Second Chances

Chapter 1

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Standard boilerplate disclaimer: "Iron Man," Stark, Rhodes, Potts, Everhart et al. are all property of Marvel Entertainment and Paramount Pictures, blah blah blah legal crap blah-de-blah. I'm not getting anything from this other than the satisfaction that comes from creating, and the praise (I hope) of my peers. All original characters are mine, but I'll let others use them if they ask (and give credit).

As always, constructive feedback is definitely appreciated. Unconstructive feedback will get you beaten by goons I've hired for that specific purpose. (Just kidding. As far as you know.)

Author's Note: This story takes place about five years after the first "Iron Man" film. I'm writing this almost a year before IM2, so I'm gambling it'll still be feasible once it and all the other sequels are released. But if it's not, I'll re-work it; no biggie.

* * *

"ETA to Dubai, JARVIS?"

The clipped British voice of Tony Stark's artificial-intelligence assistant sounded in the ears of his suit. "Approximately forty-seven minutes, sir. Also, Colonel Rhodes has just pulled up outside your villa there."

"Huh. Put my schedule for tonight on the heads-up display." It came up, and Tony found that, sure enough, he had no meetings scheduled for this evening, with Rhodey or without him, in Dubai, L.A. or anywhere. Whew. He hadn't missed a meeting in months, but it was always in the realm of possibility. "What in blazes is he doing in Dubai?"

"Seeing as he is parked in a car outside your villa, sir, I would hazard a guess that he is there to see you."

Tony rolled his eyes. He kept telling himself that someday he would reprogram the AI with a little less sarcasm, but other projects always seemed more urgent. "Is he alone?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Open the gate for him and let Fatima know he's coming. Tell them both that I'll arrive within the hour, and I'll be hungry." Fatima was Tony's Dubai live-in housekeeper/cook/den mother. She was a sixty-something widow with four sons in Stark Industries' employ – two at headquarters in L.A., two just up the road from Dubai at the fabrication plant in Sharjah. If he made a list of his most loyal employees, she'd be in the top ten at least.

"Any culinary preferences?"

"Nope, not as long as it's cooked. I'm not gonna be picky tonight."

"Very well, sir." JARVIS said no more, leaving Tony alone with his thoughts.

It had been a pretty standard mission, as missions went. S.H.I.E.L.D. never asked him to go anywhere unless their evidence was airtight, the entrance and escape routes were planned to the centimeter and all likely contingencies were accounted for. Stuff still went wrong on occasion, especially in a situation as fluid as the Pakistani Civil War. But this time it hadn't – he'd gotten in, destroyed the militia cell, rescued their hostage, returned her to her family and left within a few hours. And now, were it not for Platypus' arrival, his sked for the evening would be empty.

Empty as the night sky. Empty as his stomach. Empty as his heart ever since ...

He tried not to dwell on it, which was like the old saw about not thinking of elephants. "Dammit, it's not fair," he whispered.

"Sir?"

He sighed. "You heard me, JARVIS. You know what I meant."

"And I know you don't wish to discuss it, sir." A pause. "Would you like me to turn off the autopilot right now, so you have other things to occupy your attention?"

Tony hated being condescended to, especially by a piece of software – and one he created, no less. But ... he had to admit that it wasn't a bad idea. "Yeah, do that. Thanks." He felt the shiver as his suit took over navigation from the AI, then executed a barrel roll and a couple of loops just to get the feel of things. A few minutes later, he'd at least been able to push his loss to the back of his mind.

Where it would wait for another time ...

* * *

"I was about to retire for the night, Mr. Stark. Will you be needing anything else?"

"No, Fatima, I think we're all set here. Thanks for the wonderful meal." Tony and Rhodey had by now repaired from the dining room to the sunken living room, and were nursing soft drinks while some easy-listening amalgam of jazz and traditional Arabian folk music played on the stereo.

"Indeed, my compliments to the chef," James Rhodes agreed, hoisting his glass of Coke in a toast. "Best lamb kebabs I've ever had."

"Ohhh, it was nothing," Fatima demurred. She bowed slightly, her hajib quivering with her nervous giggles. "Are you still preparing to leave tomorrow morning, Mr. Stark?"

"Well, I'm going to check with S.H.I.E.L.D. tonight and see if they have anything else they need me for in the region. If they don't, yeah, I'll leave for the airport tomorrow at six." He used his private jet now even for Iron Man-related duties – flying halfway around the world in the suit took too big a toll on both him and the suit. Now that he'd set up facilities at all his houses for getting in and out of the armor, taking the plane was simpler and almost as fast. "Just clean up after I'm gone."

"I will do that. Good night, sir. Good night, Colonel Rhodes." Fatima toddled off to her apartment on the second floor.

"She's a sweetie," Rhodey remarked and took another sip.

"She is," Tony concurred. "I just wish I could find someone that good to keep my place in Libreville. I've had three different housekeepers there, but JARVIS keeps catching them stealing."

"I'll ask Marie if she knows somebody. Least I can do, since you were the one who brought us together." Three years before, Tony had still been putting together the spread of living quarters that would allow him to be Iron Man worldwide with minimal inconvenience. But he was having trouble finding a good place in Africa, the largest gap in his network. So he asked Rhodey if he could do some legwork for him, talking with people at the African embassies in Washington. In the process, Rhodey had met the pretty, Georgetown-educated daughter of the ambassador from Gabon. Now, Tony had a nice house in the Batterie IV section of Libreville, the Gabonese capital ... and Rhodey and Marie had been married for over a year. It was a win-win.

"A happy accident – but if you want to give me credit, I'll take it." Both men laughed, and Tony took another pull from his bottle of Masafi mineral water. "So what brings you by, Platypus? Other than serving as my HR man for maid services, I mean."

"Well, I was down in Abu Dhabi for the treaty ceremony today." It had been an important ceremony, too. The full establishment of a Palestinian state, and Israel's willingness to support it, had done a lot to ease tensions in the region. That morning, three countries – Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – had signed a joint agreement with Israel, recognizing the Jewish nation's right to exist and agreeing to full diplomatic relations. "And I remembered you mentioning you might be around here this week. I just thought I'd stop by."

"Because?" Then, after a few seconds of silence: "C'mon, you couldn't have a lousier poker face if you tried. Spit it out."

Rhodey stared into his glass for a few seconds before answering. "I'm worried about you, Tone."

"What?" Tony replied with a laugh. "You're not serious, are you?"

Rhodey was smiling, but ruefully. "I'm serious, Tony. You're not the same person."

"Well, I'd like to think I'm somewhat ... improved. Even aside from this." He tapped the middle of his chest, where his personal arc reactor hid beneath his shirt. "I'm in the best shape of my life. I've been sober for close to two years now. The company is going gangbusters, and the stockholders are thrilled. Even Nick Fury's pleased with me, and that guy's never happy! What's to be worried about?"

Rhodey waited until Tony's chuckles died off before he spoke. "So if I said her name right now, you'd be just fine? No problems at all?"

Tony could feel himself going pale. His eyes momentarily flickered to one of the bookshelves near the stereo system.

Rhodey looked at the same place, and nodded. "Uh-huh. I'm gonna take that as a no."

Now it was Tony's turn to gaze into his drink. "Low blow, man."

"I'm sorry for that. But if you weren't gonna cop to it by yourself, I knew I had to bring it up."

"Yeah ..." Tony shook his head in resignation. "What am I supposed to do about it, though? I can do a lot of things with that suit, but ... but I can't use it bring her back."

"No, you can't. And you can't do it by running yourself ragged, or by distracting yourself with other things, or anything else. But you can move on with your life. You can get past it. I mean, what would she say if she saw you like this, right now?"

Tony thought about that. "She'd ... probably say she was glad that I was making meetings on time ..."

Rhodey shrugged, then motioned for him to continue.

"... but she'd also say that I needed to get my head out of my butt and stop moping. Well, she'd say it a lot better than that – and she'd sound better doing it – but ... that would be the essential message."

"Yep," Rhodey replied, nodding. "Yep, I think it would be."

"Okay then, smart guy. How?"

The sudden sharpness in Tony's voice shocked him almost as much as the question. "What do you mean?"

Tony took a deep breath, then another sip of water. "I need to move on. Great. I get that. But how am I supposed to do it? I mean, I don't drink anymore, for some very good reasons, so hiding in a bottle is out. I'm getting a little old to do the social scene like I used to – besides which, I'm just not interested. I've got the corporation, and I've got S.H.I.E.L.D., and I've got the charities I support, but those can only go so far. As you have pointed out. And that's it. What am I supposed to do?" His voice had begun rising at the start of the rant; now he was just short of yelling.

And Rhodey was staring at him goggle-eyed. "I do not believe this. I never thought I would have to remind Tony Stark, once the Don Juan of defense contractors, that there are other fish in the sea! Where, exactly, did I step through the looking-glass?" He smiled and chuckled, hoping to get the same from Tony.

It failed. "Are you saying I just need to get laid? You think that's all there is to it?" The contempt in Tony's voice was a foot thick.

"No, Tony, that's not ... well, not exactly what I mean. But you can find somebody else ..."

Tony seemed to deflate. "Rhodey," he said in a near-whisper. "I know there are other women out there. But none like her." Another sip. "None even close."

"You don't know that, Tone."

"Yes, I do. God made her and threw away the mold."

"Tony, stop it. You haven't met every single eligible lady on this planet. Even as busy as you used to be, you didn't even meet a big percentage of 'em. It's good for you that you don't drink anymore. It's good for you that you're so conscientious about Stark Industries. It is NOT good for you to be pining for years on end about her, or about anyone. You need to do whatever it takes to get yourself right, and that means you ... have ... to ... let ... go. You're not helping her by acting this way. You're just hurting yourself, and in the end that'll hurt everyone around you. You know this."

Tony said nothing, just breathed deep.

"Now you see why I was worried."

"Yeah, I guess I do." Tony shook his head. "Easier said than done."

Rhodey reached over and tapped Tony's arc reactor with his finger. "You figured out how to build that, in a cave in freaking Afghanistan with one assistant and a bunch of spare parts. You can manage that, I'm willing to bet you can manage anything this side of multiplying loaves and fishes."

"Well, we're working on the nanotechnology to do that, but it's still a long way ..."

"Tony ..."

Tony stopped, and finally nodded. "I know what you mean." Another sigh. "I guess you're right, I just ... don't know if I have the stomach for it. But ... but yeah, I've gotta do something. Any ideas? Does Marie have a sister?"

"Well, she does. But I don't know if she's your type – you've never gone much for the sistas. And besides, she's built like Wally's wife."

"Oh, dear heavens, Rhodey! Don't start on Wally's wife, okay? He is still pissed off at you about that ..." But he was smiling again, which he suspected had been Rhodey's intent. "Thanks for leveling with me, man."

"Hey, what are friends for if not to slap you around when you need it?" Rhodey laughed, then stood up. "Now, I need to get back to the embassy before folks start wondering when they'll get the ransom demands. But I'm glad to know you at least ... recognize the situation."

Tony stood up too. "I think I do. Not sure what I'll do about it yet, but ... I suppose I'll think of something."

"You always do, Tony. You always do."

"C'mon, Platypus. I'll walk you out."

Tony returned to the living room a few minutes later, but he didn't go straight to his seat. Instead, he walked to the bookshelf and picked up a framed photograph before sitting down.

He stared at the photo in silence as he drained the last of his Masafi. Only after it was gone did he speak. "Dammit, it's not fair."

Virginia Marie Potts. Pepper. Bachelor's from Stanford, MBA from UCLA. Tony's personal assistant for a decade. One of the five smartest women he'd ever met. One of the five most beautiful women he'd ever met. Certainly the greatest combination of the two. The only woman he ever wanted to try and impress. The only one he'd ever considered to be out of his league, although he had always hoped she would be willing to reach down to his level.

The only woman he figured he could never live without. Until the day when he had no choice.

Virginia Marie Potts. Dead almost two years now, of a massive heart attack. Only thirty-eight years old.

The tears were running down Tony's cheeks unchecked. He hardly noticed. "It's not fair ..."