10. "Rise and shine, people, the cavalry is here!"
Even though Rhodey, Pepper and House teamed up to insist that Tony should rest at least a moment after his close call, nothing they said could force him to stay put.
"Sorry, guys, but I'm not sick, Pepper and House are, and we're still lost in the middle of nowhere. We need to get moving," Tony said, and stood up, swaying only slightly.
Naturally, he offered his arm to Pepper, so Rhodey was stuck supporting House. Rhodey was also still wearing the War Machine armor, which was nothing but a useless weight now that Tony had its power source. Rhodey suggested he could hand over the armor to Tony, or abandon it altogether, but Tony shot down both ideas. He'd left his damaged armor lying on the ground, and discarding an intact one to go with it would be incredibly careless. As for Tony wearing the suit instead, he noted that if there was any of the metal-eating stuff on him, it might spread. Even though he didn't say it aloud, Rhodey also got it from that that Tony might still not be out of danger. All they could do was hope for the best.
So, Rhodey had to drag along both a constantly grumbling House and the extremely cumbersome armor. Together with a nasty headache that refused to go away, he didn't exactly enjoy the situation, but compared to everyone else in the group, he'd had it easy, so he wasn't going to complain. Mostly because of him, they were moving at a snail's pace, and the trip across the valley seemed to last forever. Soon, both House and Pepper were so exhausted that Rhodey and Tony were half-carrying them.
By the time they reached the edge of the small village, the sky had begun to lighten. Rhodey could make out a dozen houses or huts of different sizes, grouped to the right of the dirt road. As the four of them approached the nearest building, they were greeted by two anxiously barking dogs, which forced them to stop on their tracks.
Rhodey glanced at the others and couldn't help grinning. House was standing on one foot, with all his weight resting on Rhodey, wearing a pained frown. Pepper's head was on Tony's shoulder, and he had his arm protectively around her. Her face looked white in the early morning light, her eyes sunken. Despite his earlier reassurances that he was fine now, Tony looked paler than usual as well. After all they'd been through, being held back by a few dogs felt nothing short of ridiculous.
A man emerged from the nearest hut, and walked over to see what had set the dogs in a rage. The utterly bewildered expression on his face made Rhodey's grin even wider. He looked like the stereotype of a Chinese farmer from some old movie, all he lacked was the rice hat.
The villager said a few stern words, which of course Rhodey couldn't understand. To his surprise, House answered in a language that at least sounded similar. The man frowned at House, and walked away, leaving the dogs to guard the four of them.
"You speak Chinese?" Rhodey asked House.
"No, I'm spouting random gibberish, just for fun," House sneered. "Anyway, it might not do us much good. I only know one variety - and it's not the right one."
The man returned a moment later, accompanied by an old woman, who addressed them in a hesitant voice.
House frowned as he translated it. "She wants to know if the mandarin sent us."
"What's a mandarin?" Pepper asked.
"Aside from the name of the language we're speaking, it's among other things a fruit, a duck, and an ancient Chinese bureaucrat," House answered them, and then said a few words in Chinese to the woman.
She seemed content with his reply - Rhodey assumed it had been "no". The man called away the dogs, and the two of them motioned at the village and began leading the four foreigners deeper into it.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
The friendly locals took the four of them to a hut, where the old woman brought a few straw mattresses. Pepper landed heavily on one of them, incredibly relieved to be finally able to get horizontal. She had never been this exhausted in her entire life. Tony sat down next to her, brushing off stray locks from her forehead.
"You said it yourself, Pepper: we're all going to make it. Everything's going to be all right. You can rest now, we're safe, we're not in a hurry anymore," he said softly. She didn't think she'd ever heard him sound this gentle, his voice so completely devoid of wit and irony.
She knew they really, really needed to talk, but she was so very tired that she couldn't even keep her eyes open anymore, let alone start a serious conversation.
"I need to go and take care of the Iron Man armor, I can't just leave it lying around. By now, I think I can be pretty sure that there's none of the nano-stuff left on me, so I'm going to borrow Rhodey's suit," Tony said, caressing her hair soothingly. "Won't take long. I'll be back before you know it."
She forced her heavy eyelids apart. Both her gaze and her hand sought out the light of the arc reactor on his chest. The metal felt smooth under her fingers, solid, just the way it should be. "Tony, please be careful," she told him.
He took hold of her fingers and lifted her hand closer to his face, to kiss it lightly. "Don't worry, I've had enough excitement for one day. Good night, Miss Potts."
She smirked. That sounded more like his usual style - it was beyond her ability to explain how he could say her name so that it was entirely official, teasing, and tender at the same time.
"Good night, Mr. Stark," she answered. He walked away on tiptoe.
She was mildly surprised that House didn't comment on their exchange at all, but considering how loudly he was snoring, he had probably fallen asleep already. She quickly followed suit.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Tony had never been a nostalgic, but still, he loved his toys dearly, and blasting apart the remains of his latest armor was nothing short of painful. He didn't even land to do it, simply took the War Machine suit close enough that he could get a decent shot, and fired the repulsors at the red-and-gold fragments until there was nothing left but a smoldering clump. That would stop anyone from getting any data from it, and hopefully also kill the nano-bug.
They'd kept the most dangerous, most secret part of his suit, the old arc reactor, with them all the time. It was at the village now, by Pepper's bed, wrapped tightly in several layers of oilcloth. During their trip across the valley, Tony had needed a lot of restraint not to poke neurotically at the new reactor all the time, to make sure it was still unharmed. Even though Liu's mysterious metal-eating bug didn't seem to spread by touch, there was no need to take unnecessary risks. Now, Tony was finally starting to believe that he was out of the woods. He needed to take the damaged arc reactor home to figure out how the bug worked, so he could protect himself from anything like this happening again.
Getting home was the next big thing on his list. He couldn't carry everyone with one suit, and the only other means of transportation at hand were ox-drawn carts. He'd rather take something faster, if he could arrange it.
Once Tony had gotten back to the village and out of the suit with Rhodey's help, he grabbed the helmet, and opened the panel in its side to reveal most of the communications tech. It was a complete mess. No way he could make any of it work without some spare parts.
He couldn't help but feel slightly cruel as he stepped into their hut to wake House up. After all, it was Tony's fault that House had been kidnapped in the first place, and he had probably had the hardest time of them all, what with his bad leg and Vicodin habit. Of course, Tony's freak lapse into empathy towards House only lasted until the doctor woke up and opened his mouth.
"One would think a genius of your caliber could come up with enough sign language to achieve something as simple as this," House commented, as Tony explained what he needed. Nevertheless, he did what Tony had asked, and talked to the old local woman who was something like their hostess. She left, and he went back to sleep.
A few minutes later, she returned with a haphazard collection of tools, a positively ancient radio, and a slightly newer cell phone. "I hope House told you I'll pay for what I use," Tony said. She stared at him, not understanding a single word. Since she didn't start complaining when he sat down in front of the hut and began taking the things apart, he figured out it was all right.
With a bit of creativity, Tony soon had the suit's radio in working order again, with improvised manual controls added.
"You might want to check out S.H.I.E.L.D.'s frequencies," Rhodey suggested.
"Huh, why would I do that? They refused to help us, they're supposed to be at home, sitting on their asses, not giving a damn."
"Just a hunch."
Tony shrugged. It was as good an idea as any - he'd been going to contact the crew of his jet first, but it was a fact that his staff had no quick, easy way to get them out of here. He adjusted the frequency, and the moment he reached the one he'd been looking for, the radio crackled to life.
"Iron Man, War Machine, this is Sitwell, if you can hear me, please respond!"
When Tony didn't answer it, Rhodey reached for the transmit button. "Sitwell, this is War Machine, we copy. We're all here, and we're safe. Over."
"War Machine, that's great news! We've got your position and we're on our way."
Tony glared at Rhodey, feeling more vexed than happy about this turn of events. "What the hell are they doing here, and how did you know about it? Is there something you haven't been telling me?"
Rhodey grimaced. "I honestly didn't know they were here and looking for us. I did know Fury was worried you'd do something irrational, he even asked me to keep an eye on you, so I suspected he might have someone nearby. But Tony," Rhodey held out a hand, forefinger raised, to keep him from interrupting. "Before you start chewing me out for not mentioning this to you, how about you consider the stuff you didn't tell me. The EMP ring a bell?"
"That was differ-"
"Yeah, it was definitely different - it was worse. It jeopardized the entire operation," Rhodey said sharply. "You can't withhold important tactical information from your team like that. That's no way to protect your friends, it's the exact opposite!"
"Damn it, Rhodey, you were spying on me!" Tony shouted, ignoring Rhodey's accusations.
"I was not spying on you, I was asked to prevent you from starting a war with all of China, which is something I would've done anyway. You, on the other hand, almost got us all killed because we didn't plan the EMP strike properly!"
"You would never have let me do it if you'd known how risky it was - and I didn't even want you here in the first place, you forced me to take you with me!"
"Oh yeah, I did, and don't expect me to regret it! If I hadn't been around, you'd be dead now. Tony, you need to start trusting the people around you again. Not everyone is like Obadiah Stane."
Tony could see it on Rhodey's face the moment he'd said the last two words that he was afraid he'd stepped out of line. Sure, that name felt like a slap in the face, and Tony's first idea was to stand up and walk out of the conversation, but he stayed, and considered it.
The truth was, Rhodey was right. In addition to his need to protect his friends, Tony still felt like he could never be entirely certain about them, not even people as close to him as Rhodey or Happy. Pepper was probably the only exception to that rule. That was why he felt so hurt that Rhodey hadn't told him about Fury. Maybe, just maybe, that was also a part of why he'd kept his plan to himself. And no matter what Tony's exact, deep-down motivations might have been, Rhodey was right. Tony had been stupid not to tell him about the EMP.
He held out his hand. "So, you didn't tell me, I didn't tell you. Let's just say we're even, shall we?"
Rhodey contemplated him for a while before accepting it. "I won't say what you did was all right, I'll say I let it go this time. There'd better not be a next time," he declared, and shook Tony's hand.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Pepper woke up to Rhodey shouting "Rise and shine, people, the cavalry is here!"
She squinted drowsily at his grinning face. She could hear the familiar noise of a helicopter, so loud that it had to be quite near. A moment later, Tony entered the hut with a young man she didn't think she had met before. He was quick to introduce himself: "Special Agent Sitwell, S.H.I.E.L.D. Glad to see you're all right, Miss Potts."
House was awake, too, and had sat up in his bed. Sitwell turned towards him. "Oh, and you must be Doctor House!" He spent a moment rummaging the numerous pockets of his tactical vest, and finally produced a pill bottle, which he tossed to House. "Your friend Wilson says 'hi'."
House caught the bottle, checked the label and grinned - an expression so happy that Pepper had never seen anything like it on his face. "I just love that man," he said. He popped the lid open and dry swallowed a pill right away.
"Come on, the chopper's waiting to take us to the airport." Sitwell motioned towards the door.
Once again leaning heavily on Tony, Pepper followed the others to the waiting helicopter. Feeling like she was still dreaming, she stared out of the window as the village grew smaller and smaller below them. Soon, they were out of the valley altogether. With each passing minute, they were putting more distance between themselves and Liu's stronghold. They were actually, finally on their way home. It was something so amazing that she still couldn't quite grasp it. She drifted to sleep with her forehead resting against the transparent plastic.
The next time she came to was to Tony shaking her shoulder ever so gently. "Come on, time to change rides, sleeping beauty. That's an exact, literal description, by the way - except for the part where I'd need to kiss you to wake you, because, well, I'd love to, but I'm not entirely sure it would be a good idea."
She blinked at him, confused, but took his hand when he offered it to her and let him lead her out of the helicopter, across a stretch of tarmac to a plane. It wasn't his private jet, but a larger one, probably S.H.I.E.L.D.'s. There were quite a few people inside it, none of whom were introduced to her, and Tony and Sitwell and Rhodey had several conversations, which she didn't quite follow - among other things, they were making flight plans and discussing what had happened. House was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, Pepper was guided to a gurney. She fell asleep almost the minute her head hit the pillow.
When she came around again, it was without any apparent reason. Maybe it was because she had finally rested enough. At least she felt a lot less tired.
Once she had opened her eyes, for a minute or two she was convinced she was in the hospital. She was hooked up to an IV and a heart monitor, there was a blood pressure cuff around her arm and those extra oxygen tube things in her nostrils. After a while, she figured out that she was actually still in the plane.
Tony was sitting by her bedside, nodding off. His arm rested right next to hers, not quite touching it.
She grasped his hand, and his head snapped up instantly.
"Hey," he said, smiling at her. "Feeling better?"
"Yeah," she replied, and returned his smile. "This seems a bit unnecessary," she gestured at the medical paraphernalia around her.
He shrugged. "Well, safety measures, you know. They were worried, I was worried. You have been pretty sick, after all. The S.H.I.E.L.D. medics had a hard time believing us when we told them how active you and House were through the entire operation. But you're getting better, and they said that if there aren't any dramatic changes, there's no need for you to go to a hospital once we're home."
"What about you?" Pepper asked, glancing at his chest, but he was now wearing a loose black t-shirt, which was thick enough to cover his arc reactor completely.
"Me?" Tony frowned, actually looking surprised at the question. "I'm the only one of us four who's completely healthy - well, as healthy as I'll ever be, anyway. Rhodey got himself a concussion. Not nearly as dramatic as your nanovirus, but they prescribed him the same as you: lots of rest."
"But you need to have them take a look at you, too, just to be sure!" She gave his hand a squeeze.
He brought his other hand to cover hers, clasping it reassuringly between both his hands. "I already did, and I'm not about to drop dead at random. You can stop worrying about me and concentrate on getting better yourself. Take as much time as you need - a month off, or two, if you feel like it."
Those words somehow finally made her truly, concretely realize that they were going home. That this incident, or whatever she should call it, was all over, and things would be returning back to normal. It was an extremely strange idea.
The thought of a month-long convalescence, of sitting at home, alone, with occasional visits from friends and relatives, was somehow nearly more than she could handle. It didn't make her feel relieved or happy, but troubled, almost panicky. Not to mention that thinking about her front gate and yard instantly brought to mind that horrible moment when she'd been kidnapped.
"I don't know..." she mumbled. "Definitely not two months."
"You know, Pepper - don't take this the wrong way, it's just a thought, entirely unofficial - but anyway, you could always stay at the mansion, if you'd like. There are plenty of guest rooms, after all. I could hire a full-time housekeeper, so you wouldn't need to worry about cleaning and food and all that stuff."
"I, well, I'm..." Pepper stuttered. Yes, she would like that. No, she didn't think it was a good idea. Then again, they weren't talking about her moving over to his place, or about sleeping together, or starting a relationship. It wouldn't be the first time she'd stayed overnight in one of the guest rooms. It would be nice not to be alone, and she'd be able to get back to work as soon as she felt like it. She'd also feel a lot safer - at least as long as she could be sure that he was safe, too.
"Yeah, I get it, it's probably a bad idea," Tony said, in a casual voice that would've fooled anyone but her. She could clearly hear the undertone of disappointment. He'd misunderstood her hesitation.
"No, it's not," she replied quickly. "I think it's a brilliant idea, on one condition."
"You take the month off from superheroing."
"No, that's self-preservation. The constant worry and anxiety would be very bad for my health."
"Hm," he said thoughtfully, twisting his mouth this way and that. "Well, of course, I completely trashed my suit during this mission. I need to design a new version, one that's able to handle things like that nano-bug, and that's going to take some time. A week?"
"Two weeks, minimum."
"Okay, two weeks, if I'm allowed to do test runs during that time."
"All right. You have yourself a deal, Mr. Stark."
"Very good, Miss Potts." Tony let go of her hand, and gripped it again to shake it solemnly. "I'll have my secretary send you the papers so you can sign them - but hey, you are my secretary! Damn. Is it all right if we stick to the oral agreement?"
She shook her head at him, sat up, and pulled him into a hug.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
House spent half of their return trip asleep, and the rest of it arguing with the S.H.I.E.L.D. medical team. He had to give it to them that their airborne sickbay was pretty well-equipped, but that couldn't cover the fact that they were a bunch of incompetent imbeciles.
No, he had not considered changing his medication, he was perfectly happy with his Vicodin. No, there was nothing unclear or uncertain about his or Potts's current condition, this was a previously known illness and had progressed just as expected, they were getting better already, and there was no need for intensive monitoring. By all means, do whatever you want with Potts, go on and do a lumbar puncture and a lung biopsy just for the kicks, if you feel like it, but he didn't need to have his vitals taken every five minutes.
He kept ranting until he got so tired and bored that he decided sleeping would be more interesting. A few hours later he woke up and started again from the top. At some point, Stark stopped by to ask how much he'd need to pay to silence House, but House told him no amount of earthly riches could make him stop his holy quest against idiocy, and Stark returned to his vigil by Potts's bedside.
They landed in Los Angeles first, to refuel and to drop off Stark and his gang. House hated goodbyes. They were nothing but an annoyance, a charade, a bunch of empty words. Yet another example of the countless stupid rules and norms that everyone was supposed to follow, even though they made no sense. He figured the best course of action would be to pretend he was asleep.
There was the sound of footsteps and the squeal of a wheelchair's wheels, which stopped right next to him.
"House, I spent enough time stuck in that cell with you that I can tell you're not sleeping," Potts said.
"Damn," House cursed. He opened his eyes and grimaced at the trio standing by his bedside. "All right. You're glad this is over, and you're happy to get rid of me. Nice talking to you. Off you go."
"Hey, look, Superdoc is using his telepathic abilities!" Stark quipped. Rhodes rolled his eyes at him.
Potts ignored them, staring intently at House. "I also spent enough time with you that I can tell you're not half as cynical as you want everyone to believe. Now, I'm definitely not going to say I'll miss you, but I am saying that there could've been worse people to get kidnapped with. I think we did pretty well. So, thanks, for the company and everything."
Stark glanced at Potts with what looked like disbelief, and then turned to look at House. "I completely understand if you're no longer interested in working for me after this experience. No need to decide right away, just let me know. Of course, I'll compensate you for -"
"No longer interested? This was the first time this job really got interesting! Well, the second time, if you count that episode when you got infected with the nanovirus. Oh, no, you're not getting rid of me this easily."
Stark nodded, a twisted smile on his lips. "Good for you. You do realize that you already know too much, don't you? There's no way I could just cut you loose. I might have to eliminate you if you really wanted to quit. So, I'll be in touch."
"Have Potts call me instead, I like her more than you, and she's a lot prettier."
"You're saying you're going to miss me?" Potts smirked at House.
"If saying that makes you go away, I am," House replied. "Though the truth is, I'll just miss the sponge baths."
"Okay, we're leaving," Stark said, and started pushing Potts's wheelchair towards the exit.
"Bye, House," Potts said.
Rhodes, walking alongside them, gave House a slightly awkward wave - the two of them had barely talked during the whole adventure, after all. Then, they disappeared from view.
Sometime later, when House was half-asleep again, the plane took off. Even though he would never, ever have admitted it to anyone, he felt a bit lonely. He'd gotten so used to being in the same room with Potts all the time that he did sort-of feel like something was missing when she wasn't around. He also felt strangely empty now that he wasn't hurting and wasn't stuck in a desperate struggle for survival anymore. Like life had suddenly become too easy.
Someone might have expected that an experience like this would've change him somehow, but he knew better than that. Maybe Stark had had his eyes opened in Afghanistan, but it took more than a bunch of crazy terrorists to change Gregory House. Soon, he'd be back home, and back to being his usual miserable self, solving puzzles, mistreating patients, harassing his friends, generally being a pain in the ass, as if none of this had never happened.
Finally, they landed at Newark, and Sitwell pushed House's wheelchair out of the plane and into the terminal, to a group waiting for him: Wilson, Cuddy, and both his teams, the old and the new one.
House glared at them. "If there's one thing I hate even more than goodbyes, it's homecomings."
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Author's Endnote: There, all done - this was actually, I think, the longest Iron Man -fic I've written. As this is also likely to be the last story I'll be writing in a while (due to lack of both inspiration and time), I would, really, I mean, really appreciate any feedback.
My greatest gratitude to my wonderful beta btsxbeta (at ) for fixing all my ESL-non-English, ungrammaticalities, typoes and other silly stuff. Also, thanks and hugs to those who've still been reading my stuff and have been reviewing actively. :)
This story was inspired by classic old Iron Man comics (though in the end, I guess that influence isn't quite as obvious and noticeable as I would've liked). Also, Sitwell is still borrowed from those comics. Liu is entirely a creation of my own. And since I'll most likely never write a part III of I & I, I'll say it here that Liu, who obviously works for the Mandarin, would totally get killed for failing his master twice, and the Mandarin would be the villain of that third story.