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A Faith Now Lost (And A Brighter Hope Reborn)

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

They hadn't changed much, Bruce and Coulson.

Bruce was still shaggy-haired, still had horrible taste in shirts, and was still short. Coulson, on the other hand, was formally dressed in a bland suit, and wore an even blander mask.

"Virginia," Coulson greeted her warmly, nodding his head to her cordially.

"Coulson," Pepper responded, with a cold smile that was all teeth. The absence of 'Phil' or even 'Agent' was obvious in the frosty silence. Bruce shifted uncomfortably, but Pepper's gaze was fixed firmly on Coulson, unblinking, reminiscent of a bird of prey. Bruce would have to answer to her later.

"Last I heard, you were dead," Rhodey said pointedly into the quiet. The implication was clear.

"I was," Coulson agreed with a blank smile. It was really getting on Pepper's nerves, as well as being a little creepy.

Silence reigned once more. Bruce coughed.

"So. Why are you here?" Pepper asked, threading her fingers through Tony's hair, and straightening out the curls.

"I wanted to see if Tony was okay," Bruce said quickly. Rhodey laughed incredulously. "Really? You couldn't have come, oh, I don't know, at least half a year ago?"

Bruce flushed, then bunched his fists. "Ross was after me again for Sokovia, and I didn't - couldn't -"

"Do you really think Tony would have let that happen? Genuinely, Bruce, I'm honestly curious," Pepper tilted her head to the side. "I mean, did Tony ever do anything other than try and help you with Ross?"

"He ended up working with the man, so, yes!" Bruce growled, eyes flashing a sickly green briefly.

Rhodey made as if to stand up, drawing attention to his injured legs. The green faded abruptly from Bruce as he saw, and now he just looked sick. "Colonel Rhodes - I am so sorry, I had no idea - when did that happen?"

"During the Civil War," Rhodey responded, a pained frown on his face at the memory. Bruce flinched. "Nobody said anything..."

"I presume nobody also told you that after Steve's attack in Siberia, Tony only had three years to live," Pepper added, squeezing Tony's hand as he slept on. Bruce's jaw dropped, and even Coulson looked surprised. "Steve injured Tony that badly? What did he do, punch his chest in?"

Bruce was being bitterly sarcastic, but Pepper answered honestly nonetheless. "Sort of. He used the shield, and Tony was in an immobile armour, so I suppose so?"

Bruce's veins turned a radioactive green. "He what?"

"Mmm," Pepper hummed. Tony shifted slightly. "Ssh, love."

"Is Tony...?" Bruce trailed off, staring at the sleeping billionaire. Rhodey snorted, a harsh noise. "While I don't see why you would care, Tony is going to be fine, thanks to Extremis."

Pepper's internal temperature jumped up a notch at the mention of the thing burning inside her. Coulson looked intrigued. "He used Extremis? And is still alive, and presumably not a vegetable?"

"I can confirm that my husband is alive, and in full control of his mental faculties," Pepper answered haughtily. Coulson nodded, while Bruce simply looked surprised. "You got married? Congratulations!"

Bruce sounded genuinely happy, if a little confused, and Pepper squinted suspiciously at him.

"Back to the Ross thing," Rhodey burst in, mouth set in a sideways slash. "Do you really think Tony would willingly betray you like that?"

Bruce hesitated. "I...I couldn't believe it. But..."

And that was it for Peter.

"I don't believe this!" The young teen exclaimed, sitting crosslegged on the ceiling. "You're Bruce Banner, the Bruce Banner. Tony used to talk about you all the time! He hacked Ross to cover for you while you were in Indonesia, and yes, of course he knew where you are. And you don't even trust him enough to not betray you?!"

Pepper gazed sternly at the adolescent. "Peter, I thought I told you to sleep. You have exams tomorrow!"

"I'm not apologising."

 "..."

"Okay, I'm sorry! Please don't glare at me like that!" The teenager flipped off the ceiling, and then retreated to the kitchen. Pepper sighed after him. "Don't eat that disgusting sandwich again!"

"Cheese and marshmallows are nice together!" Peter hollered from the other room, then was promptly shushed by Rhodey. He shook his head, and began to wheel himself carefully out of the room. Bruce's eyes followed him as he left, seemingly unable to tear themselves away from the wheelchair.

"Much as I wished Peter had actually gone to sleep, he wasn't wrong, Banner," Pepper said, drawing the conversation back to herself and Tony. "God, why couldn't you just have trusted him? Even a little? I know Tony trusted you with his life-" Pepper saw Bruce's flinch and felt a curl of dark satisfaction, mingling with all the grief and sadness. "-and I'm not asking you to do the same. Much as I love Tony, he can be a gullible idiot sometimes. But you left him after Ultron, because you couldn't handle it." Pepper paused. "Maybe it was best you weren't here for Civil War. You probably would have sided with Rogers, seeing as you can't handle responsibility."

Pepper kept her voice perfectly even, but the venom in it was shocking, even to herself. Bruce wasn't green, but he was an interesting shade of white.

"If you make a mistake, Banner, you don't run away from the mistake!" Pepper hissed. "You don't leave other people to clean up your bullshit. You fix it, even if you're not a godamn mechanic like Tony is, because it shouldn't take a professional mechanic to figure out where you fucked up!"

Bruce looked shellshocked, and Pepper's chest was heaving. Coulson merely raised an eyebrow.

"Peps?" murmured a new voice, almost inaudible, but painfully loud in the silence. "You okay, sweetheart?"

Pepper glared at Bruce and Coulson, then kissed Tony's hair. "Fine, honey. Just fine."

"Good," came the muffled reply, and Tony sat up with a yawn, blinking rapidly. "My god, you shouldn't be so comfortable. I swear, if I could patent that, I'd make an even bigger fortune. Insomniacs all over would love it." He leant against Pepper, not noticing Bruce and Coulson, and stretched. "Sorry, Peps, how long was I asleep for?"

"Not long enough. Tony, we have visitors," Pepper answered, the burning fire of Extremis inside her seeming to carry into her voice. The tone seemed to get through to Tony, and he sat bolt upright. "Who?"

"Hi, Tony," Bruce said shyly, at the same time Coulson said,"Mr Stark".

The change in Tony was instantaneous, and shocking to watch. The lazily reclining, gently teasing genius disappeared, and in a heartbeat Tony Stark was on his feet, a cold look on his face, gauntlets forming around his hands. Hands which were pointed, palm out, at the two intruders.

"Agent, back from the dead?" Tony cocked his head curiously. Then he gave switched to the stunned Bruce. "Oh, and Brucie-Bear! Tell me, how was Indonesia?"

"No! Tony, wait. Before anything starts...I just wanted to explain something."

"Well, then, don't keep us on suspense, Brucie-dear," Tony drawled. His voice was flinty, seemingly merciless, but Pepper noted the slight fragility. Tony still cared for Bruce, was just really, really mad at him at the moment. Coulson noted it, she knew, and the agent shot her a triumphant smile from across the room.

Pepper's nails started to glow red.

"I wasn't in Indonesia!" Bruce yelled, desperately. "I wasn't even on this planet after Ultron!"

Well, Pepper had not been expecting that, and neither had Tony, by the way his gauntlets lowered.

Bruce had some explaining to do.