A/N: Well, folks, it looks like we are nearing the end of what has been (for me) an incredibly intense, yet highly enjoyable trip. Thank you all of the amazing reviews I received from Kadigan, Tiresius69, Super Chocolate Bear, the 85th Writer, Nami Star, Kitty2399, dulce-melos, amonitrate, rebirthfry, Don Juanita Triumphant (highly entertaining name, by the way), La Phoenix, and 4persephone. It's been a pleasure writing for you guys and I hope sincerely you enjoyed this as much as I did.
As to continuations/other side stories? I don't think I could do it. 2nd person narrative is a quirky bird as it is, and I've learned from my own experiences that it's good in small, selective doses. Maybe if my muse becomes less ficky, or if I really come up with a good story will I continue something else, but for now, I have to say this probably looks like the end. Thank you for your support throughout the five chapters.
Hope you enjoy. :)
Five minutes early and he has a box with him.
You are suspicious, returning from down the hall with a cup of brackish (and bless Sophie's heart, the intern tries her best) coffee simmering in white Styrofoam. The bodyguards are not-so-discreetly stuffed into a corner of the corridor.
When Stark sees you, he pretends he wasn't idly puffing his cheeks out at the security camera and makes an about-face, raising his eyebrows in greeting.
You pause. Regard him carefully.
"Should I be worried?" you ask him, looking pointedly at the box.
He smiles, and it's genuine. "No, Doc. Nothing that will bite you."
"Uh-huh," Still disbelieving, you open the door, move to the side to let him in and then follow. Stark is already violently ripping into the box (an ugly, beat-up cardboard UHAUL thing and yes, you are very intrigued as to what the hell is going on right now).
By the time you sit down in your chair, there's a chess board resting on his lap.
You blink at the board, purse your lips and try to think of what is the appropriate response.
"Chess." you finally say.
He nods, still digging around in the box for chess pieces and setting them awkwardly on the couch. The black knight's nose instantly nudges the leather, the rook tilts to its side and the white queen topples completely, slowly rolling towards the edge of the cushion and the floor.
You sit wordlessly for a moment, watching the entire spectacle of Anthony Stark groping around a box, cursing softly and snatching at chess pieces before they fall to the floor. When all the pieces are out and Stark throws the box to the side of the couch, you begin to nod slowly and, yet again, attempt the proper reaction. Your mouth opens, and the voice box, accordion like, squeezes air.
"You want to play chess."
"Yup." and he actually seems like he's in an honestly good mood as he lunges abruptly across the couch to grab an errant pawn.
You swallow, shift in the chair
"Mr. Stark, I hope you're aware of who you're facing off against."
He carefully puts the pawn in the middle of the cushion next to him and looks up. A glitter of amusement lights in his eyes. "A secret chess master?"
"No. A man who regularly gets his butt kicked by his grandchildren."
He smiles, amusement growing.
"I'm probably the age of one of your kids," he notes. "Would that be as humiliating?"
"You have an IQ that surpasses more than half of the combined population of Los Angeles. This defeat would be incredibly embarrassing."
The smile has evolved into a full-on grin as he gingerly moves the chess board off his lap and walks with it towards the coffee table between you, setting the flimsy plastic thing down with a clap on highly polished surface. You pause as you watch the transporting of the chess pieces begin again, this time moving from the cushion to the coffee table. He arranges his side, then yours, but as he does so, he speaks.
"I'm not trying to avoid talking today," he says, and as quickly as the grin is present it's gone, replaced with a serious look when he glances towards you. "But I thought we'd try something different since this is the last time you'll probably ever see me."
"Outside of the newspaper and television?"
The smile he gives is a small and quietly sad one.
"Well..." and you tilt your head to the side. Stark freezes in the middle of lining up the pawn defense, watching.
You shrug. "Fine with me."
The smile turns itself back on, and more quickly than before he sets up your pieces and begins looking around the room for something low to sit on.
"Behind you, next to the door," you tell him, pointing towards the ottoman. As he goes to get it, you hunt around for the small stool/chair thing you have hiding next to the bookshelf and the peace lily and carry it to the coffee table. Stark is already back, fidgeting with an expectant look on his face as you plunk the chair down.
You sit, and the chair groans.
He raises an eyebrow, and in response you look over the bridge of your glasses.
"Anything you want to say?"
He shakes his head, partially hiding the smirk. "Nope."
A long pause. You survey the board for a moment, nodding carefully as you familiarize yourself with a terrain you haven't treaded in a long time.
Here's the secret: you let your grandchildren beat you. And for all the times you peg Anthony Stark as being absent-minded, you know damn well the man is probably fully aware of the facts and isn't falling for your "old, doddering fool" act.
You're actually quite good at chess. It was something you picked up from your father, and he picked up from the father before him. The family wasn't quite full of prodigies, but it had a plethora of alert, surprisingly strategic people who knew their way around a chess board. More frequently than not, you won many of the tournaments you signed up for throughout the childhood and college years.
The Wife jokes that before you met her, the tournament trophies were really the only ego-boosters you had. You kindly ignore her when she makes such statements.
Stark clears his throat. You move your focus from the chess pieces.
"So who starts?" you ask.
His eyes narrow briefly in suspicion, but within seconds the look is gone.
"Black goes first."
You look at the setup for a moment, try to stifle a smile.
"We don't have a timer," you say.
Stark rolls his eyes. "This is primitive, normal-people chess, Doc." He takes initiative, nudging one of the pawns on the right corner of his assembly forward. "I have a feeling you're just trying to postpone the inevitable."
"Umm..." yet again you're scanning the board, trying to figure out how long you can survive against the man with an IQ far above the 140 range. You pull out the left knight and wait. "That might be true."
He shakes his head, smiles as he scoots a rook forward. "I'm not falling for your ploy, Doc."
"No ploy. I am regularly served by my youngsters and great youngsters."
He seems exasperated as he glances up. "Every adult allows themselves to be beaten by their kids. This is the rule of being a grown-up."
Mildly shocked, you move the pawn to D3.
"Would you know this personally?"
A finger rests thoughtfully on the bishop before he flicks a finger at his first pawn.
"No," he says. "But when I was a kid, my father made it clear that when I played games with my younger cousins, I had to play nice. 'They're not like you, Tony,' he'd say. 'They're little and they just want to know what it's like to win.'" He makes a face. "The concept was difficult for me to get my head around for the longest time."
Stark pauses, waits as you make your move.
"It really sucked being a kid," he says, propping up a hand and resting his chin.
Stark takes your knight before continuing.
"Just being alone, I guess. I couldn't play with anyone my age because all they wanted to do was play with Tonka trucks and Hot Wheels and shit. There was one time – " he winces when you casually swipe a pawn "– when I was eight, and I tried talking to this nine-year old about school. She gave me the blankest look I've seen in my life and told me I was weird. Little bit of an ego deflater, even when you're an eight-year old prodigy."
"And the high schoolers?"
He shoots you an irritated look before somehow pulling the queen out from backstage.
"Teenagers find that really-smart little kid thing freaky as shit." he grumbles. "They're nice to you, sure, but in reality you frighten them more than anything else. Think about it: senior class of fucking '77 and there's this eight-year old sitting in on the Advanced Calculus class."
You slide the bishop up front and Stark stops for a moment, eyes flickering over the board.
"It was weird," he says, and that omnipotent queen is slowly but surely sauntering to the battlefield. "I hated it."
"And your father?"
Something resembling distaste flutters over his face.
"Dad told me to suck-up and deal with it. I had – " a hand lifts up to make quotation marks "– a 'responsibility' to do the best that I could, not only for myself and the family, but for the world."
It takes a lot of restraint on your part not to show any disgust towards the statement and callousness of the parent. Genius or no genius, there are some obligations that no child should be told they must fulfill. Childhood is still childhood, in one degree or another.
"That's a lot on the shoulders of one kid," you carefully observe, and start netting defense to brace for the queen.
The anger grows, undisguised.
"Yeah," he says. "I didn't too well with it at the time, either." Another pawn falls to the queen's devastation and you try to retreat, strengthen the hole in your left flank.
"My mom was always nice, though." he says, and suddenly the queen is suspiciously still. You notice Stark's eyes obliquely wavering towards the left bishop and make a note.
Eyes get faraway. Stark distantly starts to smile.
"We'd cook. She'd take me to the zoo and put-put and arcades. When Pac-Man came out, I really sucked and it was freakish because my mom was an ultimate master at it. She'd always get these amazing scores and act like it was no big deal."
"I mean, I had fun with my dad sometimes, too – in the summer we'd go to Los Alamos and on the Fourth of July, my father and I would sneak out around eight to go mess with fireworks. There was this salt-flat thing ten miles out of town and we'd stock up on all the illegal, dangerous and explosive fireworks we could find and set them off. Sometimes we'd make our own, too."
He was thinking of the bishop, and now he shuffles it forward.
"Otherwise, though, my dad and I always –" he raises two fists and knock them against each other, signifying "clashed." The knuckles clack, hollowly.
"That is unfortunate," you say, and try not to take satisfaction in the quick demise of Stark's bishop.
He nods, pauses, and then cocks his head to the side.
"What about you?"
Odd turn of events. It makes you nervous and you don't want to talk about the relationship between you and your son. It's not bad, but it's not what should be the focus of discussion.
But Stark is looking at you with that mix of curiosity and barely-veiled vulnerability. The man has told you something not many – if any – people have heard, and he wants you to acknowledge that.
You bite you lip for a minute, slide your last knight away from the threat of a lowly pawn.
"Jason has always been a good kid," you say. "Considerate, smart, sometimes a little misguided, but always a good person."
He hears something in the 'misguided' and smirks.
You scratch beneath your eye, wrinkle your nose.
"I busted him a few times in high school for trying marijuana. He'd come home smelling like a weed-factory and for some reason expect me to have no olfactory senses, whatsoever."
"He try alcohol?"
You think about that for a minute, shake your head.
"He probably did once or twice, but he had a really good friend die in a DUI incident junior year, and I think that slapped him straight."
Stark nods like he understands your story, but there is confusion written in the slight frown on his face.
It occurs to you that Anthony Stark, being an eight-year old in high school, never quite grew up and had the same rites of passage as his classmates. Too young to drink, too young to be spoken to about drugs, cliques, sex and jobs, he was lost – an old brain in a young body that no one really wanted to communicate with out of fear of being awkward and inappropriate. So when you talk to him about the average teenager's life, he can't understand it. Sure, he was a playboy once he turned twenty-one, but he's lost the valuable lessons most teenagers learn in the high school years.
You don't try explaining any further to him. It would only seem condescending to him and rude to you.
So you both are quiet. Silence rests on the board for a minute, interrupted only by the whispering sound of the felt undersides sliding over squares.
Stark wipes out a pawn and taps the murdered piece thoughtfully against the edge of the board.
"MIT wasn't too terrible." he says.
You raise an eyebrow.
He nods, then winces as you inch towards his leading bishop.
"There were a few uber-children there, around my age, and just as absurdly smart." His eyes glitter with amusement as he dances his bishop away from your grasp and continues talking. "We were still the abnormal egg-heads on the block, but since the group of us only had an age difference of two or three years, we all understood each other pretty well. Besides –" and as you're getting ready to pursue his bishop you see the trap and carefully back off, "– MIT is geek nirvana."
He's disappointed you're not taking the bait, instead nudging your rook out.
"You'll have to elaborate," you tell him.
He pauses, considers your move. A moment later, his queen bows out and thoughtfully retreats.
"There are cliques in MIT," Stark begins, "but for the most part everyone there is there because they love being geeks and nerds. They love math. They love science. They love blowing shit up and building stuff from scrap.
"Geeks (and nerds) connect over their love of geeky things," he continues. "Age doesn't matter. Looks don't matter. We just want to talk with each other about common interests."
You can't help it. He's leaving himself wide open for attack.
"Nerd love?" you ask, and yes, you are smirking.
His smile is wry but honest. "Yes, Doc. Nerd love. The best love education can buy."
You laugh at this. A short, evanescent sound that almost vanishes into the AC vent above the coffee table. Stark hears it, is surprised but pleased by it and the smile on his face grows wider.
"You laughed, good Doctor. This is a first."
You roll your eyes, point at the board.
"I want my knight back," you say.
Startled, Stark glances down.
A white pawn is nestled into a corner of his side of the playing field, disguised cleverly among the black beasts.
He blinks at it. Examines the move with his head titled to the right, then the left.
A pause. Appreciative nod.
"You're a clever old bastard, Doc." He still hasn't made a move to give a knight back to you.
You make a 'gimme' motion with an outstretched left hand. "The compliment is nice, Mr. Stark, but I want my knight back."
Grudgingly, he picks it up. "You're pushy, too."
You have to try hard not to look smug.
"It comes with being old," you inform him as you gingerly place the knight in position. "We geezers hone the craft of being aggressive."
He laughs this time, and, like yours, it is a quick bark of noise that vanishes into the hum of the AC.
The game continues, but instead of the stretched, nervous silence that has plagued your last four sessions, the quiet here is comfortable. Friendly. He curses lightly under his breath when you circle the king and, for a brief period of two minutes, have the noose around his neck. You grumble when he finally worms his way out of the trap, starts backtracking towards your own barricade and king.
He promotes two pawns into the bishop and knight you slaughtered earlier. Takes a pawn as an underpromotion just to spite you.
And then Anthony Stark glances up at the clock hanging over the doorway, and the light grin that's been gracing his lips the entire game vanishes.
You're stalking his queen, remain partially distracted. "Hmm?"
The queen turns, snarls. Eats the prowler pawn and spits it out contemptuously on the side of the board.
"Any last words?"
The question jolts you out of the lazy concentration you've had on the board and brings you back to the office, the client and the clock that tells you that only fifteen minutes are left.
And suddenly, you're disappointed. Actually unhappy that this is ending.
Both of you play wordlessly for five minutes before you clear your throat. An index finger resting on a rook freezes as Stark looks up.
"Despite what you believe is holding you back," you say, "you have the ability to go anywhere and do anything. It's cliched garbage, I know, but it's truth."
You're not paying attention; your knight stumbles into a ambush.
"You will make mistakes, Mr. Stark." You glance up from the board and stare at him. "You're not a playboy anymore, and this is the beginning of a life where you will have victories and losses."
He ignores the fact you've fallen into a net and instead pushes a pawn towards your king – killing time.
"The world isn't going to let you screw around," you say seriously, still thoughtful and stalling, just like him, with a pathetic jump by the knight. "You've taken a mantle that requires an enormous responsibility and you must understand what that means."
He looks unnerved by this, more frightened than enlightened.
You're not done.
"This doesn't mean you can't do it," you say, moving your gaze away from the playing field again. "This doesn't mean that you're going to fail and fall and never get up again.
"It only means that you will make mistakes. That you won't be perfect or the best or even loved by the public."
The chess board is frozen in time and place. You continue speaking.
"By telling the world who you are, you've created something larger than yourself. Whether they believe you or not, they've seen something so huge, so different that they will be frightened.
"Accept this as the way humans are." You scoot a pawn forward, and yes, you are going towards that queen again. "Scared of what they don't understand and what they can't comprehend. Do not hate them for it. Do not fear them for it. Do the best you can do and hope and pray that that will change something."
His eyes are clear, but something resembling awe is slowly leaking at the corners.
"Your life is front of you, Mr. Stark." You stare at him fully now, straightening your back and folding your hands. "It will not be a straight road or even a clear one, but it will be there for you to pursue. Do it. Run with it. Acknowledge repercussions and conclusions but do not let them deter you. You were given a second chance. A third chance. Maybe even a forth chance. These are things you must accept gratefully and make the most of."
You stop. Sigh and bite the inside of your cheek.
The clock ticks, never ending.
"That's all I can tell you," you conclude, nodding slowly. "That's it."
Stark stares at you openly for a minute before he ricochets off, scanning the bookshelf, the desk, the peace lily, the chess board, the window.
A hand swipes across his eyes as he coughs and then his gaze stabilizes. Makes contact with you again.
"Checkmate, Doc." The tremor in his voice is faint.
You are surprised, and you smile softly, looking down at the board and the final trap that ensnared you.
It was a good one. A thoughtful creation that kept you thinking you had the upper hand for the longest time before making you realize that you were merely in the center of his palm, waiting to be crushed.
It was an excellent move. Much better than anything you could've done by trying to postpone the inevitable defeat and seeing how long you could last.
"Good job," you tell him finally, nodding.
The smile on his face is quiet, almost painful.
"Thank you, Doc."
"You're welcome, Mr. Stark."
After that, you help him put chess pieces back in that crappy box. You don't ask questions about why it is such a shoddy containment unit but he explains that this is a chess set he's had since he was thirteen – one he brought with him to camps and, finally, college. The weird, midget UHAUL box, well, it was the only thing he could find in his garage that could work, and he reasoned you wouldn't care too much.
You tell him he's basically right.
The final exchange is awkward and unpleasant for both of you. You both try to make it short and succinct, shaking hands and blinking away whatever's hiding behind your eyes, but it is difficult.
You hold the door for him when he leaves, and wave at him and the bodyguards as they slowly amble towards a corner.
He waves back.
Five years later, a heart attack kills you in your sleep; something so fast and brutal that your body only arches up briefly in bed with a gasp before you slump.
You'd be unhappy to know that the Wife didn't take it very well; it was only three weeks and you were going to be flying to Berlin for your anniversary.
But Jason comes the funeral. Jason and his kids and your brothers and sisters and the Wife's brothers and sisters.
Other people come, too – many of them, including over one hundred of your old clients and some neighbors and even the ex-intern Sophie and your old business partner.
Anthony Stark is there, but you don't know this – ashes in an urn that are about to be released into the ocean miles away from the filth of Los Angeles. He stands in a far corner of the procession with Pepper Potts close by and sunglasses on. Black suit. The only bodyguard is "Happy" Harold Hogan, who doesn't know you personally but shifts uncomfortably during the last words by your friends, family. Hogan has never liked funerals – most people don't enjoy them in the first place, but Harold Hogan, like Pepper Potts and Anthony Stark, has lost a lot of things in the never-ending assembly line from life to death.
Stark is more serious than from when you last saw him – the previous five years of his newfound responsibility have aged the man more than you'd ever like to know. He jokes still. Dorks around, casually flirts with Pepper Potts (though they have been having some actual, no-joke dates the past few months) and periodically asks Hogan if he wants to race cars or something.
But he is tired – the world is a menacing place and the road has not been easy for him.
After you sail up in the air – dust of a sixty-seven year-old man borne to the wind, the rain and the ocean – he approaches your wife and your son.
They both recognize him. He tells them as sincerely as possible how he knew you, how you helped him.
He hugs the Wife. Shakes the hand of your son tightly and nods to the somber relatives flanking the two.
And then Anthony Stark walks off, Pepper Potts and Harold "Happy" Hogan in tow.
He is silent on the way back to his house.