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A Faith Now Lost (And A Brighter Hope Reborn)

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Pepper stroked her husband's hair tenderly as he rested his head in her lap, her slim fingers tangling in messy dark curls. The TV crackled in front of them, Tony flicked through channels lazily without need of a remote; Extremis was unpleasant in some ways, but even Pepper was willing to admit Tony's modified version was far preferable to the alternative.

Her friends and family surrounded her. Rhodey slept in a chair adjacent from their loveseat, weakened legs carefully arranged so as not to put pressure on them. Vision's eyes had closed peacefully; he took to meditation as a way to deal with the betrayal he had felt, and to Pepper's delight, it seemed to be working. Peter dangled from a hammock of cobwebs on the ceiling. It didn't seem comfortable, but the teenager appeared content, so Pepper let it go. Happy slouched on a couch across from them, facing away from the TV. He, too, was sleeping quietly, but Pepper knew from experience that both he and Rhodey would be alert in seconds if something dared disturb their tranquil group.

And of course, her new husband. Tony lay on the loveseat, lightly tracing circles on her cool palm. His feet were up, and his other arm snaked around her waist. His ring gleamed on his finger, and Pepper smiled fondly at her own. The actual ceremony took place four months ago, but in some ways it felt like they'd been married for decades. His suit's bracelets encircled both his wrists, and internally Pepper snarled, the anger coming fast and hard out of nowhere. Snarled at the fact that despite what Tony had done, what he had tried so hard to achieve, he still- still!- couldn't let himself relax. He trusted all of them, Pepper knew that well, but he didn't trust that they'd be safe if he rested. Didn't let himself believe that while he slept, Rogers or Barton wouldn't suddenly attack, take away the people he loved most.

I should have killed Barton slower, Pepper pondered wistfully.

As Tony had made extremely clear, he did not kill innocents, and was not about to start now. Tony cared deeply for the safety of others, adored children, and actually enjoyed visiting sick children in hospitals. Pepper had married a hero, and she was proud of him. Tony was maybe a little more ruthless than before, maybe a bit less sentimental. But he had made it obvious - he was not going down the supervillain route. Apart from the fact it'd be too easy to take over the world, Tony had no desire to hurt civilians.

And Pepper agreed wholeheartedly. Pepper was a member of the Avengers now, and she could never bring herself to harm someone who had done no harm. 

She even felt guilty for quite a while after poisoning T'Challa, even though she supplied him with the antidote. Besides, the poison was non-lethal anyway, she just hadn't told him that. A dark part of her had relished the fear in his eyes, and she had felt like screaming 'This is how he felt when you, his ally, left him to die!'

But she hadn't. She had, however, shot Barton directly in the head after he surrendered, then whipped out a knife and tried to stab Tony in one of the weak chinks of his armour. Tony had shuddered as if he would fly apart, shellshocked in her arms that night, besieged by memories of laughter, banter, and friendly games, only to have those sweet times replaced by bitter vitriol.

He recovered quickly, calmed by her whispered promises of a happier life with a real family, who loved him and one another, and would never betray again.

Pepper was shook out of her thoughts by a near incoherent mumble. Putting her head down to Tony's level so that her hair hid both of them in a glossy curtain, she whispered, "Sorry, love?"

"'M in love with you, d'you know that?" he murmured sleepily, wrapping himself around her a little tighter. She planted a kiss on his head. "I love you too, Tony. Go to sleep honey, you deserve it."

Pepper meant this with all her heart. Tony had been non-stop these last months, what with worrying about the Accords, Stark Industries, Peter, Rhodey, Vision, Happy, Pepper herself, Extremis, Laura Masterson (formerly Barton) and her family, the list was painfully long. He was much better at taking care of himself than before, but stress and anxiety had taken it's toll. 

"Don't want to," he insisted, eyes drooping shut. "'M fine."

"Please?" Pepper asked him. "Please, Tony, everyone thinks you should take a break. We care about you, love, and only sleeping when you drop from exhaustion is not healthy."

"Hasn't bothered me for the last year," Tony complained petulantly. Pepper felt her body temperature raise a couple of degrees, Extremis flaring at her anger. I should have been there, was the main thought, along with the fainter but no less passionate, I will spear Rogers with my stilettos. And Thor, when he comes back from wherever he ran off to. And Bruce! These people were meant to be friends!

So much for 'Science Bros.'

Yes, she was fucking bitter. She had liked Bruce, naïvely assumed he'd be good for Tony. And who knows, he might have been- if only he hadn't run off within the first two weeks of social interaction.

"'r thinkin' too 'ard," Tony slurred, dark circles under his eyes. She laughed near silently, chest heaving. "So are you, honey. Go to sleep."

"Can't. What it you get hurt?" Tony murmured, near unconscious. Vunerable, in a way he was not so often these days.

She smiled sadly. There it was. "Love, I'm a superhero too, now. I have the Rescue armour, dear friends and family who will protect both of us if the need be, and very pointy shoes."

Tony huffed out a laugh, and buried his face in her lap. "'Kay. Love you."

"Love you too. Sleep well."

She waited until his breathing slowed and deepened, until the hand rubbing her own went lax, until the blanket she tugged over him stopped wiggling. Almost without conscious thought, her hand moved to the dip of his neck, tracing the vivid red scar. Barton's knife had failed to be lethal, but he had certainly left his mark on the genius, as had all the other former Avengers. The others were just less visible.

Dammit, now she really wished she'd killed the others.

Rogers took a few hard blows to the chest at the hands of the man currently asleep in her lap, and Sam was efficiently and painlessly captured by Rhodey, as was Lang by Peter. Maximoff definitely came out the worst of the survivors, with a betrayed and hurt Vision, and a flaming Pepper effectively going to town on her. After Rogers had been taken out, Tony had joined in too, still furious over Ultron.

"Mrs Stark?" Friday inquired, volume low. She cocked her head, the dim light gleaming on her fiery hair. Pepper was the only one awake. "What is it, Friday?"

"I'm sorry, but we have some unexpected visitors," Friday said delicately. "It would appear some essential information on former associates of Boss is incorrect."

Pepper's eyes, if you looked at them the right way, seemed to have flames dancing in them, the colours flickering in a spectrum of reds and golds. "Who." Her voice was flat, but her body was tense as one of Barton's old bowstrings.

"Dr Bruce Banner and an Agent Phil Coulson," Friday stated, and she sounded coldly furious, a sharp contrast to Pepper's own burning wrath. "An unusual pair. What do they want?"

"To see Boss."

Pepper glanced down at her husband, finally sleeping peacefully, stress lines smoothed, and shook her head. "Don't let them in. Tell them someone'll be out to see them."

"Want me to go?" asked Rhodey quietly, evidently awake. His skin was velvet in the light, and his eyes reflected like a cat's. Pepper caught a flash of brilliant white and knew he was gritting his teeth.

"I'll go, Mrs Stark," offered Peter, apparently not as asleep as he appeared. Pepper smiled gratefully at the young teenager, her heart warming at his genuine concern. "Thank you, Peter, but that won't be necessary. Go back to sleep; it's late, and you have school tomorrow. I assure you, this won't take long."

Pepper turned to Rhodey, a general commanding her troops. "If you want to, Rhodey, go for it. Try not to get tazed or set off the Hulk, though."

Rhodey nodded. "Just a little punch then. Peter, if you wouldn't mind, my wheelchair?"

A sticky strand of web splatted on the waiting wheelchair, and Peter tugged it gently towards Rhodey. The wheel squeaked, and Happy shifted, yawning. Everyone froze, as he readjusted himself, and rolled over. Rhodey gamely got into the wheelchair, muttering a ragged curse as he slipped. Peter lurched towards him in an aborted attempt at help, but Rhodey waved him off.

 "The operation's in a week, James," Pepper reminded him gently. "You'll be fighting fit in no time."

 "I apologise, Mrs Stark," Friday broke in, anxiety clear in her tone. "They appear to be making their way upstairs now."

 There was a freezing pause. Tony snored a little bit.

 "Son of a bitch," said Rhodey finally. "Friday, let 'em in here."

 The door slid open.