Don't own 'em
- Day of wrath! O day of mourning! See fulfilled the prophets' warning, Heaven and earth in ashes burning! -
Dies Irae, Verse 1
"Mr. Stark, the board called," Pepper didn't even look up from her tablet as she strode into the basement. He was fiddling absently with a piece of machinery at his worktable, and he listened as her heeled footsteps neared and stopped right next to him. Out of the corner of his eye he followed the curve of her hip from her black skirt straight down her shapely legs. He almost slapped himself mentally before realizing with a start that he was allowed to ogle her now. Yes, he thought, there were definite advantages to this relationship. She continued on unaware of – or at least pointedly ignoring – his staring.
"There's a meeting with the European Union regarding your company's expansion in France. They're expecting you tomorrow afternoon." She looked up and raised an eyebrow in question at his lecherous stare. "Mr. Stark?" Her tone was reproachful, and he quickly cut his eyes up to hers.
"Oh come on, Pepper," he grinned at her, but it faded when she didn't budge. "Tomorrow afternoon? I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure I don't I have to leave until tomorrow."
"I'm not certain you understand how this globe thing works, Tony. Paris is nine hours ahead of us, and the flight takes ten hours, so you have to leave no later than seven o'clock this evening." He checked the clock and did the math quickly before cursing. After another glare from her – which he ignored – she took a breath to continue, but he cut her off.
"Look, I have some time-sensitive work to do around here that won't be done for another…" he checked the clock again, "…seven hours, which puts me at ten fifteen or so. So I can't possibly make it. You go."
"Yes, you. You were CEO for a week, plus you pretty much run things anyway. You can handle it." She crossed her arms over her chest, tucking her tablet underneath one arm, and tapped her foot impatiently.
"Look," he set the small device on the table and stood. He wiped his hands quickly and steered her toward the door. "You're going anyway to make sure I actually attend the meeting, and pay attention, and to take notes because you know I won't pay attention. Not to mention the fact that my track record with flight schedules isn't the greatest. You could save yourself a lot of hassle by leaving me here." She started to protest, but shut her mouth quickly when she realized he was absolutely right. He grinned at the look on her face and bent to kiss her cheek quickly.
"What if they ask for a vote?" she countered.
"Oh please, you think I don't have a clause in our contracts declaring you my proxy? I added that when you came back after the Expo." She seemed stunned for a moment, and he smirked at her expression. "See? I'm a genius; I have papers that say so. You have fun in France." He opened the door for her and ushered her out before she could even really process everything, but he knew from the look in her eye he'd had her at "save yourself hassle."
She was smiling affectionately as she turned and waved at him on her way up the stairs, and he smiled back at her for a moment before turning back to his work. It was going to be a lonely couple of days without her, but he had plenty of work to keep him occupied.
- Oh, what fear man's bosom rendeth, when from heaven the Judge descendeth, on whose sentence all dependeth. –
Dies Irae, Verse 2
She called once before the jet took off to make sure he didn't want to go. It rang three times before JARVIS answered with a polite apology.
"I'm sorry, Miss Potts, but Mr. Stark is still in his workshop and has asked not to be disturbed. Would you like me to interrupt him?" It might have been her imagination, but she imagined JARVIS would be only too happy to do so for her.
"No, thank you JARVIS," she sighed. "Just tell him I called when he's finished, please."
"Of course, ma'am. Have a safe flight." She keyed off her phone and settled back into the plush seats of the private jetliner. There were benefits, she'd found, to working for Tony Stark. Without him or Rhodey accompanying her, there were only a handful of people on the plane. The single attendant set a bottle of water on the table for her before buckling in for takeoff.
She reviewed the notes for the meeting twice before dimming the cabin lights. She'd long ago grown accustomed to sleeping on the jet, and inevitably always woke with a stiff neck from sleeping sitting up. But now that Tony wasn't here and she had the entire plane to herself, she allowed herself to stretch out on the luxurious couch for some much needed rest.
- Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth; through earth's sepulchers it ringeth; all before the throne it bringeth. -
Dies Irae, Verse 3
In his basement workshop, Tony watched the red blip soar peacefully across the map of the nation. He'd had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach from the moment she disappeared from his sight, but he forced himself to dismiss it. He'd sent her to meetings in his place dozens of times without consequence, and this time she could actually take care of things for him.
"Sir?" JARVIS voice broke through his thoughts, and he turned his mind back to the work at hand.
"Right, bring up that internal view." Tony smiled when JARVIS used the smaller monitor rather than the usual large screen, leaving the jet-tracker beeping softly in the background.
The next time he looked up, the jet was well over the Atlantic Ocean. It was almost two o'clock and he wiped his face tiredly. He'd meant to call Pepper earlier to say goodnight, but he'd run into one complication after another in his repairs. He was finally done, and all he wanted to do now was shower and sleep.
"JARVIS, under no circumstances whatsoever am I to be disturbed." He glowered at the ceiling, remembering all too well the AI's tendency to bore him with inane matters. "As a matter of fact, why don't you install those upgrades now?"
"Sir, it may be unwise to have me off-line for even that short time without Miss Potts' presence."
"What, you think I can't take care of myself for a couple of hours? I'm a big boy. Now, upgrade."
"Of course, sir," the computer replied. Tony dragged himself up the stairs to his bedroom, stripping off layers as he walked into the bathroom. His eyes drooped lower and lower until he jerked awake, warm water still cascading down his body. He shut it off and toweled dry before collapsing naked into his bed.
Sometime later he started awake again, and his bleary eyes tried to make out the time. He groaned at the large red four that indicated it was far too early to even be contemplating waking up, unless of course it was the next one. Yes, he thought, another twelve hours of sleep should suffice. He yawned widely and burrowed back underneath the comforter.
- Death is struck, and nature quaking, all creation is awaking, to its Judge an answer making. -
Dies Irae, Verse 4
Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes was used to early morning phone calls. Aside from the rather common aspect of military life, his mother didn't often check the clock before she called her youngest son. So when the shrill ring pierced the silence, Rhodey just yawned and reached lazily for the phone. The Caller ID, however, had him sitting straight up and alert in a second.
"JARVIS?" Rhodey hadn't even been aware the computer could make calls.
"Colonel Rhodes, I apologize for the early hour but Mr. Stark left explicit instructions not to disturb his sleep under any circumstances. While I understand this particular circumstance warrants a breach of those orders, my programming is incapable of performing it."
"So you called me?"
"Yes sir," JARVIS answered. "There has been an incident in Paris regarding a terrorist attack of a hotel."
"JARVIS, why is this important enough to wake Tony?"
"Miss Potts was injured in the explosion." Rhodey's heart began pounding in his chest as he jumped out of bed and threw some clothes on.
"What the hell is she doing in Paris?" Rhodey wondered aloud, unaware he was still talking to Tony's computer over the phone.
"She was eating in the hotel's restaurant when the bomb was detonated." Rhodey froze and closed his eyes in horror. Tony was going to go ballistic, and Rhodey didn't know if he could contain him.
"I'll be there in fifteen. Can't you do anything to wake him up? No, wait," Rhodey shook his head. "Never mind, it'll be better if I break it to him."
"Very well, sir." And the line went dead. Aside from it being the most bizarre phone conversation he'd had in a while, Rhodey was still having a hard time processing the fact that Pepper was injured in France. He grabbed his wallet and keys and covered the distance between Edwards Air Force Base and Tony's Malibu mansion in record time. He inputted his code to access the house, and he was up the stairs before the front door shut behind him.
"Tony!" he called, crashing into the master bedroom. Tony sat up blearily, his eyes blinking slowly.
"Rhodey?" he mumbled. "Wazzit?"
"You need to get up, Tony. Something's happened." Rhodey's tone more than his words spurred Tony to stand up. "My God!" Rhodey turned around hastily as Tony stretched his nude body. "Put some shorts on, please."
"Hey, you burst in here," Tony defended. "I have a right to be naked in my own bedroom. Actually, I think I declared that a law at some point." Rhodey heard the rustling of fabric, then Tony's smug voice again. "I'm dressed you prude. Now what is it?" Rhodey turned around and looked his friend directly in the eye.
"Tony…something…there was an attack." He was unsure how to begin, because he knew the moment Tony heard he would be out the door in a second. "An as yet unknown terrorist cell set off a bomb in a hotel in Paris." Rhodey watched his friend's face morph from confusion to worry in an instant.
"Pepper," Tony darted toward the door, but Rhodey's arm shot out and stopped him.
"She's injured, but that's all I know right now." Tony shoved Rhodey's arm aside and was out the door and down the stairs before Rhodey could say anything more.
"Tony, you have to think clearly here!" Rhodey chased Tony down to the basement, hoping to head off whatever explosion was bound to happen. But Tony wasn't listening. As soon as he was in the basement he was barking orders to JARVIS.
"Pull up the news coverage of the explosion and prep the suit." Instantly the screens were alive with reporters speaking several different languages and photographs that made Rhodey nauseous.
"Tony, you can't take the Iron Man suit," he tried to reason, but when Tony whirled on him there was fire in his eyes.
"Like hell I can't! She's lying in a hospital in Paris because those animals thought blowing up a hotel was a good idea," he spat and turned on his heel. "JARVIS!" There was a mixture of anger and panic in his voice. "From now on, anything related to Pepper trumps whatever orders I give."
"What's her condition?" He was distracted for now, Rhodey knew it was only a matter of time before something set him off. JARVIS was silent for a moment as he researched the question.
"Unknown. I have a record of a Virginia Potts being admitted to an area hospital, but there is no information on her condition." Tony keyed in a few more commands and unmuted the newscaster on the large screen.
"…sources say that the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist group active since the 70's, is claiming responsibility for this latest, disastrous bombing. No word yet on any of the survivors, but we do know at least one hundred people are dead, and many more injured. From Paris, this is –"
"Mute," Tony ran a hand down his face in frustration. "JARVIS, pull up any and all information on this cell. Upload it to the suit when you have it."
"Oh no," Rhodey stepped up. "You are not going on some revenge mission, Tony!"
"Try and stop me," Tony shot back, stepping up to the platform. There was a darkness in his tone that Rhodey hadn't heard before, and it made him shudder. The Iron Man in the hands of an eccentric genius was one thing; it was entirely different in the hands of an angered avenger.
"If you do this, Tony, the government will take your suits from you. This is the evidence they need to order a seizure. This is Iron Man's last mission." Machines whirred to life as the pieces assembled around Tony. After a few seconds the face plate slid down, and the Iron Man looked at Rhodes calmly.
"So be it." And he was gone. Rhodey stared after him blankly for a moment before sighing.
"JARVIS, does Tony still have the other jet here?"
"Yes, sir. It's at the airfield."
"Have it ready in ten minutes. I'm going to Paris." Rhodey was jogging up the stairs even as JARVIS shut the house down.
"Very good, sir. Miss Potts has been admitted to the Clinique de l'Alma in Paris. Approximate arrival time is ten hours and thirteen minutes from take-off."
- Lo! the book, exactly worded, wherein all hath been recorded: thence shall judgment be awarded. -
Dies Irae, Verse 5
Pepper had always disliked the color red. Even though people raved about her hair and had absolutely ogled her in her dazzling red prom dress, Pepper had never been partial to the color. She preferred the muted tones of blue and green, the safety of the darker tones as she faded into the background.
But at the moment, the only thing that filled her vision was the color red. There were echoes of screams resonating in her head even as the ringing died away. And even in the brief seconds of consciousness here and there, she could barely hear or see anything other than the garish hue.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed since the explosion, but even if she could tell time she could make no sense of it. The red was darkening into crimson as voices faded in and out, little more than murmurs in the din of her mind. From the fog, Pepper felt her chest rising and falling but her mind could supply no sensation of breathing.
Then, like a bolt of lightning, a white flash shot through her vision. It immediately faded again to the brazen red, but there was a pressure in her chest that hadn't been there before. Again, her chest expanded and air was forced in. The white flash returned, sending a convulsion through her. This time the white faded more slowly, leaving her in a pinkish haze. The voices that had been murmurs became clearer, and she tried to make sense of the foreign tongue and the rough hands.
Briefly, her mind flashed to the video of Tony held captive in Afghanistan and she panicked. Instantly, the voices became more frantic and the hands more hurried. A firm pressure slowly crept through her chest as the pink fog at last flared and vanished.
- When the Judge his seat attaineth, and each hidden deed arraigneth, nothing unavenged remaineth. -
Dies Irae, Verse 6
Rhodey sat on the second of Tony's jets trying everything he could think of to keep his mind off of his destination. Pepper had become a very dear friend to him, and he figured that (barring Tony) he probably knew her better than anyone in the world. They had been bound by a unique friendship, one borne of the camaraderie that mutual acquaintance with Tony had brought. The thought of her lying alone in a foreign hospital shook him to his core, and he tried in vain to get a hold of her attending physicians. The best they could tell him, they had said, was that she was currently being attended to and that her embassy had been notified of her condition. Since he wasn't her medical proxy that was the only information he was allowed.
"JARVIS, when did Pepper make Tony her emergency contact?" Rhodey wondered idly.
"Approximately four years and three months ago, sir." Rhodey did the math quickly and winced as he remembered that particular period. Pepper's father had passed away, leaving her completely alone. Her mother's family had never approved of her father, and after her mother had vanished when she was four, there was little support from that side of her family.
Pepper had been devastated by the loss of her father, but Tony had shown a rare compassion and sympathy for his assistant that Rhodey had never seen before. Forgoing the usual condolences of a card or flowers, Tony had all but moved in with her for that week, taking care of her, talking to her about his parents, and cementing what Rhodey considered the deepest and most fulfilling relationship Tony had ever had with another person. In return, Pepper had demonstrated a newfound trust in him, naming him her medical contact and proxy should anything happen to her.
But now, Rhodey mused, Tony was nowhere to be found. Pepper was going to wake up expecting to see her best friend – her lover – and Rhodey was going to have to break the news to her. He wasn't so sure their relationship – whatever it was evolving to these days – could survive this blow.
"Sir, there are reports coming in from the Middle East," JARVIS informed him, and Rhodey shook his head clear to focus on the debacle unfolding before him.
"We have just received reports from our journalists in the field that Iron Man has begun a barrage of a series of bunkers rumored to be a hideout for members of a large terrorist group known as the Abu Nidal Organization, which has recently laid claim to the bombing of a Parisian hotel resulting in the death of at least one hundred fourteen people."
Grainy footage, probably from a cell phone camera, clearly depicted Iron Man laying waste to an entire area. Repulsor blasts filled the screen as men screamed in agony at being torn apart by the force. Bullets bounced harmlessly off the armor as Tony marched his way through the complex, physically assaulting attackers that got too close. There was a calmness about his movement, an impassioned assuredness that scared Rhodey.
"It is unconfirmed whether or not the presence of Stark Industry weapons is the cause for this latest attack. The US military is calling for a cease and desist on the Iron Man's activities until further investigations can be made. There is, as of yet, no response from CEO Tony Stark."
Rhodey muted the newscast and leaned forward to put his head in his hands. He could claim Tony was out of control and ask for an immediate launch of the War Machine, but even in his heart he knew it was a lie. There was nothing chaotic or unruly about his actions; Tony knew exactly what he was doing. Each move was carefully planned, and Rhodey wondered how much of a toll this was going to take on all of them.
- What shall I, frail man, be pleading? Who for me be interceding, when the just are mercy needing? -
Dies Irae, Verse 7
Another blast sent two more ANO assailants flying, but Tony paid them no more heed than to make sure they were no longer breathing. JARVIS scanned each area thoroughly, and Tony used every ounce of strength to insure they would not harm anyone again.
"Sir," JARVIS' voice filled the helmet. "There are no more life signs in the immediate vicinity. A total of thirty-three terrorists have been neutralized." Neutralized, Tony thought with an empty laugh, that's a clean word for it.
"Pull up the next one." There was hesitation on the AI's part, and Tony growled. "Do it, JARVIS!" His HUD flashed red in another area, and he blasted off in that direction. His mind filled with images of explosions, and of Pepper lying bloody on a French street, surrounded by death and destruction. Anger boiled his blood as he fought tears, and when he landed at the second site he razed the land.
- King of Majesty tremendous, who dost free salvation send us. Fount of pity, then befriend us! -
Dies Irae, Verse 8
Rhodey jolted awake as the pilot announced their imminent landing in Paris. He called the hospital and explained who he was again, trying to get his point across in broken French. JARVIS helped with the translations, but Rhodey was still no closer to seeing Pepper than before. As he hung up the phone, another news bulletin flashed on the screen.
"The 'Iron Avenger' has struck again as yet another terrorist base is decimated in this ongoing eight hour offensive by Iron Man. The US Military has begun steps to disassociate with the beloved superhero, claiming the head of Stark Industries is not acting under any orders from the government. Lisa Henning is live in Washington where Senator Stern is set to make an announcement. Lisa?" Rhodey turned his head as the screen cut to Washington, D.C., the Capitol Building a prominent backdrop to an imposing Senator Stern standing behind a podium on the steps. Several reporters mobbed the area in front of him, but most of the screen was taken up by a petite woman in a blue blouse.
"Thank you, Rob. I'm here with Senator Stern, who is about to issue a statement to the press regarding the Iron Man attacks." The camera panned over her shoulder to focus in on the Congressman.
"Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow Americans, thank you for coming here today. The last eight hours have been both harrowing and worrisome, but I have come to you today to tell you that the Iron Man is no longer operating under the parameters set out to us by Mr. Stark himself. He told us the Iron Man weapon was a suit of armor, a defense against the threats of others against our beloved nation. But these unprovoked attacks are in blatant violation of that very policy. That he has taken it upon himself to act as a paramount authority proves overwhelmingly that he is acting in a manner that is tantamount to treason, and is in direct violation of the democratic policies that have shaped this great nation. I call on the President and on the people of the world to demand the immediate halt of these atrocities and for the dismantling of the Iron Man suits once and for all."
The camera cut away from Stern back to the studio where a photo of picketers in France held signs in support of Iron Man. One man had a child clad in an Iron Man Halloween costume hoisted onto his shoulders.
"There has been an outcry of French support for Iron Man in the wake of the tragedy that killed one hundred fourteen people, including a prominent French actress and her eight year old son." Different images flashed on the screen, but they all told the same story: Iron Man had become a French national hero in the matter of hours. One young college student hammed it up in the background as his classmate spoke to the reporter.
"The governments of the world have been ineffective in preventing these kinds of tragedies. Iron Man is doing what should have been done ten years ago."
Rhodey turned off the coverage as the plane descended to the tarmac. He had to focus on Pepper now, to make sure she got better. He had a feeling that when Tony was finished, Pepper wasn't going to be the only one needing healing, and Rhodey steeled himself for the rough road ahead.
The drive to the hospital was brief, and Rhodey strode through the doors with the authority his rank provided. Unfortunately, his status in the US military didn't give him any kind of credence with the French doctors, and he was given the royal runaround for almost an hour before he told them of his connection with Iron Man. At the mention of the newly crowned 'Royal Hero,' Rhodey was immediately ushered into Pepper's private room. A young doctor entered moments later and he smiled flatly at the Air Force officer.
"Colonel Rhodes I'm Jean Fornier, the lead physician in Miss Potts' case." The man's accent was thick, but Rhodey could understand him, and he felt a surge of relief at the doctor's lingual skills.
"How is she?"
"She is stable, but unresponsive. We almost lost her once on the trauma table, but we managed to restart her heart with the use of a defibrillator and respirator. She's breathing on her own, but that's really the only good news I have for you." Rhodey couldn't take his eyes off the pale form of his friend lying in the bed. There was a bandage on the left side of her head, and several more on her arms and legs. Her left wrist was in a cast, and Rhodey could see the edges of the bandages wrapped around her middle.
"She sustained a fractured wrist, two cracked ribs, multiple lacerations and contusions. It's the head wound that concerns me," the doctor continued. "If she doesn't wake by tomorrow morning, I fear she'll slip into a coma. If that happens, there's little chance for her survival." Rhodey closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and when he opened them the doctor had stepped closer. "Does she have any immediate family that should be notified? I'm afraid we have very little in the way of records for her."
"I brought her file," Rhodey pulled out a small manila folder and handed it to the younger man. "That's her complete medical history, as well as all the legal documentation. Tony Stark is her medical proxy."
"Then in her current condition, we cannot do anything without his consent," the doctor took the papers gratefully. "I will leave you alone. You may stay here; I have already informed the nurses not to disturb you unless it's important." He made to walk out the door, but as his hand reached for the doorknob he spoke again. "If you speak to Mr. Stark, tell him the people of France are indebted to him." And he was gone.
Rhodey waited until the door shut completely before he moved to sit in the chair by Pepper's bed. Now that he was alone, he pulled out his laptop and powered it on; he'd promised Happy an update as soon as he had it, and his cell phone wasn't reliable in the hospital. As the computer booted up, Rhodey flipped through the local television channels looking for anything further about Iron Man.
- Think, good Jesus, my salvation cost thy wondrous Incarnation; leave me not to reprobation! -
Dies Irae, Verse 9
After fifteen hours of destruction, Tony was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally, but he vowed he wouldn't quit until every last member of the ANO was dead. At the last base, JARVIS had found a list of a few more complexes, sending Tony careening off into another direction. SHIELD had tried to contact him but he'd ignored Fury's calls as he reduced hideouts and operations to ashes.
JARVIS had also wired in about Stern's announcement, as well as the French response to his counterattack. He could deal with the aftermath later; the only thing that mattered now was that the bastards who had harmed Pepper paid for what they'd done. He was lost without her – she was as important to him as air. Each time he imagined what his life would become if she died a dark rage roiled inside of him, giving him fuel for the next massacre.
He was going to make sure they never hurt anyone else ever again.
- Faint and weary, thou hast sought me, on the cross of suffering bought me. Shall such grace be vainly brought me? -
Dies Irae, Verse 10
Rhodey listened to the steady, reassuring beep of Pepper's heart monitor as the news drawled on in the background. Iron Man had matched the death toll for the bombing, and raised them a couple dozen more. All in all, over two hundred and fifty people were dead in two days, and Iron Man was twenty-three hours into his annihilation of the ANO.
Reporters had been rushed into the area with cameras, hoping to get a glimpse of the hero in action. France had declared him a national hero, and there had been such an outpouring of support from America that Senator Stern was now facing a judicial tribunal for his earlier statement. According the Associated Press, he had issued his blanket statement without prior authorization from the United States government. Now, both the Senate and the President were putting as much distance between the senator and themselves as possible. The military was still miffed about Iron Man's actions, but no one was willing to go against the overwhelming public opinion to make any statement.
The images on the screen changed from pictures of patriotic citizens to actual footage of Iron Man's campaign in the Middle East. Explosions rocked the headquarters of the ANO, and while his armor was marred, dented, scratched, and charred, Tony was showing no signs of slowing. Rhodey pulled out his cell phone and stood up, intent on ending this once and for all. He laid a cool hand on Pepper's forehead, smoothing her hair away from her face before stepping out into the corridor. He found a secluded corner where his signal was decent before placing the call.
- Righteous Judge! for sin's pollution grant thy gift of absolution, ere the day of retribution. -
Dies Irae, Verse 11
When the incoming call signal sounded in his helmet, Tony was completely content with ignoring whatever Director Fury had to say. But as Rhodey's face filled his vision he stopped his assault temporarily to answer.
"Rhodey, how's Pepper?"
"Oh so now you care?" Rhodey wasn't in the mood for pleasantries, and his tone was sharp and unforgiving.
"What do you mean? Of course I care. Why do you think I'm out here?" He lifted his arm and blasted an insurgent off a building, ducking as an RPG sailed by his head.
"Don't kid yourself, Tony. You're not doing this for her! You're mad at yourself for not protecting her and you don't know how to handle your feelings." Rhodey's words hit a little too close to home and Tony gritted his teeth as he growled a response.
"What are you a psychologist now? I wasn't aware you'd gone back to school, Rhodes."
"Cut the shit, Tony, and get your ass here now. She needs you." Rhodey had dealt with Tony's selfish rampages enough in the past to know how to get through to him.
"I can't." The defeat in Tony's voice threw Rhodey completely. It was unlike the normally aloof, unconventional genius to be so candid – to give in so easily to his fear.
"Why not, Tony? Why can't you come be with her?"
"Because it's my fault!" Tony cried, venting his anger on the nearest immobile object. A half-wall exploded ten feet from him, but Tony didn't seem to notice. "I sent her there in my place because I was too goddamned busy!" A second energy blast destroyed another wall. Rhodey was shocked into silence at the admission, so Tony's next words were loud and clear. "It should have been me."
"Tony, you can't think like that," he reasoned. "What you've done, what you're doing…Pepper wouldn't want that. You need to be here, Tony." There was more silence as Tony thought about what had been said. He had intended on bringing to justice those who had hurt Pepper, the ones responsible for putting her in the hospital. But as the cold reality washed over him, he powered his repulsors down and took flight. It was time to own up to the truth. He was the one responsible, and he needed to pay his penance. But he couldn't do that from where he was. Rhodey was right.
"I'm on my way."
- Guilty, now I pour my moaning, all my shame with anguish owning; spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning! -
Dies Irae, Verse 12
Rhodey sighed in relief as he shut his phone. Tony was coming in, and while his scars would be invisible, Rhodey guessed both he and Pepper would need more than a little time to heal. He stepped back into the quiet room and checked the time. It was almost two o'clock in the afternoon – Iron Man's rampage had lasted an entire day. Rhodey suspected only he and Tony knew of the true drive behind the obliteration of the ANO, but he also guessed no one would fuss too much. Tony had rid the world of a violent extremist group that had killed countless people over the course of three decades. Someone would probably even give Tony a medal when it was all over.
The door opened and Rhodey looked up, his muscles relaxing as her realized it was just the doctor. He checked Pepper's vitals silently, his face set in a deep frown.
"Iron Man's mission is finished," Rhodey said in his best authoritative voice. "I'm going to meet him at the airfield, then we'll be returning here. He will not want to be mobbed."
"I'm afraid I can guarantee nothing, but I will endeavor to keep his visit low key. Perhaps the staff entrance around the back?" He scribbled something down and tore a small strip of paper off the chart. "Here is the code to get into the docking entrance."
"Thank you," Rhodey shook the man's hand in gratitude as he dashed out the door. He sent a message to JARVIS letting Tony know to meet him at the plane, and when Iron Man landed heavily outside the jet Rhodey reached out to steady him. He knew from experience how heavy that armor could get, and with his help Tony managed to stumble into the cargo area as JARVIS disassembled the suit and stowed them in some hidden compartments.
Once Tony was free, he showered quickly and collapsed into the back seat of the Rolls Royce that Rhodey had been using. The chauffeur, a young Frenchmen, shook Tony's hand and thanked him profusely. Tony stammered pleasantries in fluent French even as the car pulled out of the airport and zipped toward the hospital.
- Thou the sinful woman savedst; thou the dying thief forgavest; and to me a hope vouch safest. -
Dies Irae, Verse 13
Rhodey had prepared Tony for Pepper's condition, but it was still a shock to see her normally vibrant form so pale and still. Tony slipped to her side instantly, taking up a vigil in the chair next to her bed. The EKG beeped steadily and her chest rose and fell in rhythm, and both were comforting to Tony. She was alive, and that's all that mattered to Tony. A world without Pepper Potts was unimaginable, and he felt tears sting his eyes as the thought flitted through his mind.
"Tony," Rhodey's words were quiet, as if speaking louder would somehow break the delicate balance in the room. "The doctor's on his way and he's going to explain some things to you. I need you to listen, okay? I mean really listen, Tony."
Tony nodded, but Rhodey guessed he hadn't heard. His eyes never left Pepper's pale face, and his fingers traced the outline of her cheek softly. The door opened slightly, admitting the young doctor.
"Mr. Stark," the doctor moved forward with his hand outstretched, but Tony didn't budge. Unfazed, the young man plowed on. "My name is Jean Fornier. It's an honor to have you here sir."
"Tell me how she is," Tony insisted, his tone all business. The doctor cleared his throat and grabbed the chart. He detailed each of her injuries, and Tony felt his heart breaking upon hearing each wound aloud. When he reached the head trauma the doctor paused, and Tony finally looked up.
"What?" he demanded.
"The longer she remains unconscious, the greater her chances of brain damage when she wakes up, if she wakes up at all. I understand you are her medical proxy?" Tony nodded and swallowed forcibly. "Then you understand why I am about to ask you this question. Does Miss Potts' have any wishes in regards to an action regarding her current condition?" It took half a second for his meaning to sink in, and Tony let out a feral growl as he launched himself at the doctor. The lapels of the white lab coat bunched in his fists as he slammed the younger man against the wall.
"You are not pulling the plug on her, got that? It isn't happening. She's going to wake up." Rhodey's hand on his shoulder brought him down to reality and he released the doctor with a contrite grunt.
"Please, Mr. Stark, I understand your feelings in this matter. I should let you know that it is your call as her proxy. I must also inform you that if she is not awake by tomorrow morning, there is a seventy percent chance she will be comatose for the rest of her life. And if she does wake…there is a good chance she will not be able to function as she once did. I'm sorry." With one last apologetic look, Dr. Fornier closed the door behind him.
"Tony," Rhodey began, but Tony whirled on his friend.
"She's going to wake up," he insisted. Rhodey patted him on the shoulder and smiled grimly.
"I know, Tony. I have to make a call, why don't you sit with her a while?" Tony didn't respond as Rhodey stepped out of the room. The steady beeping of the machines broke the silence, and Tony felt his own heart matching their rhythm as he took a seat next to her bed. His warm hand found her colder one, and he forced himself to watch the steady rise and fall of her chest that indicated she was still with him.
Rhodey ended up getting a hotel room nearby, but Tony refused to leave the hospital. To the staff and general public, Tony was nothing less than a compassionate, devoted man; his steadfast refusal to leave Pepper was possibly the most romantic thing anyone had ever witnessed. But Rhodey saw beyond the mask, beyond the concern, and saw the raw pain underneath. Tony blamed himself for her condition, and no amount of persuasion was going to convince him otherwise. He had a penance to pay, and he intended to see his atonement through to the end.
He refused any comforts, choosing instead to sit in the hard-backed chair next to her bed to ensure he was as close as possible. He held her hand as he stared into oblivion, his mind replaying the images of the last two days like a silent movie. He'd long ago turned off the television, when the local news bombarded him with the horrific images of what was left of the Ritz Paris. The gaping hole that had once been a beautiful vista haunted him, and he'd fumbled for the remote through his tears to shut it off.
- Worthless are my prayers and sighing, yet, good Lord, in grace complying, rescue me from fires undying! -
Dies Irae, Verse 14
Time and again he nodded off, his head lolling to his chest before he jerked sharply and woke up. Once he managed almost ten full minutes before his saliva pooled onto his outstretched arm. He never once relinquished his hold on her hand, as if clinging to it would somehow anchor her to him. Nurses came and went, silently taking measurements and doing tests that meant nothing to Tony. He watched them all like a hawk, his eyes following each movement then flicking up to see if the result was encouraging. But time after time all Tony received was a sympathetic smile. As night turned into morning, the looks became more and more hopeless, and Tony's desperation grew.
Rationally, his mind knew that the longer she stayed under, the less likely her chances were of waking. He knew, logically, that even if she did wake up, the likelihood for brain damage was significant. He also knew that Pepper wouldn't want that for her – for him – and he was going to have to make a call soon.
He also knew that call would most likely kill him, too.
Penance, his mind kept repeating. Justice. Going on with his life without her would be tortuous, and probably impossible. But in the early morning hours, Tony made a promise to her and to himself. If it came down to it, if he had to make that call, he would do it for her. And he vowed he would live the rest of his days in remembrance of what he'd done.
- With thy favored sheep O place me; nor among the goats abase me; but to thy right hand upraise me. -
Dies Irae, Verse 15
Anything was better than this nothing, Pepper decided as she tried in vain to make sense of what her brain was telling her. It wasn't as if she was in a darkened room; there was no foreboding sense of space around her. And it wasn't just her vision that was gone, because even without her eyes the rest of her body would be able to perceive her surroundings.
This nothingness was beginning to creep into her soul, to consume her entirely. She had no way of telling the passage of time, or of even thinking about anything to pass the time. Her mind simply could not focus on anything other than nothing.
Sensation returned a bit at a time. The oppressive nothingness lessened for just a moment, and she could hear the sound of her own blood rushing in her ears. She latched onto the sensation, trying to focus everything on it. Eventually, she realized she could feel her heart pumping, and she rejoiced.
The nothingness receded a little more, and the perception of space overwhelmed her. She was lying down, she discerned, and there was a faint beeping noise in the background. She was resting on something soft, and there was a light pressure on her body indicating she was probably under a blanket of some kind.
Still, she could not force her eyes open. Her brain kicked into high gear, trying to identify her condition based on the context clues. Beeping, soft bed, light cover…I'm in a hospital room. At once, images of a fiery explosion and the memories of the acrid smell of burnt flesh assaulted her. She recoiled from it, her muscles clenching involuntarily as she tried to escape the flashback. Instantly, she was pulled from her own mind by the feel of her fingers curling around something warm and yielding. The warm something shifted, then, and Pepper clamped down reflexively.
Her eyes flew open and she was assaulted by the faint light of dawn filtering through the windows. She blinked heavily several times, trying to clear the fog from her brain as she processed her surroundings. When she could think clearly and identify everything in her sight, she slowly shifted her vision around the room.
The signs were posted in French, and she remembered all at once the ill-fated trip to Paris. There had been an explosion in the hotel lobby, and though she'd been in the restaurant the fireball had engulfed most of the lower floor. She had been saved from the fire by the thick marble walls that cordoned the restaurant from the rest of the hotel, and when the ceiling had begun collapsing, the imposing columns had protected her from the worst of the damage.
As she searched the room, her eyes fell suddenly on the form slumped over in the chair next to her bed. Tony looked like death warmed over, and he was covered in just as many bruises and scrapes as she was. He held her hand in a vice-grip, even in sleep, but Pepper didn't mind. He was here, with her, and that was all that mattered. Her vocal cords didn't want to work, and she swallowed painfully as her throat worked to produce some sort of sound. She squeezed his hand gently, hoping to elicit some sort of response from him. After a few moments he opened his eyes, blinking blearily as he woke.
- While the wicked are confounded, doomed to flames of woe unbounded call me with thy saints surrounded. -
Dies Irae, Verse 16
He'd fallen asleep again, this time for quite a long time if the morning rays were any indication. He rubbed his eyes tiredly with his free hand, then stifled a yawn that cracked his features. Movement caught his eye, and he lifted his head sharply to stare into Pepper's blue eyes. Recognition crossed her face, and he offered her a tentative smile. There was no telling how much damage she had sustained – amnesia was always a possibility, he recalled – and he didn't want to frighten her more than she already was.
"How are you feeling?" He forced the pleasantry in lieu of sweeping her up into his arms and holding on for dear life. Her throat worked as she tried to produce sound, and finally she managed a raspy response.
"Water?" He let go of her hand for the first time in twelve hours, but as soon as she'd drank half the cup, he set it on the bedside table and reached for her again.
"Better?" She nodded and looked around.
"There…" he took a deep breath and plowed ahead. "There was a bombing at your hotel, do you remember?" She nodded absently, having guessed correctly that the only explanation for the initial explosion had to be a bomb. But her nod gave him hope, and he knelt next to her bed. "Pepper, I need you to tell me what you remember? Do you know who I am?"
She didn't answer him verbally, but look she shot him made him grin from ear to ear. Only his Pepper could give him that glare, the one that told him he was being idiotic again, and he surged forward to kiss her fully even as he laughed in delight. Not only had she beaten the odds and actually awakened, but she seemed to be completely healthy.
"Tony," she managed to croak after he pulled away from her. "What happened?" The repeated question disheartened him, and he stood quickly.
"I should call your doctor. I'll be right back, I promise." He dashed out the door screaming at the top of his lungs for anyone who would listen. Immediately, two doctors and three nurses rushed down the hall toward him, and when he told them about Pepper's miraculous awakening they pushed past him and into her room.
He stood by silently as they checked her over. They ordered scans to be sure, but it seemed as if Pepper Potts had sustained only moderate injuries in the explosion that had decimated the Ritz. It was a miracle, and the hopeless romantics on the nursing staff swooned when Tony swooped in to claim her hand again as the medicos cleared away.
"Tony, I don't understand. I should be dead. I felt the explosion: I saw the hotel collapse around me. How did I survive?" Tony sat on the edge of her bed and smoothed her hair away from her face. Leaning forward, he laid his forehead against hers and closed his eyes.
"I don't care, Pepper," he admitted. "I don't care how, and I don't care why. All I care about is that you're alive and safe and…" his throat closed over his words as the tears threatened to spill. "God Pep," he breathed, "it's only been two days but I was lost without you." She let him cling to her, obviously needing this contact to assure himself that she was indeed alive. She slid her arm over his shoulder to pull him closer to her, but when he hissed in pain and pulled back sharply she raised her eyebrows in question.
Instantly, his look of relief morphed into uncertainty. He fidgeted nervously and looked everywhere but her face as he thought of a response. Finally, she couldn't take it any longer.
"Tony, what happened to you? Why are you covered in bruises?" When he finally looked into her eyes she gasped at the pain there, at the sheer terror she saw in his face. He was afraid, she realized, and the beeping of her heart monitored increased dramatically in the quiet room. He stood up and walked to the window, and she could see the tension in his shoulders, and the smattering of bruises along his arms.
"One hundred fourteen people are dead. A terrorist group called the Abu Nidal Organization claimed responsibility mere hours after the bomb went off." He stared at his reflection in the window, seeing for the first time just how much of a toll this had taken on him. He didn't dare turn to face her as he laid the rest of his story bare before her.
She stayed silent as he recalled the sheer terror he'd felt when Rhodey had burst in on him. Even his zealous reaction didn't faze her; she was used to his mood shifts and Tony had never been good at anything but extremes. But as he detailed exactly what he'd been doing while she had been fighting for her life, she felt her chest constricting again. Her heart rate spiked and she found it hard to breathe. He spun as the machines screamed that something was wrong, and froze instantly at the look in her eyes.
She was afraid.
Tony's knees gave out and he collapsed back against the wall even as the doctors crashed in. He watched as they calmed her down and tried to discern the cause of her distress. None of them suspected the man in the corner could have been at fault, so they wrote it off to a recovery symptom and left her alone. Her eyes had left his some time ago, and they were now firmly planted on the dull blanket draped over her legs. But Tony didn't have to see her eyes to know what she was thinking.
- Low I kneel, with heart submission, see, like ashes, my contrition; help me in my last condition. -
Dies Irae, Verse 17
Pepper was having a hard time processing Tony's words. The man she'd known for over a decade, the man she'd fallen in love with, had murdered over a hundred people. There was very little her mind could do with that information at the moment, so she shoved it aside for the moment to deal with the more pressing issue of why. But that answer, she found, was much simpler: she had been hurt. And Tony was nothing if not fiercely protective of anything he considered "his."
She had no doubt about the absolute loyalty Tony showed her; she knew he would be by her side in a heartbeat if she asked. And in the past, when she'd been in danger, he'd literally swooped in a saved her life. He'd taken on Stane in a suit three times his size, he'd protected her against the crazed Russian on the Monaco track, and he'd almost killed himself getting to her just before the Hammer drones had exploded.
But this was a new level she'd never even contemplated. Tony would die for her – and she for him, she'd admit that freely – but it went deeper than that. Tony would kill for her, and that was a power she couldn't comprehend. He loved her enough that he would take another person's life if it meant her safety. She tried to think about what would happen if Tony were in danger. Would she – could she – make that decision and live with it? She was vaguely aware of him calling her name, trying to get her to look up at him. When she did, she had the answer to her question.
Yes. She would kill for this man, and she would face the consequences gladly if it meant he was living and breathing beside her. She'd lived without him – thought him dead – for three months, and that hollow, gaping emptiness that had consumed her for 87 days had been torture.
Wordlessly she reached her hand out for him, and that was only encouragement he needed. He was already crying as he rushed to her side and wept into her shoulder as she held him close. It seemed he, too, was trying to come to terms with his actions, and Pepper promised him silently that she would get him through this. Iron Man was still a shield, and the world still needed him. If Tony had been broken by this, Pepper would piece him back together.
He grew heavy on her, and she realized he was probably completely exhausted from his excursion and the emotional upheaval he'd been through. She scooted over as far as the small bed would allow, and with his last voluntary movement he settled into the space next to her. Within seconds, he was snoring softly on her shoulder, and she smiled as she brushed an errant lock of hair away from his face. She traced the faint outline of a bruise on his cheek, wiping away the tears that had settled there, then placed a kiss into his hair. She grabbed the remote from the table and flipped the television on; she had rested for two days, it was time see what the world had been up to.
"'Day of Wrath.' That's what the media is calling Iron Man's twenty-four hour and thirteen minute assault on the terrorist group known as the Abu Nidal Organization," the reporter was saying. "In one day, Iron Man completely eradicated the ANO, who have been reported to have been the cause of thousands of deaths in the last three decades, including one hundred and fourteen people killed two days ago by a bomb at the Ritz Paris. Without fear of reprimand, people are coming forward with tales of horror living underneath this regime's iron foot. Men castrated in the town squares; women ravaged in their own homes as their frightened families looked on; children abused and slaved away for entertainment. These stories and dozens more like them have been brought to light in the wake of Iron Man's one-man offensive."
Pepper glanced down at the slumbering figure next to her and tried to tell herself that he'd done it all for them; for the men and women and children who couldn't stand up for themselves. That's what the world was going to believe – hell, she'd probably be writing the press release in that very tone. But as images of what he'd done flashed on the screen, Pepper couldn't fool herself anymore. He'd done it for her.
Day of wrath, she thought dryly, couldn't be more fitting. With the press of the button she changed the channel, settling on some black and white movie that Tony would complain about but always watch with her anyway.
The questions would flood in, and there would come a time when they were going to have to face the world. But for now, as Tony slept restfully in her arms, she was content to ignore the world. Tomorrow, she would deal with the press, and the company, and the aftermath of whatever damage Tony had inflicted on himself. For now, there was only the two of them in this small hospital room in France. The rest could wait.
Ah! that day of tears and mourning! From the dust of earth returning man for judgment must prepare him; Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!
Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest, grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.
Dies Irae, Verses 18-19
Wow, I can't believe I finished this in less than a week. I've had a few more ideas pop up while writing this, and I did my best to jot them down. So hopefully there are a few more in the future. I love writing in this universe - there's so much possibility. Anyway, enough of me rambling, let me know what you think!