Sorry it's been so long! End of the semester and all. Getting close to the end, now, but I seem to be stalling… I hope you enjoy a different point of view.
A special thank you to those who read, and an extra helping of thanks to those who leave reviews.
JUST A JOB: Secret Agent Man
A studiously nondescript man walked quietly through the large glass doors into the lobby of Stark Industries. Not remarkably tall, or short, or fat, or thin. Not remarkably handsome, yet certainly not unattractive. The kind of man who could ease into the background, unnoticed.
Among his peers - which were few - he was known for moving with quiet, unhurried efficiency, while still somehow managing to always be exactly where he was needed. He was known for being able to handle the most difficult situations with thoughtful calm, even if bullets were flying, and it seemed the world might be ending. Known, and greatly appreciated.
He was also known to have a mind for detail, the ability to talk calmly in the face of opposition, and was therefore well suited for situations that required interaction with any kind of 'normal' people, which, in his experience, constituted anyone outside of the department.
Today was an interaction day. A calm day, in fact. There weren't many calm days in his line of work lately, and he was pleased to relax into it. Finally, he would be able to file the debriefing he had been assigned months ago. He smiled politely at the desk guard who looked up at him.
"Can I help you?"
"Good afternoon. I have an appointment scheduled with Mr. Stark."
The guard checked the computer. "And you would be…"
"Agent Philip Coulson."
The guard nodded with some distraction as he read off the monitor. "Well, Mr. Coulson, you're on the schedule all right, but Mr. Stark is out of the building at the present time." He gave the agent a grin that suggested this happened consistantly. "However, I know his assistant is picking some things up for him, because she came flying through about five minutes ago. If you wait over there, you should be able to catch Miss Potts, at least."
The agent nodded politely, and headed over to the bench indicated by the guard. Perfectly calm in appearance, internally he went over the things he had to do, that he could be doing right now, while he waited. Still, he felt relaxed. A delayed meeting was nothing compared to some of the situations he found himself in these days.
I better get this debriefing today, though, or Fury'll have a fit.
He was just determining whether or not the weekend would be calm enough to call a certain concert cellist when a movement on the mezzanine above caught his attention. People had been coming and going, but this was different. Pepper Potts was coming down the stairs, in a hurry. In fact, it looked like she would have broken into a run if she could have.
Beyond her, he saw Obadiah Stane appear quickly at the top of the stairs, glaring down at her. Agent Coulson saw Miss Potts half-turn, trying to see if Stane was there without actually looking. He spoke quickly but softly, not yet sure what was happening.
"Ms. Potts? We had an appointment. Did you forget about our appointment?" She moved past him so quickly that startled, he had to hurry to catch up. He was impressed at just how fast she could move in those heels.
Pepper glanced at him, registering who he was without slowing. Her brusque tone surprised him. "Nope, right now. Come with me." She looked slightly relieved at the presence of the agent, as if she could feel Obadiah's hot glare on her back.
Coulson saw the expression on her face, and compared it to the expression he could see on Stane as he glowered from the top of the stairs. "Right now?" He blinked as they trotted down the hall, automatically scanning the building for possible dangers – and other exits. "We're going to have it right now?" This was turning into a completely different situation than he had hoped for. As usual.
"Yeah, walk with me."
"Okay." Walk? If she hadn't been so tense, Agent Coulson might have laughed as he trotted to keep up. She went on, shaking her head and muttering.
"I'm going to give you the meeting of your life. Your office."
They strode purposefully through the glass doors, and out into the fresh air. Pepper let out a breath, but kept talking nervously. "Cab. A cab. Do we need a cab?"
The agent took her elbow, and was surprised when she startled a bit. "I have a car, Miss Potts. Come on. We'll get you out of here."
"Is your car in the parking garage? I don't want to go to the parking garage. He might be waiting – I mean, he might know –" Her hand went to her forehead for a moment, and she tried to compose herself. "I'm sorry, Agent Coulson. I don't mean to drag you into this. It's just –"
He smiled gently at her. "It's alright. Trust me, I'm accustomed to dealing with difficult situations."
She looked into his eyes for a moment, and made her decision. With a terribly tight smile, she said, "Okay. Where can we talk?"
He took her hand and led her to a car that was parked in a no-parking zone, opened the door for her to get in, and closed it behind her. As he walked back to the driver's side, he glanced around the streets quickly as if checking the neighborhood, and spoke quietly into what appeared to be a cell phone.
"This is Coulson. I need a full team. Beta site 3. Now." By the time he was on the other side of the car, the phone was in his pocket again. He looked toward the Stark building as he opened the door, and, seeing no one was following, got in. "Okay, Miss Potts. We'll be in a safe place in ten minutes. For now, just catch your breath."
She nodded, blinking quickly, and tried to calm herself. "Thank you."
He grinned at her with a slight tilt of his head. "It's what we do." He didn't ask her any questions, but kept an eye on her as they drove. Whatever was wrong clearly had something to do with Obadiah Stane; and something about it seemed to make her eyes water.
Fifteen minutes later, Pepper was sitting at a conference table in what she felt was an oddly well-equipped office. Odd in that it swarmed with ten or so men in formal dark suits in the basement of a building that, according to the signs outside, belonged to a low-rent exterminator. Agent Coulson came in and handed her a cup of tea.
"Here you are, Miss Potts. Are you up to talking now?"
"Yes, of course." She smiled up at him briefly, but it was automatic, and didn't last. "Thank you, Agent Coulson. I just…"
He gave her a reassuring smile as he sat down at the table. "It's alright, Miss Potts. You want to tell me what happened?"
Pepper took a deep breath. "I went to the office to get some information for Mr. Stark…"
The agent made a subtle gesture that indicated to one of his crew that a recording should be rolling. "Yes?"
"And I found this video… oh, God, if only you could-… Wait! I can show you…" She reached into her bag and pulled out the thumb drive. "I can access this, I have the password – some of it's proprietary, but mostly Stane –" Pepper stared at the drive as Coulson took it carefully from her. "I can…"
He plugged it into his computer. The screen asked ever so politely for a password, and, with trembling hands, Pepper typed it in. She hit the translation option, and frowned as the video played, breathing unsteadily.
"You did not tell us that the target you paid us to kill was the great Tony Stark. As you can see, Obadiah Stane... "
The image of Tony Stark, bloody, beaten, and clearly numb from fear punctuated the sentence. Coulson heard Potts quietly gasp when Stark appeared on the screen, and noted her shallow breathing as the video went on. The abuse to Stark was obvious, and her pained reaction made him reach out instinctively to touch her shoulder.
"... your deception and lies will cost you dearly. The price to kill Tony Stark has just gone up."
Coulson's jaw tightened. "Don't worry, Miss Potts… we'll see that Stane is –"
She suddenly began typing again. "Wait. There's more. There's…this."
She selected a folder and plans of the body armor appeared, flashing in succession on the screen. Coulson didn't look for more than two seconds before he turned to the men standing nearby. "Take this apart." The men nodded and several laptops appeared on the table like magic. With practiced efficiency they linked to the drive and divided up the sections of information.
After a few minutes, one of them spoke. "Sector 16?"
Coulson looked at Pepper. "Do you know where that is?"
"Yes, yes, it's in the lower section of the arc wing… I don't think it was being used before. I don't remember even hearing about it before." Her blue eyes grew dark as anger filled the space that fear had cleared. "I knew there was something going on with that man, but I never thought –"
Coulson nodded. "So he's got the space, and the tech. How far along?"
A few glances shot around the table as information was confirmed. "If this timetable is right, he's essentially ready."
"Hang on…" One of the men frowned at his screen. "Recent memos. The power source isn't coming together... looks like they were trying to recreate Stark's chest piece. He may have the armor built, but he still needs –" The man stopped abruptly, his eyes darting to Agent Coulson's.
Coulson swore softly. "Damn." It was only a moment, but his eyes registered just where one might get such a thing. Neither one of them was as fast as Pepper, though, who suddenly leapt up.
"Oh, my God. He's going to try to –"
"Miss Potts, can you take us to Sector 16?"
"But he'll kill him for it!"
"Miss Potts. We've got to stop him. That's not just armor, it's a killing machine. We can't let it get loose in the city –"
Pepper had her phone out before he finished. "Come on, Tony… damn." She pushed cancel on the unanswered call and shook the phone in her fist. She tried again in the car, still with no response from her boss. As they reached Stark Industries again, she nodded with a sudden decision. "I know." Hitting a number on speed dial, she got an answer almost immediately.
"Rhodey! Thank God. Listen, it's Obadiah, you've got to – you've got to find Tony. Rhodey, he's crazy, I found videos from the Ten Rings and he was paying them to do it! He was going to have Tony killed!"
The voice on the other end sounded confused, even though the man was clearly accustomed to Pepper's convoluted sentences when she was excited or upset. "What do you mean, he paid to have Tony killed?"
"I told you, it's on the video, he was trying –"
"Pepper, slow down. Why would Obadiah..."
"He just is. He's insane. He's making his own armor. And Rhodey, he probably needs a miniature arc reactor to make it work."
The colonel's voice suddenly went deathly serious. "Okay. Where's Tony now?"
"I don't know. He's not answering his phone. Please go over there and make sure everything's okay." Her voice softened slightly. "Thank you, Rhodey."
Coulson looked at her as she hung up, admiring the way determination shone through her as soon as she had chosen a path. She'd make a fine agent…
They walked into the back entrance of the reactor wing, and headed down the hall.
Miles away, in the basement workshop of a cliffside home, Tony Stark fumbled through shards of broken glass to reach for his Mark I chestpiece. For a moment, he felt too weak to pick it up. Why did I have to make that paralysis device so effective? And how long can I hold up without the generator backing up my heart? Pushing through the pain, he grabbed the chestpiece and rolled onto his back.
For a breath, he rested there, then picked the device up and tried to thread the cable into the open casing in his chest. "Damn cable. Can't even –" He tried again, but his fingers were fumbling blindly. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears, felt the pain in his chest radiating outwards.
Pain abruptly blossomed in his arm, and the chestpiece dropped from his hand, rolled off his chest and onto the floor. He scrabbled for it, anxiety adding nothing to his efficiency. He tipped sideways, reaching for it once more, not wanting to give up, but feeling more and more hopeless.
His voice came out in a hoarse whisper as his eyes closed. "Pepper…" Where were her petite hands when he needed them? He pictured her, imagined her concern, and suddenly, all he could see was Obadiah Stane's face; hear, once more, his words.
"Too bad you had to involve Pepper in this. I would have preferred that she lived."
"No…" Tony's eyes opened again. He looked up and blinked into the lights. "Dummy", he gasped. "Get over here."
His first robotic assistant moved closer, lowering its sensor array with a soft keening noise. "Dummy. You've got to help me. I can't plug this in…" Tony rolled onto his back once more, his eyes closing. "I can't…"
The sound of servos working diligently was the only noise for the space of several painful heartbeats. Then Tony opened his eyes in time to see his robot had extended its fine work pincers, and had clumsily picked up the chestpiece by the plug end. It swung almost comically over his face. Dummy, I hope when I tell you to plug it into my chest you understand what I mean…
"Dummy. Plug that into… into the receptacle in my chest. Only into the receptacle. Carefully. Now…" Stark closed his eyes. If you can't figure it out, I'm done…
The robot whined as it attempted the manoeuver, getting in its own way with the bulk of the miniature reactor. Slowly, it seemed to figure out the physics of the situation, and Tony gasped as he felt the pressure on his chest, just before the power kicked back in. He gulped air, then reached up and clicked the reactor into its casing. "Good boy. Very good-" Rolling onto his stomach, he tried to grab the edge of the workbench and stand up – but he wasn't strong enough yet. He slumped to the floor, waiting for his strength to return.
He honestly didn't know how long he had blacked out for when he heard the voice. It seemed to come from far away… and at first, he thought it was his father.
"Tony?" The voice got closer, and Tony suddenly realized who it was. He only wished he was conscious enough to respond. He heard footsteps in the workshop, and felt a hand on his shoulder. "Tony!" The hand, strong, turned him gently. "Tony! You okay?"
Tony Stark opened his eyes and saw his best friend standing over him, concern radiating like warmth from a fire. In a flash, he remembered everything that had happened, and attempted to lunge to his feet. It took a bit longer than he had hoped.
"She's fine. She's with five agents." Rhodes helped Tony to his feet as he spoke, trying to reassure him. "They're about to arrest Obadiah."
Stark did a quick calculation and gave his friend a bleak look. "That's not going to be enough."
Grabbing a strange tool from the workbench, Tony tightened the chestpiece in its socket, then threw the tool down and staggered a few steps.
The colonel shook his head, reaching out to steady him. "Take it easy, man. You've already been through hell tonight. And do you even know if that generator-"
"Rhodey, I've got to go. I'm not sure what Obie is up to, but-"
"Tony. Listen. He was responsible for your capture. They were supposed to kill you, not just keep you there. And now he's got his own armor."
Stark's eyes were haunted. "Finished?"
"It sounds like all he needed was one of these." Rhodes tapped Tony's chest. "Now what?"
Several indefinable emotions passed through Tony's eyes. He looked down, then up again into Rhodes' eyes, his voice a raw whisper. "Then I've got to take him out. No one else can."
"Yeah? And just how –"
"Come with me."
They walked farther into the workshop, and Rhodes gaped as he saw two suits of armor hanging in the center of the space. One shone silver, one red and gold. He shook his head in amazement and watched as the machinery dressed his friend, relieved to see that Tony seemed to be gaining strength as he suited up. The power assist of the armor probably helped.
"That's the coolest thing I've ever seen."
"Not bad, huh? Let's do it." Tony walked over to the hole he had inadvertently punched in the ceiling above the Shelby, and closed his helmet. Rhodes called out to him.
"You need me to do anything else?"
"Keep the skies clear." In a burst of light and sound he was gone, the additional sound of slightly more damage to the roof in his wake.
Colonel James Rhodes stared up at the hole, then looked at the silver armor that hung empty. "Damn!" The idea of flying without even an aircraft… "Next time, baby."
He ran upstairs and out into the night, the truck engine roaring as he shot down the drive. He needed to get to the base as fast as possible. Tony wanted the sky clear, and there was no way he would let him down.
Agent Coulson and his team followed Pepper as she walked through the bowels of the arc reactor complex.
"Section 16. Section 16. There it is." She strode to the door and swiped her keycard. Nothing happened. Frowning, she tried again. "My key's not working. It's not opening the door."
Coulson nodded as he stuck a small, easily carried disk on the sector door. Miss Potts babbled nervously. "Oh, wow! What's that? It's, like, a little device? It's, like, a thing that's going to pick the lock?"
The agent triggered the device and looked at her. "You might want to take a few steps back."
…please feed the author…