit, Tony was too cagey to sit, prowling near the two men like a wild animal as they talked.

“Was it Tony’s?” Brandon asked, oddly, a question that hadn’t even occurred to Tony.

Rhodey shook his head. “There was no way to tell for sure at the time, but Tony said that he knew it was his, and so did Pepper. She left work early for a doctor’s appointment, which had him going crazy, because Pepper never went to the doctor for anything unless it was life threatening. Jesse was due back that night, so Tony didn’t expect to see her until she came in to work the next day, but he’d planned on calling her in the middle of the night, once he thought of a good enough excuse.

“Pepper showed up at his house instead to tell him before anyone else that she was gonna have a baby.” He laughed shallowly. “Whatever she expected from Tony, it probably wasn’t his complete joy at the idea of being a father; No, of being the father of her child. Fool man proposed to her immediately, never mind that she was already married, and that the kid might be the other guy’s.”

“So, she said no,” Brandon nodded sympathetically.

Rhodey paused, taking a slow breath. “…No, actually, she told him yes.” There was a very faint smile in acknowledgement of his friend’s shock. “But she had what Tony called ‘rules’ though.” He made quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “She didn’t want Tony, the company, or especially the baby saddled with any of the stigma that would be aimed at them if she left her husband as a pregnant woman, and Tony’s assistant, only to immediately establish herself as his lover. She wanted the baby to be as free from that kind of speculation as possible, and so she wanted to stay with Jesse through the pregnancy, letting him think the baby was his, and then once the baby had been born, file for divorce.”

The room was quiet for a minute.

“That… seems… unusually cruel,” Brandon commented finally.

For another moment, Rhodey didn’t answer. Then, he exhaled heavily. “Tony thought so too. They argued about it.” In a long swallow, he drained another bottle, as if he needed much more alcohol to continue with this story. “He told me that he wasn’t just thinking about himself, but about Jesse. He thought it was wrong to let the guy prepare for a future with a wife and child, only to take that away from him. But Tony also hated the idea that Jesse would forever be known as the father of his kid, and he couldn’t understand why Pepper would deny him something like that.”

Tony, watching and listening, sank into a chair, his heart sinking into his stomach at the same time. He understood why she did it, and he wondered if he was corporeal enough to be sick.

“One thing’s for sure,” Rhodey went on. “No matter what happened, Pepper would not have come out of it smelling like roses, you know what I’m saying? Either she’s some kinda loose woman who cheated on her husband, with her boss, no less, or she’s a capricious nutcase who leaves one man for another without thinking twice, just after giving birth to the first man’s baby.”

“But at least in the second case, there’s less controversy over the baby,” Brandon nodded in understanding. “It’s all fucked, man.”

Rhodey snorted, shaking his head. “Neither of them liked it, but the alternatives were that they split up and let Pep raise the baby as Jesse’s – and at that point, I don’t think either of them were actually capable of doing that – or causing a scandal in the paper for Tony, the company, and forever stigmatizing their kid. He or she would never be free of the stink of something like that.”

Massaging the sides of his nose, Brandon exhaled heavily. “So they argued over it,” he stated. “Then what happened?”

“She went home,” Rhodey stated grimly. The words fell on Tony’s ears like a death knell, making him shiver.

“I’m not a hundred percent on what happened once she got there,” Rhodey continued. “What I do know is that Jesse was already there when she arrived, and she told him she was pregnant. First thing he asked was if it was his, or Tony’s?

“Seems he’d gotten home two days early and when she didn’t come home, he’d just sat there waiting for her which, when he heard about it, made Tony crazy. If Pepper was even five minutes late to work, which she rarely was, he was ready to call out the National Guard, so for Jesse to wait two days till she came home without even calling her? Anyway, by the time Pepper did get there, Jesse had pretty much figured out where she’d been, and why.”

That sense of foreboding came over Tony again, and he scooted to the edge of his seat, his emotions just as on edge. He was eager for Rhodey to hurry up and continue, but just as ready for him to stop the story, finished or not.

Rhodey’s eyes were closed. “They must’ve fought pretty bad. She was already upset from arguing with Tony, and then to turn around and have an even worse confrontation with her husband, whom she’d wanted to believe was her child’s father?” He opened his fifth beer since Tony and the Spirit had arrived. “At some point, she threw some stuff in a bag and grabbed some work clothes, threw it all in the car, and tore out of there, back down the road and up the hills to Tony’s.”

Tony’s mouth went dry. “No.”

“It wasn’t raining that night,” Rhodey was staring at the floor. “But the fog was heavy, and the roads are usually pretty slick around there. She must’ve been upset, too – maybe she was crying and couldn’t see too clearly…”

“Please, God, no…” Tony stood up, despite the pain cramping his stomach. He took a stumbling step toward Rhodey.

“They found her car the next morning about five miles away from Tony’s house up on Point Dume. They think another car came around the turn going the opposite direction with its high beams on, and the glare off all the moisture plus her presumed stress level…”

“Take me to her,” Tony demanded, whirling around on the Spirit so quickly he felt drunk. Tell me Pepper’s alright and take me to wherever she is, now!”

The Spirit shook his head, denying his demand, but Tony wasn’t having it. He threw himself at the ghost, and everything shifted again as Tony forced his companion to take him where he wanted to go.

At first, all he could see were the black folds of the Spirit’s cloak, obscuring his surroundings, but as Tony turned around, he felt his heart freeze in his chest.

They were standing facing an enormous stone angel, its widespread wings looming over the rest of the cemetery.

“Noooo.” Tony sank to his knees with a moaned sob, knowing without having to read the inscription that he was looking at the grave of Pepper Potts. Needing to see for himself but dreading to at the same time, he slowly scuttled to his feet and inched forward until his fingers were tracing the delicately carved words:

Virginia Grace “Pepper” Potts Howell
Beloved Friend and Wife
“I have loved to the point of madness;
That which is called madness,
That which to me, is the only sensible way to love.”

Choking back a second sob, he rested his head against the marble. She really is dead. Pepper dies, and he as good as kills her. Tony’s greatest fear had long been that Pepper would somehow be hurt, or worse, because of him. It was one of the reasons he’d convinced himself things were better for everyone if he kept his feelings for his assistant to himself. It hit him hard now that he’d been selectively ignoring the fact that she was in danger either way, and keeping her at a distance emotionally only kept her further away physically, too – where he couldn’t protect her.

And life was short. He was a fool to have denied them both something they wanted, just because he thought it was better. In reality, he was nothing more than a scared little boy, who would have been petulant and resentful toward anyone who had tried to take his place in her life. He loved her.

He loved her.

“I’m sorry, Pep,” he whispered, flattening his palm against the stone. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve…”

“You should’ve done a lot of things, Tony.”

The unexpected voice, although strange and metallic, was chillingly familiar. Frozen in place against the monument, it took time for Tony to will himself to turn around and face the nightmare he now knew, with deadly certainty, would be there.

The black cloak had fallen to puddle in the ground at the Spirit’s feet – or rather, its large metal boots. The armored suit was oversized and rough looking – exactly as Tony remembered it the last time he’d seen the Iron Monger, Obadiah Stane.

“Stane,” Tony growled.

Lifting the helmet off of his head, Stane gave Tony a familiar, self-satisfied grin. “You know, I never could figure out why you didn’t get yourself a piece of that. I always figured she was either some kind of a lesbian, or else she really was the most frigid woman on the planet.”

Obadiah Stane had been a friend of his family for as long as Tony could remember. He had trusted the man; relied on him; loved him like an uncle, and Obie had betrayed him. Not only had he tried to steal control of Stark Industries from him, Stane had also been the man responsible for Tony’s kidnapping and near assassination in Afghanistan.

He was the reason Tony now lived with a battery in his chest. He had tried to kill Tony a second, and even a third time before Tony had been forced to kill him in self defense, and he had even tried to kill Pepper. Yet this was the third Spirit sent to teach Tony the error of his ways – a man for whom money and power were everything, sent to advise him about love.

“Truth is, you were never interested, were you, son? Not unless anyone else was showing an interest in her. Hell, you even wait until she’s married before finally sticking it to her.”

Tony’s jaw hurt, he was gritting his teeth so hard. “Shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Obie put his hands up, huge in their gauntlets, as if surrendering. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming you,” he chuckled. “Once I’d had you killed, I’d planned on plugging that myself, eventually. But you just wouldn’t stay dead, would you? Well,” he grinned widely, walking toward the monument on the grave next to Pepper’s. “Not then, at least.”

“Keep talking about her like that, and I’ll…”

It was then that he realized that the marble angel next to Pepper’s was no angel at all. What he’d seen peripherally and mistaken for wings folded tight against an angel’s back was a gust of wind carried along in the wake of a rocketing Iron Man.

A cold chill settled over Tony as he stared at the effigy, growing stronger as he watched Stane looking at it with undisguised glee.

“There’s an inquest, you know; after Pepper’s death? Seems that some people have questions about what really happens the night her car goes over that cliff. Some people – no,” he laughed, enjoying his own private joke. “Most people, are pretty sure you had something to do with it; that you fought and forced her over that cliff in a fit of jealous rage.”

Roaring with anguish and fury, Tony launched himself at Stane, dropping his helmet on Pepper’s grave as he blindly reached for the other man’s head. He had no goal; in their suits, the attack he was making wasn’t the most effective one he could make, but the intensity of his sudden mania clouded his judgment to any rational thought.

The sheer enormity of the Iron Monger’s gauntlet in comparison to the Iron Man armor as a whole made it possible for Stane to grab Tony by the neck as he flew at him. Yelling in pain and outrage, Tony struggled against his former mentor’s grasp, staring down at the man’s wide, toothy grin with complete loathing.

“No charges are ever filed against you though, Tony,” Stane taunted, tightening his grip around Tony’s throat, making him stiffen for a moment, then wriggle like a fish on a hook. “You wanna know why?” Without waiting for an answer, he whirled around and slammed Tony face first into the marble Iron Man effigy.

Tony felt his nose shatter, and the warm gush of blood as it shot from his nostrils, down over his lips and chin. He didn’t feel the pain right away, so shocked was he at being injured in this future spirit world.

“Read it, Tony,” Stane challenged in a clearly mocking voice. “Surely a genius such as yourself can figure it out from all I’ve shown you.”

The women coldly discussing the dead man and his funeral; a man who broke his neck falling over his balcony to the cliffs below while intoxicated, only to be found the next morning by his assistant… Natalie?

Colonel Nick Fury and his coterie of agents raiding a dead man’s house of security codes, suits, and other technical devices – of J.A.R.V.I.S., he realized.

Rhodey drinking himself into a stupor, talking about Pepper – and him in the past tense, only he’d been so focused on getting to where Pepper was, he hadn’t made the connection.

To the right of his cheek was a name Tony was now expecting to see:

Anthony Edward Stark
‘Iron Man’
“We all die. The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”

The date of his death was little more than a week after Pepper’s. Stane released him and Tony slid to the earth, bonelessly. “It’s me,” he moaned softly. “I’m dead.”

“You’re not just dead,” Stane gloated, crouching over him. “You die in a blaze of truly unconscionable insignificance. You were this century’s Golden Boy, man, and here you went and lost your mind over a piece of tail, when you could have had any other in the city, and at least several other cities. You had it all and you had no idea what to do with it. Which is why I tried to take it from you.”

“You’re wrong,” Tony muttered low under his breath. A cold flood of violence rose in him, and he threw himself at Stane again. “You’re wrong! And you could never have had her!”

Stane flew back a few feet, laughing in amusement at Tony’s efforts. “Come on; she dies, and all you can do is drink yourself to death. I can’t believe you’ll actually feel that guilty over stealing another man’s wife. You know you choose her plot, her tombstone – you even choose the engraving? You should see the look on Pepper’s husband’s face when he tries to buy the plot next to hers and finds out you’re already moving into it.”

Tony scrambled across the grass for his helmet and shoved it on his head, swearing loudly when he jarred his nose, sending another splash of blood down his face.

Laughing at him, Stane put his own helmet on, just in time to counter a burst from Tony’s repulsor beams with one of his own.

The blast hit one of the wings of Pepper’s angel, only making Tony madder. Taking to the air, he circled behind the Iron Monger, overhead “You never deserved any of what you tried to take from me,” he challenged in Iron Man’s tinny voice. “You only would have abused it, Stane. I’ll never let that happen.”

“You did let that happen,” Stane countered, rising into the air to circle in the opposite direction. “I was doing it for years right under your nose.” Pulling an obelisk from the earth – someone’s monument – Iron Monger swung it in Tony’s direction.

Instead of dodging, Tony braced himself and grabbed for the monolith, catching it with a grunt. Throwing his body around hard, he caught Stane off guard, swinging the obelisk like an enormous baseball bat. Before the other man could let go of his end, Tony had him soaring through the air, sending him crashing headfirst into a mausoleum.

To Tony’s shock, it barely seemed to faze him. Stane stumbled from the broken façade of the mausoleum, looking little more than scratched. “It’s you who doesn’t deserve the company, Tony,” he called back. The head of a cherub the size of a bowling ball rolled to a stop at his feet and Stane hurled it at the younger man.

“Let’s face it; you chose death over a life where you had wealth, fame, cars, a mansion, and all the sweet, young, cunt you could possibly want.”

Tony dodged, but the stone head exploded against his shoulder, covering his helmet in a fine mist of silt. It covered his main viewers, and in the seconds it took him to reconfigure, Tony blindly fired two repulsor blasts in Stane’s direction.

“You didn’t give two shits for it when you had it, except that it made your life more comfortable.” Firing a repulsor blast of his own and attempting to lift the two-ton granite roof off the mausoleum, Stane couldn’t get out of the way in time. Tony’s repulsor blasts caught him in the thinner plating of the neck and groin.

With a bellow of frustration, Stane threw the roof slab like a discus, then leapt after it, aiming to land in the center of the stone. “Then you throw it all away for a dead girl who wasn’t yours, and who, if you were actually capable of loving anybody but yourself, you should have gone after before she finally wised up and married someone who wasn’t you, making you want her just because you couldn’t have her.”

Tony moved to intercept Stane, roaring like a wounded animal, but the greater size and weight of Stane and the added momentum of the stone sent him crashing back to the ground with the mass on top of him. With Stane crouched atop it, Tony struggled to shove the weight off of him.

“Liar,” Tony ground out in a guttural voice. “That’s all you’ve ever been, Stane, a fucking liar!” A growing, furious burst of rage lent him the strength and motivation he needed. “No,” he amended. “You’re even sadder than that. It’s you who doesn’t know how to love, isn’t is?”

Stane fell backward with a grunt and, as the roof fell sideways, Tony picked Stane up by the arms and flew him backward into the wall surrounding the cemetery.

“I’ve loved lots of people,” Tony yelled with growing realization, just before punching Stane.

Stane laughed, wrapping his massive hands around Tony’s biceps and sweeping him around in a half-circle, taking out half a dozen headstones. “No, you’ve fucked lots of people. It’s still all about self-gratification there, son.”

The uni-beam from the arc reactor in the center of Tony’s chest increased its luminosity one hundred percent, and the beam that shot out sent Stane a quarter of a mile into the air, through the fronds of a small copse of palm trees, and crashing through the skylight of a nearby vault.

“I loved my father – even if he was an asshole!”

Tony was already stalking that direction when Stane burst through the doors, tearing them from their hinges. Blasting the cars from the street, Stane grabbed two of them and slammed them together like cymbals on either side of Tony.

Taking to the air, Tony’s legs were caught by the smashing cars, but with a wrathful yell, he fired repulsor blasts from his boots, aiming for the gas tanks and used the momentum to jet out of the way as the fuel ignited, engulfing Stane in blue-green flame.

“I loved my mother – even if she didn’t always take as much time for me as I wanted her to!”

Stane was mostly protected by the suit, but he screamed in surprise as fire licked in at him in the places where Tony had early damaged the more flexible areas of his armor.

“I loved Yinsen – even if he was stupid enough to sacrifice his life for mine. I love Rhodey, even if he doesn’t always understand, and Happy. I loved Sunset – I even loved your murderous, back-stabbing ass, Obie.”

Tony stopped, landing beside Stane as he collapsed to the ground, his screams high and strangled. Crouching down, heedless of the fire in his own suit, Tony lowered his voice. “And if I’ve learned anything in the last twenty-four hours, it’s that there is one person that I am madly in love with. You wanna know who that is?”

Stane didn’t answer. Instead, with a renewed shout that could only be described as a battle cry, he lunged for Tony, grabbing him by the neck and shooting into the air. Fed by the oxygen, the flames grew.

Tony still had no fear of burning to death, but with the fire growing, engulfing him as well as Stane, the oxygen was being eaten more rapidly than his suit could filter and regenerate the CO2 into something he could breathe safely. They were moving at breakneck speed, and as Tony looked around for some means of escape, he saw where they were headed and his blood ran cold.

As he and Stane plunged into the lake in the center of the cemetery, their heavy armor dragging them down to the bottom, Tony could think of only one thing.



Author’s Note: The epitaph on Pepper’s grave, chosen by Tony after her death, is from a poem by Francoise Sagan. She probably had her own funeral planned out, but he overruled her plan (and her husband’s) in favor of his own.

The epitaph on Tony’s grave, chosen by Pepper and outlined in his Emergency Funeral Preparation Plan file, is a quote by Chuck Palahniuk