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Family Business

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The average-sized house in suburban Anaheim didn’t look like the kind of place a limo would pull up to - maybe around prom season, but not in the middle of a regular Saturday in August. So the fact that a limo had pulled up in front of that particular house was a matter of great and sudden interest to all of the neighbors, several of whom abruptly decided that 98 degrees really wasn’t too hot for going out to weed the front flower bed after all, or that they really should go out and say hi to their neighbor who was inexplicably weeding on such a hot, sunny day.

The limo’s driver got out and opened the rear door, offering his hand to assist a tall blonde woman in a stylish business suit and heels and then closing the door and conferring with her for a moment before taking up a waiting position beside the vehicle. The woman walked up the sidewalk leading to the door, mostly ignoring her fascinated audience from the surrounding houses - except for one neighbor who accidentally caught her eye and received a polite nod that shamed him into actually doing some weeding. She straightened when she reached the porch, adjusting the things she was holding, and rang the doorbell.

The woman who answered the door was about average height, shorter than Pepper by several natural inches and one pair of three-inch heels, but the family resemblance was unmistakable; Max definitely took after his mother. “Mrs. Tegan,” Pepper greeted her with a polite smile. “My name is Pepper Potts, I’m the CEO of Stark Industries. I was hoping you’d have a few minutes for us to talk about your son?” She indicated one of the things she was holding, a largish photo album. “I brought pictures.”

The inside of the house was just like the outside, neat but comfortably worn from several decades of family life. The living room’s entirely superfluous fireplace had been converted into a candle-place instead, and the mantle over it held an arrangement of somewhat dusty silk flowers and a few framed pictures of Max and his sister. The most recent picture of Max was still an old one, and Pepper shook her head over it. Max had slimmed down a lot since then, and she said so. His father raised an eyebrow at that, looking worried. “Is he…sick?”

Pepper just managed not to roll her eyes. “No, of course not. But his husband has to stay in shape, so he does too. And Blake’s aunt got married last month in Manhattan, so they’d both been working hard to keep fitting into their formal clothes for the wedding party.” She opened the album and flipped to a picture she’d taken right before they’d all left the Tower to go to Haven that night, holding the album out so they could see. “It paid off, but Blake and their friend Josie both said Max was absolutely miserable from all the dieting.” She pointed out another picture. “That’s Josie Noonan, she works with them at FindLove. The man beside her is her fiance, Captain Rogers - she met him at Max and Blake’s wedding at Mr. Stark’s house in Malibu.” She gave them a politely apologetic smile. “We had to keep your daughter from taking pictures of the other guests for security reasons, I’m sure you understand. That’s actually the reason I decided to stop by while I was here on the West Coast. ‘The kids’, as Mr. Stark calls them, don’t have the necessary clearance to share their photos or tell you about a lot of the things that have gone on, at the wedding or since, but I do. So, I’ll leave it up to you: What would you like to know?”

Mrs. Tegan had gone wide-eyed; possibly she’d only just now made the connection. “Mr. Stark knows Max?”

Pepper nodded. “As I said, he and Blake were married at Mr. Stark’s house in Malibu, and they all stayed at Avengers Tower for Blake’s aunt’s wedding last month. And Captain Rogers and Agent Barton live in the Tower - Agent Barton is engaged to one of Blake’s cousins, they’re getting married next month.” She smiled again. “Max says that if the current level of interrelationships keeps up, eventually they’ll all be related.” She flipped to the next page, which was a picture of the entire wedding party, and started pointing people out. “Blake’s family was at both weddings, of course. That’s his Aunt Allison and her husband Seth. There are Agent Barton and Blake’s cousin Amanda, his cousin Rhonda with her boyfriend Cougar, his other cousin Todji with his partner Jake, and his Aunt Elise, the director and CEO of FindLove.net where Max, Blake and Josie all work. Mr. Stark is also an investor in that company.”

Mr. Tegan blinked. “Max never told us his company was so…well-connected.”

Pepper pretended to think about that. “Let’s see, we became investors…right after Thanksgiving, not quite two years ago. I remember because it was hearing Max talk about his company that convinced us it would be worth investing in.” She shrugged. “And probably because Dr. Doom attacked the city that afternoon. He really should have known better than to try something on a holiday - these people all take their family time very seriously. Dr. Richards and his wife invested in the company after that too, they absolutely adore Max. He was protecting their son during the attack that day, he handled himself very well - especially considering it was the first battle he’d ever been involved in.” She leaned forward again, pointing out Reed and Sue. “That’s Dr. Richards and his wife. She and her brother are related to Captain Rogers.”

Max’s parents shared a look. “He…didn’t tell us about any of this,” Mrs. Tegan ventured. “He did call after Thanksgiving, but we didn’t talk for very long.”

“And he certainly didn’t mention anything about a battle or having been with a bunch of superheroes,” Mr. Tegan said. He was giving Pepper a shrewd look. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

She shrugged. “I knew he hadn’t been able to share classified information with you. As far as what he did tell you, I only know about that because Blake’s aunt told me. The way I understood it, the family doesn’t have a problem with you standing by your beliefs. They only had a problem with you not respecting your son when he stood up for his.”

Mrs. Tegan cleared her throat. “Our pastor says…”

Pepper held up one hand. “I don’t care, Mrs. Tegan. I’m not here to try to challenge your beliefs, or to talk you into reconciling with your son; I’m just here to share what amounts to a great deal of classified information because leaving you in the dark about certain things at this point could lead to trouble for everyone down the road. That picture,” she indicated the group wedding photo, “is considered classified. Mr. Stark and the other Avengers and the Fantastic Four were all there, along with several other groups whose names you wouldn’t know - because you aren’t supposed to.” A slightly cooler smile. “Josie told me she had a ‘minor freakout’ when she realized her friend Max was marrying into the real-world equivalent to the Wayne family and he’d invited her to the wedding. Max’s sister, on the other hand, made it quite clear that she only attended because she felt obligated to put in an appearance on behalf of your family. I’m afraid she didn’t make a very good impression. She’s a grown woman, though, so that’s her problem to sort out.” She turned the page, revealing a photo of a lot of people from the previous photos lounging around in the Avengers’ family room. “These pictures are from the day after Allison’s wedding. The wedding party was attacked by someone who was trying to take out Earth’s first line of defense all at once, and things got pretty ugly. Max was still tired, so we ended up making them stay another night instead of flying back home that afternoon.”

Mr. Tegan swallowed; his wife’s eyes had gone round again. “Our son…fought?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Pepper temporized. “He saved everyone at the wedding, I can tell you that much, and possibly the rest of the world because of it. And then he went with his husband and Captain Rogers and a few other people to rescue a friend who was being held prisoner, and after that there was a huge meeting to discuss what had happened and what everyone needed to be doing about it…the poor thing, he was exhausted.”

“Why…why is he wearing a patch over his eye?” Mrs. Tegan looked like she really was afraid of what answer she was going to get. “He was…hurt?”

“He lost his sight in his left eye,” Pepper told her, gently but matter-of-factly, and ignored the dual gasps she got anyway. “A friend of ours who’s a doctor took a look that night, but there isn’t anything that can be done. The eye itself is fine, but his optic nerve on that side is completely unresponsive.” She smiled, though. “Max said he should probably get a parrot to complete the look, but he’s afraid their cat would eat it.”

Mr. Tegan swallowed again. “It happened last month, why didn’t he tell us?”  

“He couldn’t,” Pepper reiterated. “That particular…well, series of incidents is classified so tightly we couldn’t even tell the government agent who came to get a report that night about everything that had gone on.” Not to mention, Max had gotten so sad when someone had asked him how he was going to explain the eyepatch to his parents and he’d said they weren’t speaking to him - and that he didn’t dare try to start talking to them again now, because he was afraid he might slip and try to change the way they felt - that everyone had just told him they were sure eventually it would all work itself out and not to worry about it.

And Pepper had decided that on her next business trip to Malibu she needed to take a detour through Anaheim, because if she hadn’t Tony probably would have and that would have been disastrous - she loved him, but he had less of a filter than Max’s bitchy, immature sister did and a situation like this one called for a more delicate touch. She couldn’t pretend she understood Max’s parents, even after reading the dossier she’d gotten on the family courtesy of Elise, but she did have a certain amount of sympathy for them. Their son was a member of the superhero community now, after all, and knowing that was not going to be easy on them - safer, which was the other reason Pepper had come to talk to them, but definitely not easier than believing he was just working in an office in L.A. while living his life in a way they didn’t approve of. Pepper was sure the Tegans would be afraid of the news now - afraid to watch it, but afraid not to - because they couldn’t be sure if one of those news stories about a world-threatening villain being defeated was actually about their practically disowned son going out to fight said villain. And even worse, knowing that if the worst happened they would be the last to know, not the first…and that was if anyone bothered to notify them at all.

She let them look at the pictures for a little bit longer, let them have this little glimpse into their son’s life, and then she took the album back and handed Mr. Tegan the flat package wrapped in plain brown paper she’d also been carrying. “This one is for you to keep,” she said. “The photos have been edited to protect everyone, I’m sure you understand why we had to do that. But I thought you’d probably want to have some better pictures than the ones your daughter was able to take of Max and Blake’s wedding, and some of the more current ones too.” She stood up. “Oh, and FindLove may be relocating their headquarters to the East Coast next year, so the boys will probably be moving if and when their company does. Please don’t try to pump them for information about that if you talk to them, though, they aren’t allowed to discuss the proposed expansion until all of the details have been worked out and confirmed. Competition in that industry can be pretty fierce, you know.”

Quite obviously they hadn’t, not to mention they had other things on their minds right then, but they didn’t ask any more questions even thought she knew they probably wanted to - they were overwhelmed, but Pepper didn’t think that was a bad thing. If they wanted more answers, they could talk to their son. Mr. Tegan got up and walked her to the door, politely if somewhat awkwardly shaking her hand when she offered it, and then closed and locked the door once she’d stepped off the porch. Pepper made her way back down the sidewalk to the limo, the driver of which hurried over from the neighbor’s yard to open the door for her. She raised an eyebrow at him, he appeared suitably flustered, and then he closed the door and got in himself to drive them away. He waited until they’d left the block before glancing back in the mirror. “Neighbors all know now, that gossip is gonna spread fast. Apparently some of them had wondered about Max not comin’ around anymore, his folks would only say he was real busy at work. Of course some of the neighbors’ kids grew up with him and his sister, so there were rumors already goin’ around about just what kind of ‘busy’ he might be.” Clint grinned. “They were all pretty happy to find out he was married now; that one fat guy who was pretending to prune his wife’s roses said he and his wife had always hoped Max would settle down with someone good. And they were real impressed when I told them he’d married the youngest son of a rich, connected family from New York that thinks he’s the greatest son-in-law ever.”

Pepper snickered. “I told Max’s parents he’d married into the real-life equivalent of the Wayne family - Josie does say he married Batman.”

“So did they…”

“I didn’t give them a chance. His mother tried to bring their pastor’s bullshit into it, I wouldn’t let her.” She shook her head. “Maybe I’m just jaded thanks to all the crazy and potentially world-ending things that tend to happen around us on a regular basis, but I just can’t understand being that…hidebound, from an ideological standpoint.”

Clint shrugged. “Someone told me once that it was because the people who believe that way are afraid to die. You know, the whole heaven and hell thing - the older they get, the more worried they get that they’ll do somethin’ to piss God off and won’t get a chance to make up for it before he judges the crap out of them. It’s how those kinds of preachers keep butts in the seats and money in the collection plate every Sunday, after all, by keepin’ them all scared.”

“I guess so.” She snorted softly. “I’m wondering what they’ll all do once the invasion actually starts. Hopefully not side with the invaders. Is anyone checking the leaders of those big, divisive churches to make sure they’re not Skrulls?”

He nodded. “The Botos are on it. The ones they’re really worried about are the Scientologists, though - some of the nastier shit that goes on in that group made Max and Josie suspect Skrulls might have a hand in some of it.”

Pepper shivered. “Be sure to keep me posted on that one, they’re lawyer-happy. Find out anything else from the neighbors?”

Clint shrugged again. “Not really. Nobody was going to come right out and call Max’s sister a bitch in front of a stranger, but they hinted around so much they really didn’t need to. I guess the way she was actin’ at the wedding was pretty restrained, for her.” 

“It’s good she has some self-control.” She frowned out the window, mentally going over the photos she’d seen on the mantel. “Her current boyfriend?”

“A Kindlin’ hookup, just like Max thought. He seems okay, no indications that he’s anything but what his profile says he is. It’s probably not gonna last too much longer, though.” He grinned at her in the mirror. “He’s a personal trainer, and some of the pictures he’s posted of the two of them online since he hooked up with her make it seem like he might have been lookin’ for a before-and-after project, not a girlfriend. He’s done it before.” 

“Does Max know?”

“Blake’s the one that told me, so yeah. He wasn’t worried, he said none of the guy’s past projects seem to have been upset about it.”

“Hmm.” She supposed they wouldn’t have been, since the trainer had made it good for them, so to speak- probably in more ways than one - but obviously not good enough that they didn’t think they could do better. “Doesn’t Blake hate Max’s sister, though?”

That made Clint snicker. “No, not really. He doesn’t like her all that much, but Max takes her in stride so he does too. Although he apparently manages to scare the hell out of her somehow every single time they see her.”

Pepper smiled. “Good.”