OK, I've struggled with this chapter. I have to get some plot stuff out of the way. And it doesn't help that Rhodey and Pepper don't really have a scene together in the movie so it was really hard for me to figure out how they'd interact. But I wanted to get this chapter out there because I know so many of you have been waiting for it. I hope it isn't too bad.
It had been two weeks since she had talked to Rhodey, when he'd called and told her, in that emotionless military voice, that there had been an incident. An incident. The fact that he was able to report the kidnapping of his best friend by calling it an incident had chilled Pepper's blood. At least at first. But since that first phone call, Jim Rhodes had dedicated all his time to supervising the search for Tony Stark. She received multiple email updates each day from him that came around the clock which showed that he wasn't sleeping anymore. When Pepper would see him on television he looked thin, which probably meant he was skipping meals also.
Men were strange animals, she thought while she impaled the olive nestled in the bottom of her martini glass. Rhodey would have never dared say that he missed Tony, but he would gladly run himself ragged to try and bring his friend home. That was the thing that was so attractive and infuriating about the entire gender; they showed their true feelings through actions instead of words.
She motioned to the bartender for another drink before looking at her watch. "I know I'm late," she heard a voice say behind her, "But now that you're filling in for Tony, I figured you'd have adopted his tardiness."
Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes sat in the bar stool next to hers and then let the silence of the moment wash over them. The absence they had both been feeling independently was only magnified by their meeting. "You know," he said, thinking aloud, "I don't think you and I have ever been together without…"
Pepper nodded. He didn't need to finish the sentence. While Pepper had logged in plenty of time hanging out with Hogan while accompanying their boss, she hadn't ever traveled with Tony and Rhodey. It wasn't because she didn't like the handsome military man. In fact, her distance was based on her deep respect for him. Pepper knew that he was the only other person who was able to keep Mr. Stark out of trouble. The time that the two men spent together was time that she could have to herself, without having to worry about any late night emergency phone calls.
At least that was true up until two weeks ago.
"It's not your fault," she said softly, placing her hand on his shoulder.
"Then why do I feel so guilty? If I had just been there with him…"
"Don't start that game." Pepper insisted. She was halfway through her third martini, just drunk enough to be unflinchingly honest. "If I hadn't been in such a hurry to get him on that plane so I could have my birthday in peace… if I had let him stay in his workshop tinkering until he was ready… maybe they would have attacked someone else's convoy. Maybe he'd be here, telling us the story about how his aversion to punctuality saved his life."
Uncomfortable silence hung in the air while they each nursed their drinks. Her alcohol consumption had gone up dramatically since Tony's disappearance, which would have amused him greatly. It was just that drinking was the only way to silence the constant concerns in her brain. It was unbelievable how much work it took to be Tony Stark, and having to deal with hundreds of daily decisions from what types of screws to buy to deciding the fate of entire companies. While Obadiah was still the interim President of Stark, Pepper still needed to vote on the issues before the board as Tony's proxy.
Then there was the larger problem, that there was no sign of Tony being alive. While she still clung to her belief that he was alive, like a drowning man clings to a life preserver, it was getting harder and harder to keep hanging on. The drinks managed to silence the annoying voice of reason in her head that was sure that he was gone.
"So," she said, finally talking, "Why don't we get down to the bad news."
Rhodey fiddled with his empty glass, refusing to make eye contact. "Why do you assume that it's bad news?"
"Because, you've spent every waking hour for the last 2 weeks in Afghanistan leading the search mission. The fact that you're here, alone, doesn't bode well. You're giving up, aren't you?"
"I'm not," he said, "But the military is ready to call off the search. They're having trouble justifying the continued expense. Luckily, I've convinced them that Tony Stark's mind holds enough national security secrets to justify another fortnight of looking."
For once, Pepper was glad that Tony Stark was the mastermind of military hardware. She had never been totally comfortable with Stark Industries weapon's business since she was, as Tony liked to call her, "a liberal peace loving hippie who didn't even have the benefit of being into free love."
He would give her the speeches, about how the military work just paid for the more humanitarian work and that only through the development of weapons could they create a more peaceful world. She'd listen to the well rehearsed monologues and then deliver a polite golf clap. "You aren't going to give me the pick up line," she said, as if wounded.
"What pick up line?"
"The one where you suggest that I come to personally watch how peacefully you sleep at night."
He'd shrug, that boyish grin large on his face. "Miss Potts, you know that whenever you want to see how I function in bed you only need to ask."
"I just don't know how you can do it? How can you use that mind of yours to kill people?"
His childish attitude slid away and he suddenly seemed much older and more serious. "I don't think about it, honestly. I'm an engineer. I solve problems. I don't much think about what those problems mean. Maybe the problem is getting an electron to break its bonding. Maybe it's finding a way to make a fossil fuel more clean burning. Maybe it's trying to hurt as many people as possible. I just focus on finding the answer. I'll let the philosophers worry about the details."
Once, following his acceptance of an award for the Stark Industries next generation landmines, Tony asked Pepper why she worked for him. "You should be out on the sidewalk with those protestors," he said, his words starting to slur, "but you're in this limo with me, and I can't figure out why."
"You know how much I hate job hunting," she said quickly, giving him a smile to show she was joking. The truth was, she didn't know why she worked for him. She hated the way he made his fortune. She hated the way he spent his fortune. But she stayed around, maybe just to see what would happen next.
She let those memories slide away as she finished another martini. "What happens after the two weeks?"
Rhodey leaned in towards her. "Actually, that's up to you."
"The military has been jumping at the chance to try out the new Stark Industries satellite software. So, if you can convince Stane to let us use it, I can convince them that finding Tony would be a great test case for it."
Pepper looked thoughtfully at him, as if seeing Rhodey for the first time. "This is extortion."
She pulled away from him and came to her feet ungracefully. She couldn't tell if her dizziness was from her anger or her drunkenness, but it was making it hard for her to express the rage welling up inside. "You say you're Tony's friend. But when push comes to shove, it comes out that you're only going to look for him if you get a new toy to play with. Go to hell, James."
As she tried to walk out of the bar her high heel slipped and she almost fell over. Rhodey was behind her, holding her up carefully. Keeping his hand on her arm, he led her outside where Hogan was waiting with the car. He helped her in and then, unexpectedly, slid next to her.
"Get out," she said, slurring her words.
"I'm not leaving until I'm sure you're home and safe." It was clear that he wasn't going to give in, so she relented. Her head felt heavy now, like she had rocks on top of her head. Leaning back, she closed her eyes and listened to the soft hum of the engine.
"You're right," Rhodey said in a voice so soft she thought she'd dreamt it. "But you have to know that it isn't me. It's my bosses. I've had to fly most of the reconnaissance flights myself because they keep cutting my manpower."
Opening her clear blue eyes, she stared at him seeing how broken he looked. "Fine," she relented, "I'll see what I can do."