Hearts and Souls
Chapter 1: Prologue
Standard disclaimer: Iron Man, Stark, Rhodes, Potts, JARVIS, Fury, Romanov, etc, etc, etc. are all properties of Marvel Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. I am deriving no income from this piece – I'm just doing it for grins and giggles (mine and, hopefully, others'). So no lawyers, please; I'm allergic to them. All original characters are mine, but can be used by other fanfiqueros if they ask (and give credit).
Constructive feedback is definitely appreciated. Unconstructive feedback will place the person giving it on a special list kept by Stark Industries Security, who reserve the option to send a couple of large-fisted and ill-tempered ex-UCLA footballers to your house. (Just kidding. Maybe.)
A quick author's note: This chapter takes place in the IM movieverse, about two months after the end of Iron Man 2.
Three meetings, in three different countries, pointing toward one future …
Malibu, California, USA:
Tony Stark was used to waking up at four in the morning; he had for years. But he wasn't used to it being so dark when he did.
For the last year or so, he'd become accustomed to waking to the sight of his bedroom washed in the soft blue-white light of his arc reactor. This morning, it was almost pitch black. Odd.
Tony did a quick physical inventory. No issues – his heart felt fine, his head was no muzzier than it usually was upon returning to consciousness. Ergo, the arc reactor wasn't malfunctioning. So where was the light? Tony reached for the middle of his chest …
… and found someone else's hand there, clutching the alloy casing, covering the transparent window in front. The arm attached was reaching from directly in back of him.
A millisecond of panic zigged through Tony's brain – was somebody trying to steal his arc reactor while he slept? – before his memory kicked in and set him at ease. He knew that hand … a smooth, delicate, long-fingered hand. A hand that had been a lot of very enjoyable places the previous hours. One that he didn't mind having around, not at all. He began to gently stroke the back of it with his fingers.
"Mmmm … whuh?" answered a sleepy voice from just behind him, followed by the wriggle of skin against his back.
Tony smiled, and carefully shifted from his side to his back. "Sorry to wake you up," he whispered.
"'Sokay. Mmmmh …," Pepper Potts replied, and slid over to lay her head on his shoulder.
Tony broke into a grin. He couldn't help it. Since their kiss on the rooftop two months before, he and Pepper had – cautiously – begun to let down the barriers that had kept their professional relationship from becoming personal. A dinner here, a walk on the beach there, a long (and late) breakfast spent toasting Landon Donovan after the U.S. beat Algeria in the World Cup. And then last night, they came back to his place after a lovely meal … and she decided not to go home.
To call it a wonderful evening would be an understatement. He just hoped she'd still see it that way in the light of day … or before dawn, for that matter. "You okay?"
"I mean … I mean, are you okay with … with what we … oh, hell …"
Eyes just barely open, Pepper raised up her head to look at him. "Tony? Why don't you just tell me the truth?"
Tony smiled again. That eight-word phrase had become a talisman for them over the previous several weeks. It served as an invitation to let one's guard down, a plea to keep the lines of communication open, an insurance policy against the kind of misunderstandings they'd often had with each other in the past, a promise to accept and forgive each other's faults … and maybe an inside joke too. It had served them well.
"I … I guess I was worried that after last night, you might … you might get cold feet and … I dunno, retreat to a safe distance?"
"Like I've done before," she replied with a wry smile.
"Well … yes."
Pepper chewed on her lower lip, considering for a moment. "Not this time. This … wasn't an impulsive decision for me. I've been thinking about it for weeks – I was just waiting until the time was right." She tapped him on the chin with her index finger. "And I want to thank you for not pressuring me. I do appreciate that."
Tony shrugged. "I figured you were worth waiting for."
Now she turned her head away. "I'm blushing, aren't I?"
Tony tilted his head to look at her face, and then a foot or two lower. "Uh, yep."
Pepper stifled a chuckle. "You better be careful, or I might not let you leave this bed."
"And the downside would be what, exactly?" he replied with a smirk.
Now they both laughed. "Was I really that good, Tony?"
"Better than I'd ever dreamed. And I've dreamt about it for a long time," he added.
Pepper looked him in the eye, dead serious. "That's comforting. It wasn't just me dreaming of it, then." She leaned in for a long, firm kiss that might have led to more, had she not found herself stifling a yawn after about a minute. "Ngh. Sorry."
"It's okay. I learned long ago that not everyone functions best on four hours' sleep." As Tony said it, he helped her turn back onto her side and tucked her in. "I'm going to go work out. Any requests for breakfast?"
"Seriously?" She pondered it for a few seconds. "Pork chops. Scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese. Bowl of bran cereal, low-fat milk. Boiled apples with cinnamon. Hazelnut dark roast, sugar, no cream."
Tony's eyes widened. "Whoa."
Pepper shrugged the shoulder that wasn't leaning against the mattress. "I burned a lot of calories last night," she purred.
Tony nodded in acquiescence. "Consider it done." He leaned over her solicitously. "Anything else, Miss Potts?"
She pulled him down for one more eyebrow-melting kiss, then replied with a grin, "That will be all, Mr. Stark." Then she released him to go lift weights, and slipped back into dreamland.
Mumbai, Maharashtra state, India:
No matter how well-padded the seats or how well-thought-out the preparations, a transcontinental flight is never a truly pleasurable experience. For a middle-aged man, stuck in business class, even less so. But the trip had at least passed without incident, and that was really all he'd hoped for. He didn't enjoy surprises – unless he was the one in control of them.
He used the walk from the Kingfisher plane to baggage claim to stretch his stiff legs, then got his luggage – three suitcases and a large, flat parcel, in addition to his carry-on bag – and tracked down a skycap to load them on his cart. He had to help the poor fellow (a Sikh, judging by the turban) with the parcel, which he expected; it weighed over sixty kilos and was an unwieldy shape. He was a big man, could've carried it himself in a pinch, but didn't want to take the chance of losing his grip and damaging it by accident. It was the most valuable thing he owned, and the main reason for his journey here. Better to accept the help of a professional.
Soon all was loaded, the Sikh had been promised a healthy gratuity, and they headed for the concourse of Terminal 2. He was worried about how he'd find his contact from the university – he'd been in India many times before, but the din of different languages, the bustle of the crowds, the very foreignness of the atmosphere always set him back a bit when he arrived. Disorientation, he thought. Means "loss of the east." Only fitting, considering how far west I've come to be here. Or how much I lost beforehand.
His worries were groundless. Within a minute he spotted a young lady wrapped in a sari, holding up a computer-printed sign that said "DR. WALLING" on it. He walked over, the skycap trudging behind. "Are you Dr. Martha Chavan?"
The woman smiled widely and held out her hand. "Dr. Christopher Walling, I presume. Welcome again to Mumbai." They shook hands and headed for Dr. Chavan's vehicle. "So how was your flight from Auckland?"
"The flight … is over," he said with a smile.
Dr. Chavan nodded knowingly. "I went to a conference last year in Munich. Twenty hours, with a connection in Istanbul. My body clock was thrown off for a week." She shook her head, as if to say, the things we do for Science.
He made a face. "Twenty-eight hours for me. With a layover in Hong Kong. I think I said 'I'm too old for this' at least six times on the way." She laughed, which was his intent. "But hopefully I'll have a few days to rest before I have to be in the classroom." Or take care of other … projects.
"Oh, of course," Dr. Chavan replied with a wave of her hand. "The Institute of Chemical Technology's academic year began on 1 July, but since you're not scheduled to teach until the next quarter, you still have a couple of months to settle in, set up your lab, get everything arranged. You have to understand how pleased we are to have you coming on staff. You could … what is the phrase? … 'ask for the moon,' and the administration would jump to do it!"
"Really? I hadn't realized that." Far cry from how I was treated last year at U of A.
"Oh, yes. We are still a small university – the best of its kind in India, but not significant in comparison to Cambridge or Stanford or Heidelberg, or even your University of Auckland. We have been working hard to attract internationally-renowned scientists to our faculty, but you are the first who was willing to join us. ICT considers you … I believe the phrase is 'quite a catch'?"
"Well, I'm quite flattered – though I will do my best not to let it go to my head." That earned another laugh. "But I must say that I'm glad of the opportunity to come here. India is, in my opinion, more ready to face the future than a staid 'Western' country like New Zealand can ever be. This is closer to the center of the action, as it were." In more ways than one – but she doesn't need to know that.
They arrived at Dr. Chavan's car, a midsized Hyundai, and she unlocked the boot so the skycap could load Dr. Walling's bags. Once again, he needed help with the big parcel. "What is that, if I may ask?" Dr. Chavan inquired. "Lab equipment of some sort?"
"After a fashion," Dr. Walling said with a shrug. "A … project I was unable to finish at U of A. Hoping I can make some headway on it in my free time." Away from the thinly-veiled scorn of my "colleagues," God willing.
"Ah, I understand," Dr. Chavan replied, nodding. "As long as the universe exists, a physicist's work is yet unfinished."
"Too right," he said with a chuckle. He gave the skycap what he hoped was an excessive tip – judging by the man's profuse gratitude, he'd gauged it right – then climbed into the passenger seat of the Hyundai. "Are we heading to the Institute straightaway?"
"If you like. But I was instructed to take you to the apartment that has been rented for you. It's only a short walk from the campus – mostly graduate students live there. The administrators figured you would want to rest from your journey."
He smiled. "They're wise men, the administrators."
"Tomorrow, I can give you a tour of the campus in the morning, between my classes – show you where you'll be working. There will also be a welcoming reception in the afternoon, faculty only." She paused, then asked, "Is there anything else you require for the moment?"
"No, thank you, Dr. Chavan – I think that covers almost everything. Except … I don't suppose you'd know where I can find a Baptist church in the city?"
It was a good thing Dr. Chavan had just pulled up to a stoplight – her eyes went wide, and she took them off the road to look at him. "You are a Baptist? Why, so am I!"
He blinked several times. "You're jesting."
"No, truly I am not! My family has been Baptist for generations! Indeed, my great-great-great-great-grandfather was one of the first converts of the American missionary David Oliver Allen. We would be honored to have you join us this Sunday!"
"As … as would I!" Well, what are the odds? Things really are looking up.
Lord, may your blessings extend to the work I plan to do as well …
Approximately 1.3 kilometers west of Az Zubayr, Al-Basrah Province, Iraq:
In a way, Adele felt sorry for Ruhallah.
Bad enough that the poor bloke had been forced to grow up in this train wreck of a country. Worse still that he'd been a Shiite, when Iraq's ruling elite ever since he was born was Sunni and considered beating down Shiites fun sport. But now, he was stuck helping to piece his country together again, in a newly reconstituted national army that was largely being held together by foreigners like herself. And to add final insult, he was having to take orders from a woman for the first time in his life, a woman who was even darker-skinned than he was, a woman who was about as meek and submissive as a leopard. A woman who would never, ever, under any circumstances, even consider wearing a hijab.
Yeah, he had a lot to adjust to. So Adele cut him as much slack as she dared. But there were times when he'd forget that she was a superior officer – British Army, but a superior nonetheless – and do or say something that made her want to kick him right in the groin. So far, she had restrained herself … but her tour of duty wasn't over yet.
"All right, Sergeant Kadim – your informant said that the group was meeting just down this road?"
"That is what they told me … Lieutenant." She'd had zero luck getting Ruhallah to call her "sir"; they had compromised on her rank. "In an underground shelter."
She made a face. Iraq was honeycombed with underground installations, the deeply-dug fruits of Saddam Hussein's paranoid megalomania. "Any idea where on this road?"
Ruhallah glared at his boots. "No," he grunted, as if it was an affront for her to even ask.
Adele suppressed a sigh. "Right then. Looks like we get to find out." She turned to her section, a mixture of Shia locals, old Iraqi Army hands, one adventurous and somewhat loony Kurd, and a couple of British Army "advisors" like herself. The latter were part of the last remaining presence of Operation TELIC, the 46,000 British troops who'd helped keep the peace in southern Iraq after the Fall of the House of al-Tikriti. Now, less than 500 remained to wrap up their mission – and hope it held together in their mates' absence. And while their role was supposed to be "a bilateral relationship with close co-operation in a range of areas: economic, cultural, commercial, educational and defence" (honestly, those were the Army website's actual words!), what they mostly did was go around and about, kicking tail and doing the thinking for the supposed "regular army."
Well, no one ever said war would be easy. "Bramley, Zaki, you two guard the vehicle and provide covering fire as needed," she hissed. "Williams, you take point. Hassad, you take rear. Everyone, keep your eyes open and for the millionth time, watch your bloody step!" A short pause. "Let's move."
The eight who weren't staying with the APC fanned out and began to patrol the little side road. At least it was paved, and while there were a few shacks along it, the available cover for an enemy to fire from seemed minimal. Hopefully, Adele thought, they'd be done with this little gavotte in a few minutes and then head back to base.
They were done in a few minutes. But not the way she'd hoped.
About a hundred meters along, Corporal Williams spotted a patch of bare ground that didn't look like the surrounding earth. He waved a hand to signal the others, who carefully converged on it. Sure enough, it was only a dusting of dirt over a wooden trapdoor. Adele nodded to Williams and Ruhallah to pry it up, while she and the others aimed their weapons …
And Hassad cried out as two jihadists popped up out of another, unnoticed underground hiding place just across the road. One held a Kalashnikov, the other an RPG-7 grenade launcher.
Chaos as the Kalashnikov opened fire and the Iraqis and Brits scrambled to retaliate. Adele shouted orders to her men, and quickly they took out both terrorists. But just as the fellow with the grenade launcher was hit, he fired his weapon – right into the belt buckle of Ruhallah, who was standing not two meters from Adele.
The air exploded in a flash of white light and blood as the high-explosive grenade detonated. Ruhallah (and Williams, right behind him) didn't stand a chance. Adele was thrown five meters by the blast. She looked around as best she could and saw three others from her section down, heard the rumble of the APC as Bramley and that crazy Kurd Zaki swooped in to rescue them, and tried to figure out why her left leg felt funny.
She turned her head to look. Her leg wasn't there. She reached out her left hand to double-check. Her hand was gone too. She tried to sit up, but something was wrong with her back.
Adele closed her eyes. She didn't know it would be almost a month before she opened them again …