Author's Note: I have no excuses, except to say that my life has been completely chaotic and swamped over the past year and my brain just hasn't been able to maintain writing a long on-going series. I can't promise regular updates, but I'll update when I can at least. *bows* Btws, I watched Thor and loved it, but obviously this doesn't mesh well with what I've written so this fic just became a little more AU from the movie verse ^^;; I consider it the smaller of my offenses against your guys *digest rotten fruit*
Tony was pretty sure he hadn't consumed anything toxic, alcohol or otherwise. Still his head pounded as if a hammer had connected with it. There was a hammer involved, he recalled dimly, but couldn't remember much past it. All he knew now was that he was back in the hospital room – he could tell by the smells – and there were at least two people talking in hushed tones somewhere in the corner.
He lay very still, briefly wondering if it was the attackers, but the voices became distinct a moment later. Carol was talking to the doctor, he realized and chanced opening his eyes enough to see their faces. Blake looked concerned as he leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. Carol was frowning.
"Shit." She bit her thumbnail. "Big shit. I didn't expect it to leek so soon. Do you have any idea how it happened?"
Blake shook his head. "I don't know. But this is a public place, and beard or no... his face is pretty recognizable. Any of the staff or even other patience could have realized who he is. I'm sorry, Captain."
"No, don't apologize." Carol waved her hand. "He'd probably be dead if… you hadn't stepped in. How are you?"
"A little bruised but no worse for wear." The doctor shrugged.
'No worse for wear'? Tony thought. How the hell does he take on at least five armed men and still say that? Especially with that leg…
"How much do you think anyone saw?" Carol asked nodding at him.
Blake chuckled. "If they managed to make anything out, no one will believe them. Even if a few do, it's just going to be another urban legend. I think it amuses him."
"I'm so happy." But she sounded far from it and rubbed her temple.
Carol seemed like she wanted to say a lot more but was interrupted when the door opened. Tony quickly shut his eyes again, counting two pairs of footsteps – one light, one heavier – and guessed it was Pepper and Rhodey. He could hear Pepper coming to stand at the left side of his bed, while Rhodey, after a pause, moved to the corner where Carol and Blake stood. He chose that as the moment to make his wakefulness known.
"Someone answer that phone," he croaked.
There was motion around him and within a moment he felt a cup touch his lips. Finally opening his eyes, Tony was quite surprised to see that it was Rhodey, not Pepper, who was holding out the cool water. The other man's gaze was impassive, but he didn't look away and waited patiently for Tony to take two swallows before setting the cup on the small stand next to his hospital bed.
"How do you feel?" It was Carol who spoke.
"Like someone's been pounding on my skull," Tony admitted turning half-accusing eyes on the doctor. Blake was the picture of innocence.
"You must have hit your head harder than I thought. We should check for a concussion."
"Aha, and is your explanation for those people who tried to kill me equally convenient?"
He saw Carol and Rhodey exchange a look at this, but neither were seamed too eager to speak up. This annoyed him. Of the four people standing in the hospital room, the only one whose innocence he could buy was Pepper. She looked just as confused as he felt, with the added layer of concern written all over her face.
"You two know something." He snapped, giving his friends an accusing look. "And I can't even begin to sort out what your story is, Doc. So someone tell me what's going!"
Carol bit her lip and stepped forward. "I didn't want to worry you. Jim and I didn't want to worry you..."
"Unless it's about someone in this room, I really don't give a rat's ass."
"It's about your company," Rhodey spoke directly to him for the first time.
He had his undivided attention, not because Tony had any particular emotion left for Stark Industries but because it was his best friend – did he really deserve to still call the man that? - and he was speaking to him. The anger would come later, Tony knew and almost welcomed it. He didn't deserve anything less, but for now it was good to be talking at all.
"We should talk in private," the other man continued, looking somewhat apologetically at Blake and Pepper, and Tony instantly felt a sense of anxiety set in again. If whatever it was was serious enough to ask the civilians to leave...
"You really want to do this now?" Carol interrupted. She was clearly concerned despite the fact that she was one of the last people Tony expected to walk on eggshell's around him.
"Yes," Rhodey said. "Now that we have confirmation, he should know."
"Then they stay," the blond-haired woman declared with finality. "Don has clearance, and Pepper did more than her fair share for Tony. I want them both here."
Military protocol might have demanded that he argue, but Rhodey didn't look like he was about to cross her. Pepper, who'd remained by his bedside the whole time, gave his hand a small comforting squeeze. Rhodey bit his lip and began.
"After you... disappeared, Stane took complete control of the company." Tony said nothing. Obediah had been running the company mostly solo since his return from Afghanistan anyway. He did note Rhodey's use of the man's last name though. "At first everyone thought it was only temporary, until you returned. After a while though... it just became the norm. He made all the arrangements with the military, kept the right pressures on the R&D departments and so on. There wasn't anything terribly cutting edge coming out..."
"I told Rhodes I refused to use anything they built after you," Carol put in, and Tony gave her a small smile.
"...but the company was doing well," Rhodey continued. "Then, a few months ago, Stane called me into his office and showed me the plans for the armor. He claimed that it was something new that the R&D department came up with, but I didn't buy it."
"You saw..." Tony swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry again. "...pieces of it when you rescued me."
"Exactly. I didn't believe it was a coincidence he came up with almost the same design on his own. Especially since he kept asking me for suggestions for improvements and such. Like he had parts of the puzzle but not the whole thing."
"He shouldn't have had any of it." Tony's brow creased. "I didn't tell him anything about the suit. He saw the arc reactor in my chest, but that's all."
"I know." His friend agreed. "That's the... ah.. hard part. I was suspicious. Enough to start going through every document that had anything to do with you since right before you were taken in Afghanistan. That's when I called Carol."
"Because the head of N.A.S.A. Security has access to things an Airforce Lieutenant Colonel and liaison to Stark Industries doesn't," Tony said sarcastically. That earned him a smack on the shoulder and glare from his adopted sister.
"Don't be an ass," the woman warned. "Jim and I have been playing detective on your behalf, and there was a lot of garbage to sort through."
"So what'd you find?"
"That Stane got those designs from you," Rhodey replied courtly.
"I didn't say you gave them to him." His friend took a deep breath, as if he was about to rip of a band-aid and thought it was better to just get it over with. "He got them from the Ten Rings... the ones you left behind when you escaped. Because he was working with them for years, possibly even before your capture."
The silence in the room was deafening. Carol and Rhodey looked sympathetic and determined. Blake was grim but surprisingly not as uncomfortable as one might have expected someone in his position as an outsider to be in. Pepper was squeezing his hand and he squeezed hers back in reflex, not quite knowing which of them needed more comfort. Theoretically it should have been him, but she'd been through so much for him. He was touched that she worried but also conflicted; Tony didn't want her to suffer any pain because of him.
"You think Obediah knows." He deduced finally. "That he sent those people to kill me."
He was a little surprised how little emotion there was in his voice about the matter. The revelation that the man who'd been practically a second father to him had most likely been plotting behind his back for years should have been crippling, but all he felt was numbness. It would probably hit him later, and then there had better be a bottle of something...
"It gets worse," Rhodey said slowly. "We have evidence that he's also been selling to them for a while now. Several of the derbies from weapons tests that have been discovered in the area where you were captured match items that Stark Industries invoiced to... places that don't exist."
Tony didn't want to ask just how long it had been going on because he had a strong suspicion it was far longer than just before his capture. The fact that his company – the company his father built from the ground up – was involved with selling weapons to people who would use them to hurt soldiers like Carol and Rhodey was far more painful than the personal betrayal.
He must have been silent for too long, because Blake cleared his throat. "You need to rest," he told Tony very seriously. "I know this is all very jarring so I'll give you a very mild sedative..."
"No." His voice was firm. "No more drugs." As much as he wanted to slip into oblivion, Tony forced himself to pay attention, to concentrate. "I gotta think. What..."
What do I do now? How do I... how do we come back from this?
Pepper must have seen his distress. Hell, everyone probably did, but it was she who spoke. "Do you want us to give you a few minutes?" she asked gently.
He didn't really want to be alone with his thoughts, but at least it meant a small reprieve from everyone looking at him, waiting expectantly for a solution. Tony nodded, and one by one they all filed out. Rhodey was the last at the door, but he stopped, and for a moment it felt like they were both holding their breaths. Then his friend – the braver of the two, as far as Tony was concerned – finally spoke.
"I'm really mad at you."
"I mean, I'm really mad at you. Do you have the slightest clue what your three and a half year-long stretch of your self-pity has been like for Carol and me, never mind S.I. and its thousands of employees?"
Tony bit his tongue from saying something stupid along the lines of "At least you didn't spend a few New York winters on the streets." That had been entirely his choice, as he'd come to recognize. Not because he had any real control over his alcoholism, but because he chose not to ask for help when it might have made a significant difference. The question was obviously not rhetorical, and Tony figured he owed him to at least attempt to answer.
"I've never been one to apologize for anything," he said slowly and seeing the scowl form on Rhodey's face quickly moved on. "But I'm going to keep saying 'I'm sorry' however long it takes for you guys to believe me, okay? I am sorry, Rhodey. There's nothing else I can say, but I really, truly am sorry for... everything."
His friend gave him a silent intense look before sighing. "Carol forgives you, you know. Hell, she forgave you before she even saw you. Soon as I told her you were alive..."
Tony snorted. "Could've fooled me, the way she let me have it."
"Good. You deserve it."
"I know. How's she been? Really?"
"Shitty," Rhodey replied flatly. "Sometimes I think she's an inch away from getting just as friendly with the bottle as a certain someone else."
Tony winced. "Don't let her. I know she's prone to self-destructive behavior," even if I can't tell you why, "and I know it sounds incredibly hypocritical, but don't let her. Don't let her become... me."
"Right. Aren't you going to ask why I haven't started drinking yet? Between the pair of you, I'm surprised I haven't tried anything stronger."
"Nah," Tony waved his hand dismissively. "You're too straight-laced for that."
Rhodey gave an exasperated sigh. "And to think I wanted you back."
"I thought we were having a moment!"
"We were. You ruined it."
And that did it. The men burst out laughing, with Rhodey shaking his head. The release of tension did wonders for the atmosphere in the room, but after a few minutes, both sobered. Tony gave his friend a quiet intense look.
"I'm going to need your help on this one, Rhodey."
His friend nodded sagely. "All you ever had to do was ask."