As the four made their way back to the first floor, they were greeted by Pepper and another slender woman. Her red locks fell in curls down to her shoulders, moving whenever she moved as she eyed the three that followed Tony, her grey eyes showing a slight glint when they landed on Tabitha.
“Sweet; pizza…” Tabitha noticed the pizza boxes on the elegant glass coffee table instead of the steely stare from the redhead.
“Figured you’d be hungry with all the work you four were doing. This is Tony’s personal assistant, Natalie Rushman.” Pepper introduced. The redhead shook hands with the three, “Help yourselves.” she offered as the three sat down. Natalie gave everyone a polite smile as she stood.
“I have to get going. Mr. Stark, if there isn’t anything…” before she could finish, he waved her off and headed to his personal bar. Tabitha smiled at the woman.
“Aha; not the only one who calls you ‘Mr. Stark’…” she switched glances from Natalie to Tony, giving him a smug grin. He shrugged.
“She works for me...” he simply replied.
“Nice meeting you, Miss Rush…”
“Just Natalie. If you’re here to help Mr. Stark then we’ll see each other, soon.” Natalie smiled and left.
“Drinks around the room?” Tony continued to fix himself a drink; Tabitha noticed without any type of chaser.
“Just a beer, if you got it…” Ramil took him up on his offer. His wife nodded.
“The same here. Tabitha?”
“… Yeah; ditto.”
“What are you, frat boys?” Tony scoffed however handed his three guests beer. He suddenly nodded towards the t-shirt head wrap of Tabitha’s, “Why are you wearing a shirt around your head, dawling?” the last word made her cringe slightly. She sighed; what was she hiding from? She gently took the head wrap off, letting her snow white hair fall to her shoulders.
“Oh… wow…” Pepper couldn’t hide her own amusement. Tony idly grabbed a strand of her hair and studied it.
“Stripped pigments… whatever did this gave you your powers?”
“What happened to you?” Pepper asked and Tabitha started her story. Before she could fully explain, the phantom computerized voice interrupted her.
“James Rhodes, sir…” it announced as a tall, lean uniformed man entered the room. His coffee skin matched well with the blue uniform, one that Tabitha immediately recognized as an Air Force Service Dress uniform. She was also glad that she remembered her insignias; she knew what the silver oak leafs pinned on his shoulders stood for: lieutenant colonel.
“Just in time; this is James Rhodes, a dear friend of mine and general…”
“Lieutenant colonel…” his eye roll made Tabitha slightly giggle.
“… Of the Air Force.” Tony finished without missing a beat. James shook his head at first as he greeted everyone in the room. When he went to shake Tabitha’s hand, he couldn’t help staring at her white locks.
“A pleasure, sir…” her voice took him out of his trance. He gave her a warm smile.
“Either you’re as southern as your accent portrays or you’re military; only my unit calls me sir!”
“Both, actually… well, I was military; Army.” she answered. She took notice that his eyes continued to stare at her hair and smiled, “And I’m from Tennessee. You, um… wanna hear why my hair is white…”
“Yes…” he blinked and sat down with the others.
The next day, the four continued with their work on the armors. It went by faster this time around, seeing that Tony didn’t want to test out the other suits. Tabitha was putting the finishing touches on the last prototype armor; this one was different from the rest, being mainly grey and black instead of the usual red and gold.
“Wow…” a familiar voice commented. She stopped what she was doing and turned, looking into the brown eyes of James. She removed her goggles and smiled, “So, you really can make anything indestructible…?”
“I guess. I just recently moved up to metal. The first test went pretty good. I wanna see it go through a rougher test, though…” she looked around at the other armors. She looked back at him, “So… how did you and Mr. Stark meet?”
“I was a military liaison for Stark Industries. I… didn’t like him at first. Arrogant, selfish, rude…”
“… An asshole…” she volunteered lowly. It was enough to make James laugh.
“I was trying to be nice but yes; Tony can be an asshole some… all of the time!” he sighed. She giggled slightly.
“Damn… hate to hear what you say about your enemies!”
“You pointed it out! I admit; he’s a jerk but… he’s a good jerk, you know?” he commented. She could only nod in agreement; she had never met anyone like Tony Stark. She saw that behind the attitude, he had a fraction of a soft side to him.
“So… is he just all suit? I mean, does he have powers like me or is it just the suit?”
“Wow; have you lived underneath a rock the past year?”
“Actually, smart ass; in space…” she smirked.
“It’s my home, now. Has been for a couple of years, now.”
“Oh. Well… I know that you’ve noticed that glow in the middle of his chest…”
“Yeah; been meaning to ask about that…”
“It’s what powers the suits. We kind of joke and say that it’s his heart now… which can almost be taken literally.” James explained lowly. Her eyes widened at his words. She looked over at where Tony, Ramil and Ashley were doing light training.
“You saying… he ain’t got no heart?!” her words made him cringe.
“No one cares that you speak like that…?”
“… Like what?”
“Forget it! Anyway; it’s called an arc reactor. About a year ago, we were in Afghanistan, testing out a missile. Call him what you want but the man is dedicated to anything that his company makes…”
“He had to see to things personally…” she realized. James nodded but his expression quickly turned to one of guilt.
“I… I should’ve stayed with him. We were leaving the test site in different hummers… his was ambushed. Before we could turn around and retaliate, the terrorist group had already captured him and fled. He was in a bad way; shrapnel from the attack hit him in the chest.”
“Jesus; how did he survive…?” her voice lowered. She studied him, now as Ramil and himself sparred with one another.
“He explained it to me but… I’m not a genius like he is! Someone else was there with him, put some sort of magnet in his chest to keep the shrapnel from getting to his heart. They needed him alive so that he could make them a missile. The man was running off a generator… it was needed to power up that magnet.”
“Yeah. Long story short, he ended up making a makeshift suit to escape; destroyed their base and everything. I finally found him roaming the desert. We got back here, he updated the reactor, his company stopped producing weapons and he created what you see here.”
“Wow! He’s been through a lot…”
“Yeah. And… since you live out in space, you probably don’t know that the government wants his armor…”
“And, here you are, making them indestructible…” he looked at her. She returned the stare.
“What you saying; that I was sent here by the government…? I was doing this as a favor for a friend!”
“No; I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to accuse you. I just found it slightly ironic of your timing. The two of you do incredible work…” he gazed at the black and grey armor. She took notice and slightly nodded.
“James… do you like his suits?” she pried. He slightly shrugged.
“I won’t lie; it’s the best thing that he’s ever created. I’ve seen it in action; it’s no wonder the government wants them.”
“But… do you want one?” she gave him a look, waiting for his response. He returned her gaze.
“What are you getting at?”
“Why would he make so many different armors? You’d think that if he’s such a great engineer, the only thing he’d have to do is just… continue to modify the one suit, right? He knows what I can do; all he had to do was let me upgrade one of the suits and be done with it. But, I’m upgrading all of ‘em!”
“Maybe he’s using them for different circumstances…”
“Or maybe… he’s making them different for different folks…”
“Let’s say you’re right. How would someone else work the suits? His arc reactor powers the suits; he and the armor are one.” James pointed out. Tabitha studied the armor that she was working on and smiled.
“I ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer… but I do know a few things! I noticed that this suit… don’t need his reactor; it’s got one built in, already…”
“It’s the only suit that does. Let’s see; he just met me and Pepper don’t look like she’d do the superhero stuff… this is your suit, James…”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because… he’s your friend…”