"He's outdone himself this time."
Startled by the voice at her ear, Pepper turned to find James Rhodes at her elbow. "Hmm," she agreed. She leaned on the railing that ringed the edge of the cliff side terrace as a low coughing whump announced the launch of another shower of fireworks into the darkened sky over the ocean. The crowd gathered on Tony Stark's patio for the July 4th festivities let out a wordless chorus as the rocket burst into a silver chrysanthemum so large it filled the horizon.
"Just one of the many benefits of working for a former weapons designer," Pepper said, allowing herself a hint of irony she knew Rhodey would appreciate. The sparkling flower dissolved into twinkling streams of light over their heads. Hoots of laughter floated her way, Tony's among them. She met Rhodey's eyes and smiled.
"He make them himself this time?" he asked.
Pepper rolled her eyes. "I put my foot down. Remember last year?"
"Remember? My ears are still ringing," he said. "How'd you talk him out of it?"
Tony's annual threat to put together his own Independence Day show had felt perfunctory this time, and she still wasn't sure whether that worried her or not. "I scheduled him a tour of the factory. It's family owned – three generations of pyros." She shrugged. "He spent four hours discussing the proper packing of gunpowder with the company patriarch."
"So next year…"
Pepper punched his shoulder. "Don't even start. I have eleven months until I have to worry about next year."
Rhodey grinned at her, eyes crinkling at the corners. His hands on the railing were long fingered and elegant, his nails neat and smooth. Tony's were big knuckled and scarred. He bit his nails to the quick and no matter how much Lava he used they were never quite clean. Grease and engine oil and god only knew what else were permanently ingrained in the lines of his palms, in the whorls of his fingers. Tony might wear suits that cost more than Pepper's first car but his hands gave away the real man, the man she respected enough to put up with the rest.
There was a pause in the fireworks display while the pyrotechnicians Tony had hired reloaded the canons. Rhodey leaned out over the cliff edge, the breeze ruffling his loose linen shirt, more at ease than she'd seen him since Afghanistan. Pepper turned to rest her back against the railing, her arm brushing his shoulder companionably. Then the milling crowd parted and she found Tony's eyes on her. Studying her narrowly, like she was one of his circuit boards, like she was a problem that could be solved with a little tinkering. She returned the stare but true to form he didn't back down, just sipped his ridiculous electric blue martini, his gaze never leaving hers.
"He won't tell me what the hell he's building down there. Says it's a surprise." Rhodey's voice drew her attention away from her stare-off with her boss. "You know I don't like surprises. Especially Tony Stark-shaped surprises."
Pepper nodded. "None of us like Tony Stark-shaped surprises," she said.
"He's sworn you to secrecy, hasn't he?" Rhodey nudged her with his shoulder.
Her lips quirked. "Not anything so dramatic, believe me. Only a nondisclosure agreement signed in blood." Truth was, Tony wasn't talking much these days about his subterranean projects. He welded things together, he tore them apart – but so far nothing recognizable had materialized. She'd taken to gauging his frustration level by the discordance of his musical choices.
Another firework launched. It triggered too soon, too low, and with an earsplitting crash – and across the patio she caught Tony in a flinch. He met her gaze again as if unable to look away, wide-eyed and stiff in his impeccable suit, his mechanic's knuckles briefly white. Then the woman next to him, a pixy with almond eyes and a diamond nose ring, put her hand on his arm.
Pepper turned back to the darkness over the water.
"What was that all about?" Rhodey asked. She'd forgotten he was there and had to quell a start of shock at his voice.
"What was what all about?"
He frowned. Waited for the crash of the next firework to pass before continuing. "Pepper, don't do that. Not with me. What's going on?"
It was automatic, an impulse, a defense she'd developed within the first month of working for Tony. Now it was easy to forget that not everyone played conversations like they were a tennis match.
She couldn't meet the concern she knew was in Rhodey's eyes. "I don't-" She broke off. "He's-" Her hands lifted, circled, dropped again. "Different."
She sensed Rhodey's nod more than she saw it. "Yeah. He is." Another burst of sparks in the sky, this time like huge firecrackers, fizzing down to nearly touch the water, snapping and popping with white light. "You know you don't have to do this on your own, right?"
Pepper blinked. Turned to find the skin around Rhodey's eyes tight, lines framing his mouth. "Thank you," she said. He nodded.
Over head the fireworks display reached its peak, drowning out the delighted cries from the guests. The grand finale, her mother would have called it - but Tony was resolutely ignoring the barrage of colored light, his back to the show he put on every year for his upper level executives and their families. The blue drink was gone, replaced by a flute of champagne. The blonde pixie was gone too, but she hadn't been replaced. Yet.
"You want a drink?" Rhodey asked after the silence between them went from comfortable to stretched thin.
"Yeah," she answered, finding a smile for him. "Surprise me."
Later, after the last of the guests trickled away into the night and the pyrotechnic devices were packed up and the caterers departed and Rhodey kissed her cheek in good-natured farewell, Pepper retreated into the house. She avoided the bedroom, just in case, though she was fairly certain she'd seen Tony come in alone soon after the fireworks ended.
She found him in the workshop, still in his suit, looking vacant and out of place in the midst of his quiescent robots. The red silk loop of his tie dangled from one hand, an empty champagne flute from the other.
"Can I get you anything before I leave?" she asked.
Tony startled at her voice. The glass slipped to the concrete and shattered into about three hundred pieces and Pepper bit her lip at the sound, harsh in the echoing quiet of the cavernous space.
"I'm sorry," she said, hurrying forward and then halting just out of arm's reach at the lingering stiffness in his face, "I thought you heard me come in."
"Yeah," he said. He tried on a smile that didn't quite fit. "I mean... no. I guess I didn't. Hear you." He tossed the tie onto a nearby table and stared ruefully down at the glass. "I take it the party's over?"
"Your party, you mean?" There had been a moment of awkwardness when she'd realized he wasn't coming back out, but on the grand scale of Tony Stark Social Faux Pas it barely registered. After all, this wasn't the first time he'd ditched one of his own parties early. Usually, though, there was a girl or two involved.
"It was going fine without me," he said with a shrug. That much was true - good parties had a way of reaching a self-sustaining pitch of revelry - though several of the guests had asked about him.
"Rhodey asked me to remind you about lunch tomorrow. Says it's on him."
"Right." He clearly had no memory of making lunch plans. She made a note to herself to remind him again the next morning. "Um. So how did it go?"
"How did what go?"
He gestured vaguely toward the ceiling. "The party."
"You were there," she said.
He just blinked at her. Then: "I know I was there - I wanted your opinion."
Okay. "It went splendidly. An enjoyable evening was had by all."
"Good. That's good. I... that's good, right?" The fluorescent lights washed most of the color from his face and emphasized a pink scar that stood out near his hairline, just shy of his temple. She couldn't remember if he'd come back from Afghanistan with it or had collected it in one of the handful of times he'd donned the armor since then.
"The agenda's pretty open tomorrow," she said gently, taken aback by his moment of apparent insecurity. "Is there anything you want me to schedule?"
Something seemed to come into focus for him. He turned, taking in the workshop, taking in her standing there in her wilted halter dress and white sandals. "Yeah. I need you to do a little research for me."
"What kind of research?" Research, she could do. She was good at research.
"I want you to prepare a dossier for me."
"On?" She pulled her Blackberry out of her handbag.
"Ibrahim Yinsen," he said, spelling both names, rapid-fire.
"Who is he?" she asked, typing in the name.
Tony shrugged again, but he wasn't looking at her anymore. "That's what I want you do find out for me. I know he went to Cambridge. Probably has a background in engineering." He waved a hand at his banks of computers but didn't elaborate further.
She opened her mouth to ask for details, but before she had the chance he turned his back to her and wandered off towards the kitchenette. He crouched down to rummage through one of the cabinets and then surfaced holding a whisk broom and dustpan.
"Right," she said, tucking the Blackberry away. "I'll see what I can do. Is there anything else, Mr. Stark?"
There wasn't. She left him sweeping up the broken remains of his champagne flute and made sure Jarvis secured the doors behind her.
The next afternoon when Tony returned from lunch with Rhodey subdued and distracted Pepper let him be. She had calls in to Cambridge, Johns Hopkins, and a contact at the State Department and she'd found several papers published by Ibrahim Yinsen in the International Journal of Medical Engineering and Informatics and Medical Engineering and Physics, the most recent dated seven years ago, when it seemed like he'd fallen off the map entirely. She put Jarvis on a search of the net and he came up with eighty promising leads - mostly announcements of conference proceedings.
"Jarvis, cross reference this Yinsen with Mr. Stark please," she asked absently, skimming an article titled 'A comparative study of the function of the polyurethane heart valve for use in left ventricular assist devices.'
A moment later, Jarvis responded. "I have one result. Mr. Stark and Mr. Yinsen both presented papers at the International Conference on Parallel Computing in Electrical Engineering in Bern in August of 2000."
Eight years ago. Pepper printed out what she'd found and leaned back in her chair, staring out the window of her office at the pristine horizon. Possibilities were shaping up and she wasn't sure she liked where they were heading.
She had set aside the research to catch up on The Economist when Cambridge returned her call. "Oh, thank you," she said. "Uh huh. Yes. In 1975? Right. Is there anyone still in the department from that time? Great, thank you." She scribbled down the name and phone number of the head of the engineering department and disconnected.
A creak brought her attention around to find Tony lounging in the doorway, still in his dress slacks, his shirt untucked and his tie missing in action. The arc reactor's glow was muffled by layers of cloth but without a tie the deformation over his breastbone was obvious.
"How was lunch?" she asked, swiveling in her chair to face him.
"There was food." he said, fiddling with something in his pocket. "I ate it."
"Good for you." She quirked a smile and he bounced it back to her half strength. "What'd Rhodey want?"
His eyes narrowed, searching her face. Then he blinked and relaxed a little. "To wheedle me about getting his own armor."
Pepper stared at him in surprise and then let out a laugh. "He asked me last night what you were working on but I had no idea what he was getting at."
"Yeah. Well, once a test pilot always a test pilot. Apparently.”
“Are you going to build him a set?”
“Why, you want one too? That can be arranged. There would be some obvious adjustments to be made. I'd have to take measurements. Very precise, thorough measurements.” His leer didn't quite meet his eyes. She gave him points for the attempt. When she just raised an eyebrow, he shifted and looked away. “What'd you find out?"
"About Ibrahim Yinsen? You may have run into him once, actually. You were both at the same conference in Bern."
He nodded. An edge of impatience crept into his posture. "What else?"
"This would be easier if you told me what you already know.”
"That is all I know," he snapped, then frowned. She waited, silent, while he visibly calmed himself. "Right. Sorry. What else did you find?"
Pepper took a deep breath, let it out. "You were right about Cambridge. He did his undergraduate work there in electrical engineering, graduated in '75. I have to confirm this, but I'm pretty certain he went to medical school at Johns Hopkins. He's a bioengineer, his earliest post-graduate research seems to be centered on the electrical systems of the heart. Then around 1997 he started publishing on prosthetics. Integrating computer systems with artificial limbs, bionic man type stuff. I found connections with a charity that supplies prosthetics to victims of land mines. But after 2001, there's nothing."
"After the war started," Tony said, mostly to himself. "That's when he must have gone back."
A chill settled over her. "He's Afghani, isn't he? I wasn't able to find anything and State hasn't gotten back to me-"
Tony's expression had gone as brittle and blank as slate. "If anything else turns up, let me know."
Right. Afghanistan wasn't a topic for discussion, then. "I'm compiling a folder of his published research. Do you want to read any of it?"
"Send it down. I'll take a look later." He started to turn away, then stopped, oddly hesitant. "Thank you."
She wanted to press him, wanted to find out who Ibrahim Yinsen was to him, but she was beginning to think she already knew. After dinner, when she'd heard back from Johns Hopkins and the State Department and organized a thick folder of Yinsen's publications, she descended into the workshop. Tony was hunched over the welding station, alien and distant in his black goggles. He didn't look up when she tried to get his attention so she left the folder on his desk.
It was still there, untouched, the next morning.
The house felt empty and still when Pepper arrived promptly at eight, Tony's schedule for the day already scrolling through her thoughts on an endless loop. The click of her heels echoed as she walked the halls checking his usual haunts. His bedroom door stood open, the bedclothes smooth and impeccable -- presumably just as Claude had left them yesterday when he'd tidied. While Tony kept his workshop surprisingly uncluttered, he usually didn't bother to pick up after himself in the rest of the house. He paid Claude to take care of that -- but the housekeeper wasn't due until noon.
Pepper frowned. The first few weeks after Tony's homecoming when he'd spent every waking moment building and testing the armor he'd reverted to his long established mid-project pattern of crashing on the workshop couch, but she thought he'd given that up -- the third time he complained to her of waking with a stiff neck she'd pointed out that he owned four perfectly decent bedrooms above ground, complete with actual beds. And mattresses and pillows. And sheets that cost more than most people were paid in a week. He'd just shot her a lopsided grin and asked her to schedule a masseuse, but something must have penetrated because after that he'd started leaving his bedroom in complete disarray in the mornings as if trying to prove some kind of obscure point.
Satisfied that he wasn't in the house proper Pepper descended to the lower level, noting that after she'd left last night Tony must have finally replaced two of the glass panels that divided the workshop from stairwell, though the entrance still gaped open to the outside world. Inside, the workshop was just as quiet as the house above – and there was still no sign of Tony. Out of the corner of her eye Pepper caught something flickering in the lounge area and turned to find CNN silently animating the television and the couch occupied by the crushed helmet from the Mark III armor, sitting cushioned on a haphazardly folded wool blanket.
A week had passed since the last time he'd disappeared on her. If he'd gone out again, if he – but there was the torso of the Mark IV, hanging decapitated and limbless from a winch, the gauntlets set aside on a nearby table, wires protruding like veins and tendons from the ragged ends. Pepper looked down to find her hands balled into fists and took a breath, relaxing her fingers. Her fingernails had embossed little pink half-moons into the flesh of her palms and as she watched they filled in and faded away.
The hot rod's engine was still in pieces where Tony had abandoned it on the morning he'd left for Afghanistan. There were odds and ends scattered over the work tables, circuits and stripped wire and unrecognizable bits of ceramic and steel. She wasn't an engineer but she'd worked for one long enough to develop an eye for the process of invention. Sleeping in the workshop might be part of Tony's M.O. while obsessing over a new design, but this time nothing new seemed to be taking shape. Not that she'd seen so far.
She was about to head back upstairs when she noticed one of the motorcycles was missing. "Jarvis?" she said, her voice piercing the quiet of the empty workshop, "When did Mr. Stark leave this morning?"
"Around six o'clock, Miss Potts." Jarvis answered patiently, as if he'd anticipated her question. And then, before she could ask, "He didn't inform me of his destination."
Well. Tony tended to take off for the hills when he was stuck on something, so that wasn't unusual. Somehow this bit of normalcy settled her nerves. After all, he'd been an adrenalin junkie well before he built himself a flying suit of armor.
Content that Tony wasn't currently attempting to play chicken with another F-22, Pepper fixed herself a cappuccino and carried her laptop out to the patio to tackle the predictably insane number of emails that tended to build up overnight. When she hadn't heard from Tony by nine Pepper dialed his cell phone. Let it ring until it switched over to voice mail. Immediately dialed again. This time he picked up, breathless and distracted.
"You have a ten o'clock call with Scott Jameson from Google's renewable energy initiative."
"Oh, hello. And good morning to you, too, Miss Potts."
"You've already put him off twice. Where are you?" All she could hear was a high pitched whine and the rumble of an engine.
"Down the coast. Push it back."
"No," she said. "You can't blow him off a third time."
"Reschedule it," he insisted. Then: "Fuck."
"Nothing." There was a skidding screech and then the engine abruptly cut off. "Ouch," he breathed, and then laughed. "That's gonna sting later."
"Tony--" Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose, hoping he hadn't just crashed the damn bike while talking to her.
"Yeah. I'm not gonna get back in time for the call. Make an excuse."
"Take the call from… wherever you are. This is important. You're the one who wanted to talk to him in the first place."
"Right." She heard him swear again under his breath. Irritation laced his voice when he spoke again. "Alright. Fine. Anything else?"
"Noon," she said. "Be back by noon. Lester Briggs will be here."
She sighed. They'd gone over this yesterday. "No, the L.A. Times. You agreed to--"
"Oh, yeah. Do I have to?"
"Yes. You do. Be here at noon, Mr. Stark."
"You'd make a good parole officer, Potts. Has anyone ever told you that?" She rolled her eyes and didn't bother to reply and the line went dead in her ear. Lovely. Thank you, Mr. Stark. She massaged the back of her neck and tried to go back to her email.
After the third time through reading the same message from Will Taylor in accounting seeking confirmation of a sizeable anonymous donation by the Stark Foundation to the Landmine Survivors Network -- one of the charities Ibrahim Yinsen had worked with -- she realized her suspicions about the man Tony had asked her to research had just gotten that much more complicated. And Tony certainly wasn't talking. No to her, anyway. For all she knew, Tony was heading for Baja, planning to blow off every appointment she'd scheduled for the foreseeable future.
She needed to find out more about Yinsen, but she'd exhausted most of her leads yesterday. She tried Rhodey and got his voicemail. Left a vague message and then forced herself to turn back to clearing her inbox. She'd defused two minor crises and nearly triggered a third when Jarvis alerted her that Rhodey was at the front door. Pepper closed her laptop and carried it inside, where Rhodey was already standing in full dress blues, his hat in his hand, taking in the vista from the living room windows.
"What's he done now?" Rhodey asked before she could get out as much as a hello.
"It's nothing like that." She smiled. "He took the Indian out. I haven't even seen him yet today."
Pepper gestured for him to take a seat then crossed to the kitchen, gathering her thoughts. She returned with two glasses of iced tea, handed him one, and then joined him on the opposite end of the couch.
"James," she ventured. "I called because I need some information."
There was a heavy pause. His expression went carefully neutral. "You know I can't talk to you about the Air Force's position on--"
Pepper interrupted. "My security clearance is nearly as high as Tony's and you know it. Is that what you asked him to lunch yesterday to discuss? He told me you wanted him to build you a suit."
"Well," Rhodey laughed, "I did mention that I wouldn't be opposed to giving it a spin one of these days."
"I take it the brass isn't happy with him." Pepper set her glass aside and turned to face him straight on. "With Iron Man, I mean."
"Let's just say the armed forces in general aren't too happy with either one of them right now," Rhodey sighed. "What did you want to ask me about?"
Right. Pepper was getting tired of the conversational dead zones she found herself stumbling into with increasing frequency but she set that aside and focused on her main objective.
"Things have moved so quickly -- we never got the chance to talk about what happened," Pepper said. "I know what Tony told the FBI and the DoD about his escape but he glossed over a few things. I was hoping you might know more."
Rhodey looked down at his hands where they circled the tall glass of tea. "He wasn't very talkative after we picked him up. I don't know how much help I'll be."
"Did the name Yinsen ever come up?"
Rhodey shook his head. "No. He gave us what intel he had on the Ten Rings, but he never mentioned a Yinsen."
"What do you know about how that… how the arc reactor ended up embedded in his chest?"
Something flickered in Rhodey's expression. "Not much. You know about the electromagnet?" She nodded. "He told us he woke up attached to a car battery. He replaced it with the arc reactor after he got the components to build the Jericho."
She knew this much already, but she didn't interrupt him -- he couldn't seem to quite look her in the eye, his attention directed just slightly over her left shoulder. Her chest tightened in memory of his voice, how it had been drowning in static and shaking with relief when he'd called in the middle of the night to tell her he'd found Tony, that they were on a flight to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. That he was alive, and coming home.
Rhodey set his glass aside before continuing. "The docs at Landstuhl said it was exquisite work for battlefield surgery, but Tony couldn't remember who treated him. He was pretty out of it for the first few days. He…Pepper, he didn't know how long he'd been gone. He was sure it had only been six weeks."
Now that -- that was new. No one had thought that bit of information was important enough to tell her? "Did the doctors have any idea why that might be?"
"You mean besides Tony's congenital indifference to time?" He laughed, but it was a hollow sound that felt out of place in this magazine-cover space. "They found evidence of a healed head injury and someone performed major surgery on him in a cave, under extremely primitive conditions. Combine that with the fact that he had to fight his way out of there alone…" He broke off, his hands clenched together between his knees. "Pepper, sometimes people, when there's trauma -- they block things out."
She nodded. Tony, of course, hadn't said word one about any of this, not to her anyway. He may have lost some time, but he definitely knew who Ibrahim Yinsen was.
"What's this all about?" Rhodey asked finally. "Who's Yinsen?"
"I'm not sure," Pepper said. She studied him for a moment and then sighed. "Tony mentioned the name -- he was a medical engineer. I think he's the one who saved Tony's life."
She filled him in on Yinsen's research, on the huge donation Tony had arranged behind her back that morning, an hour before she'd crawled out of bed.
"He doesn't exactly sound like warlord material," Rhodey said.
"No," Pepper agreed. "He doesn't."
They sat in silence for a long moment, and then Pepper raised her head. "There's something else."
He sighed. "With Tony, there usually is."
"Gulmira," she said. He stiffened. "The State Department got back to me last night – Yinsen was born in Gulmira."
"That could explain why Tony went back there," Rhodes mused, toying with his glass where it sat on the table. "Maybe the Ten Rings still had this Yinsen captive."
Pepper pursed her lips. Hadn't Rhodey figured it out yet? She flashed on the unfamiliar fervor that had gripped Tony after she'd first refused to hack into Obadiah's files, when he'd hammered home to her just what he intended to do with his newest creation. Nothing but the next mission, he'd said.
He knew her too well for that. "But you don't think so."
Tony's obsessive sense of personal responsibility towards his company's munitions wasn't something she wanted to delve too deeply into right now. Not with Rhodey, not if Tony hadn't tried to explain. And besides, it wasn't the issue at hand. "I don't know. I -- I think Yinsen's dead."
"Miss Potts," Jarvis spoke up, interrupting Rhodey before he could ask how she'd reached that conclusion. "You requested that I alert you when Mr. Stark returned."
"Thank you, Jarvis," Pepper said. "He's down in the workshop?"
"Indeed, Miss Potts. He just arrived."
"I didn't think he'd make it back in time," she said to Rhodey. "He has an interview with the Times at one."
"You think that's a good idea right now?" Rhodey leaned forward. "All this press?"
"No," she admitted. "I'm trying to limit it as much as I can." She shrugged. "He's still CEO of Stark Industries. And after that press conference… There's only so much I can do." Rhodey didn't need to ask which press conference she was referring to – it had gained such notoriety that it had taken on the aura of legend: The Press Conference. For those within the orbit of Stark Industries, the additional tag "of Doom" went unspoken but understood.
"Look, I'd better leave you to it," Rhodey said, standing abruptly.
"You could join us for lunch," Pepper offered. "I'm sure he'd—"
"Did I hear someone mention lunch?" Tony's voice rang out from the bottom of the stairwell leading up from the workshop. "Someone totally mentioned food. Jarvis, did I eat breakfast?"
"I wouldn't know, sir," Jarvis answered with a distinct air of boredom. "Do you wish me to begin keeping a record of all your meals?"
Pepper heard Tony noisily jogging up the stairs before he appeared in the flesh, windswept and still flushed with adrenalin, a scrape running across his cheek. His leather jacket hung open to reveal the glow of the arc reactor just visible through his grey t-shirt, and his jeans were scuffed and dusty and torn near one knee. He paused mid-stride at the top of the stairs, his attention darting between her and Rhodey, before venturing further into the room, his exuberance smoothing over into something more controlled and bland.
"Well, hello there, Colonel Rhodes," Tony drawled, turning to Rhodey. "Did we have another date scheduled that I forgot about? I thought we cleared everything up yesterday."
"Pepper asked me to stop by," Rhodey said, his shoulders rigid. "I was just leaving."
Tony cracked a grin that bared too many teeth to be anything but calculated. "Wouldn't want to keep you." An edge had crept into his voice. "I'm sure you have pressing business waiting for you back at the base." With that he peeled off his jacket, let it drop negligently onto the ledge in front of the fireplace, and meandered past the new piano and into the kitchen without a backwards glance.
Pepper blinked. Filed whatever had just happened away for later. Stood and kissed Rhodey's cheek. "Thank you," she said.
"Yeah," Rhodey replied, his eyes on Tony's back as he stuck his head into the refrigerator. "Any time."
"So which one is it?" Tony spoke up as Happy pulled the limo onto the Pacific Coast Highway, heading towards the city.
"Which one is what?" Pepper smoothed her skirt over her thighs and glanced up to catch Tony's attention sliding away from her hands.
"Briggs didn't get his information on the Pentagon lawsuit on his own. Which means someone on the board leaked it," he said to his window.
Outside dusk was beginning the slow fade to night. Tony's profile was briefly outlined in flickering light as a car zipped past them, weaving through the lanes of traffic. Pepper forced herself to face forwards before he noticed her eyes on him.
"Might not have come from the board," she pointed out. "There are plenty of other players with interests at stake."
Tony grimaced and fell back into silence.
Pepper suppressed an urge to bat his hands away from his throat as he fiddled with his tie for the tenth time in the fifteen minutes since Happy had picked them up. He'd already thumbed free the top button of what had started the evening as a smartly pressed shirt and now his tie was pulled askew, the line of the knot ruined. The suit's casual disarray and the fact that he hadn't bothered with a haircut since shortly after he'd returned from Afghanistan lent him a rakish edge that might have been at home on the cover of GQ but was wholly inappropriate for their destination.
If it had been any other occasion Pepper would have sent a polite apology on Tony's behalf without bothering to run it by him first, but they were headed to a party thrown by Brett Maguire, the most recent addition to Stark Industry's board, a man with deep contacts in the energy industry – a man they needed on their side, quickly. Despite Tony's public admittance to owning (and even worse, using) a flying suit of armor, the injunction Obadiah had filed against him had been thrown out for lack of evidence; even so, the board remained restless and doubts about his competence as CEO were running high. Tony might own controlling interest in the company but there were ways around that if the board got motivated enough – and a fifty-six point drop in the stock with no sign of a rebound any time soon was a pretty strong motivator.
The frenzy over Tony's kamikaze unmasking of himself as Iron Man had only occupied the news cycle for a week before anyone started digging deeper. The Wall Street Journal had published a scathing editorial that morning, tolling the death knell for Stark Industries and tearing into Tony as a traitor to boot. And now reporters like Lester Briggs – the L.A. Times' veteran business correspondent – were pursuing the story with the gusto of jackals circling a fresh kill.
To top it off the first of the lawsuits Pepper had been anticipating since Tony announced the company would immediately cease weapons production had started to gain traction. So far he'd managed to side step the issue but it wasn't going away. No matter what Tony's feelings were on the morality of the matter, Stark Industries had multi-billion dollar contracts hanging in the balance – not only with the U.S. Department of Defense but with a handful of European Union member states as well as private entities such as Halliburton. Legally they were obligated to deliver on those contracts, the CEO's change of heart be damned.
She wasn't sure how much of this had sunk in yet, and despite toeing the agreed upon line the tone of his responses to the interview that afternoon hadn't reassured her any. He'd been reciting talking points, and Briggs was astute enough to realize it. Which wasn't to say that Tony hadn't been at his best – charming, quick witted, casually deflecting Briggs from areas he didn't want to discuss and mostly succeeding. She'd gone into the session gripped by the very real fear that one of Briggs' questions would set Tony off on a wild tangent. She'd hovered on the periphery ready to step in and cut things off if need be, but for once he'd stuck to the proverbial cards.
Too bad it wasn't going to be enough.
"Who do we know at the Times?"
Pepper stared at him. "We don't even know what Briggs is going to write." She didn't add that there was a snowball's chance in hell the Times was going to acquiesce to a polite request that the story be killed. "And our contact at the Times is… well, he was Obadiah's contact."
A muscle jumped along Tony's jaw and his fingers tapped out a staccato rhythm on the armrest. Pepper caught Happy watching them from the rear-view mirror, expressionless as ever, and straightened in her seat.
After Briggs had departed Tony's blithe facade folded in on itself and he'd retreated to his shop until Pepper prodded him to get dressed for the party. The importance of keeping the board happy had apparently started to penetrate, because he hadn't tried to weasel out of it, just emerged an hour later freshly showered and dressed in a sharply tailored suit and an incongruous pair of designer sunglasses that Pepper had immediately vowed to snatch at the first opportunity.
By then Pepper had abandoned her research on Ibrahim Yinsen and changed from her business suit into a conservative black sheath, a choker of freshwater pearls that had belonged to her grandmother her only concession to the inevitable glamour of a party in Los Angeles. She'd caught Tony staring at the small of her throat as they waited for Happy but to her utter relief he'd kept his thoughts to himself. For the time being, anyway. But his glances were lingering a little too long these days, when she least expected it, and it never failed to leave her flustered.
"Let Maguire do the talking. He'll want to bend your ear about his clean coal project and--"
"Potts, this isn't my first shindig," Tony groused. "Clean coal. And here I thought I was the walking oxymoron."
"I know it isn't, but--" She stopped herself before she could complete the thought. Obadiah had done most of the back room glad-handing, bringing Tony in to charm the marks with his natural flair for showmanship after the deals were all but squared away.
Tony's eyes narrowed. "You wanna script the small talk out for me beforehand?" He tugged at his sleeve, exposing a good length of forearm and wrinkling his cuff. "Here. Got a pen? Give me the Cliff's Notes."
"Don't be ridiculous," she started, but she was cut off by a sound up ahead of them on the road, ear-splittingly loud, like crystal hitting concrete. And then the limo jerked, and Happy -- stoic Happy -- let out a curse, yanking at the wheel, and there was a squeal of metal grinding on metal and she was thrown against her seatbelt with enough force to choke the breath from her throat, and just as her hands flew up to catch herself she slammed backwards against the seat, her head snapping back into the leather.
When the car came to rest she just sat there, gasping, staring through the windshield at the crumpled remains of what might have been a Honda Civic smashed against the guard rail two car lengths in front of them, only it was hard to tell for sure because part of the roof had peeled back like a sardine can and the rest was covered in smoke.
"Jesus," she heard Happy breathe. "Jesus, you alright back there?" He turned to them, wedging himself into the window between the front and the back, his face the color of oatmeal.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," she said, patting the divider as if to reassure him. She caught herself and withdrew her hand. Her eyes felt stretched too wide. "What happened?"
Happy locked onto her voice and his face crumpled a little in relief. "I think we missed it. I think --"
She didn't hear the rest. Illuminated by the dirty yellow of streetlights, witnesses were already climbing out of the cars stopped ahead of the limo, ringing the periphery of the wreck wearing the dazed expressions of people awakened from deep sleep with a douse of cold water. She could see the cool glow of cell phones and realized with a start that it hadn't even occurred to her to report the accident.
There was a dull ache when she swallowed. Pepper ran a shaking hand over her throat, felt shallow welts where the pearls had been squashed between her skin and the seat belt.
She blinked and turned and found Tony still flattened against his seat, one hand splayed across his window and the other braced against the leather near his thigh. He hadn't said a word since the limo screeched to a stop.
"You okay? Mr. Stark, Jesus, talk to me."
His eyes were-- Pepper tried to swallow again, her throat constricting. "Tony," she ventured, reaching out for the hand between them. He pulled away from her touch but it felt like reflex. Then his head came around and she couldn't read him at all.
"Yeah," he said. He turned back to stare at the hand pressed to the window and then lifted it away slowly as if he wasn't sure the glass would hold.
"Tony," she repeated, her hand hovering over his shoulder, not quite touching. "Look at me--"
"What the fuck was that, Hogan?" he growled. And then he lurched forward against the strap of his seatbelt, gone hard and inarticulate with rage, scrabbling at the belt's catch as if he was about to launch himself at Happy. "Were you trying to fucking get us all killed? Is that it?"
Happy reared back, face blank with shock.
"It wasn't his fault. It was an accident, Tony--" Pepper grabbed for him and he turned on her with a snarl, the belt giving way, his hands in tight fists. Before she could think, before she could get out another word, he had thrown open his door and was gone.
"Stay here," Happy snapped, and then he vanished too.
Like hell. Pepper fumbled with the latch to her own belt and then stepped out of the car into the night air, into a chaos of smoke and headlights and idling engines and distant sirens. And there was Tony up ahead, stalking away from Happy, who shouted something that was drowned out by the traffic noise before it could reach her. Pepper rushed to catch up, picking her way through a carpet of shattered glass and shards of plastic, and Happy grabbed hold of her elbow as she tried to pass him.
"Where's he going?" Pepper demanded.
"Miss Potts, please—"
But it was clear where Tony was headed. He'd shed his suit jacket and was making a beeline for the wreckage.
"Tony!" she shouted, yanking her arm out of Happy's grasp. She scooped up his jacket on auto-pilot, trying to reach him before he did something incredibly stupid like—dammit. He'd disappeared into the smoke. Pepper sprinted forward and then skidded to a halt at the heat coming off of the crumpled Civic. And Tony was backing away too – he careened into her full force and she grabbed his arm to keep her balance.
"Tony!" Smoke stung her eyes, burned her throat. "What are you doing?"
His forehead and hands were already smudged with black. He stared at her for a beat as if he had no idea who she was. Then he shook free of her grip and his voice when it came was hoarse and scathing. "There are people in there. In the car. What do you think I'm doing?"
And there were. She could just see a bloodied shoulder through the gaps in the twisted metal, and that bit of blue, that was someone's baseball-capped head. "Oh my God!" she gasped. Were they moving? She tore her gaze away and turned back to Tony. Distant memories of a Stark Industries-sponsored first aid course echoed at the back of her mind. He didn't know – he didn't know anything about this, what if moving them made it worse? But the fire-- "Tony, God, just think about this. You're not in the armor. You can't do it by yourself." Her eyes darted back to the horror of the burning wreckage. "The rescue crews are almost here, just--"
"Wait for them?" Tony laughed. Something feral roiled just under the surface of those words, something she didn't recognize at all. "Either help me or get out of my way." With that he circled away from her, eying the wreck with a focused intensity, as if the obstruction the burning car posed to his goal of freeing the people trapped inside could be overcome if he could only locate the right leverage point.
Her stomach twisting, Pepper stepped back, watching him, giving him room, ready to help any way she could. But the sirens were deafening now and before she knew what was happening she was shoved aside by a swarm of firefighters. Happy plucked her out of the morass, draping her shawl over her shoulders, and they huddled together near the limo's front grill as the rescue crew set upon the wreckage.
"You see him?" Happy rose up on the balls of his feet and then sank back down. "I don't see him anymore."
"I've got to call the Maguires, let them know—" But her phone was in her purse, and her purse was still on the floor of the car where it had tumbled during the accident. Happy nudged her shoulder before she could make a move to retrieve it, because there was Tony, pushing his way through the gathered crowd, his face bleached as white as his shirt in the headlights.
"What happened?" Happy asked. Tony ignored him, heading towards the back of the car.
"Your hand," Pepper managed.
"Let's go," Tony barked over one shoulder.
Happy caught her eye. She saw panic reflected back at her and knowing it was shared didn't make it any easier to swallow. Tony had already settled into his seat, gazing out at them through the windshield as casually as if he was waiting for a ride to a business luncheon. Happy shook his head and slid into the driver's seat and Pepper climbed in next to Tony, automatically reaching for her purse, shuffling through it for her phone.
Tony's left hand was cradled in his lap, bandaged to the wrist, the gauze wrapped tight around his palm and knuckles. He noticed her staring and frowned.
"Before you get any ideas, the paramedics checked it out."
"The people in the car?" He shrugged. "Dead."
"Both of them? What happened?"
"Hogan," Tony said, as if she hadn't spoken. "Let's go."
"Back to the house, Happy. I'll call Maguire and—"
"No," Tony cut her off. "You said this was important."
"Tony, we just--"
"Hogan, take us to L.A. After you drop me off you can bring Miss Potts home."
"I'm not going home. But we don't have to do this." Pepper turned on him, ready to shake him, just shake him until he looked her in the eye again and told her what the hell was going on. “You can't go to the party like this. You smell like... Tony, you're a mess.”
He wasn't listening to her anymore. She wasn't even sure he knew she was there.
"Hogan, who pays your salary?"
Happy turned and sent her an apologetic half-shrug. "L.A. it is," he said.
She could argue the point, but it was a losing proposition. Pepper handed Tony his jacket and then sank into her seat, closing her eyes. Tried to forget the alien bitterness of his laugh when she'd begged him to wait for help to arrive, tried to stop seeing those faceless people trapped in the twisted metal remains of their car.
By the time Happy had inched free of the snarled traffic and the limo was hurtling towards Brett Maguire's L.A. residence she'd nearly convinced herself that erasing the last half-hour from her memory might just be possible. But then her shoulder brushed Tony's, and she felt how rigidly he was holding himself despite his outward air of nonchalance, and she was forced to admit that she didn't have nearly enough denial in her to forget anything that had happened tonight. And she doubted she ever would.
Pepper considered the eclectic facade and merrily lit front windows of Brett Maguire's mansion with what she knew was most likely an expression best reserved for a firing squad. Happy slid out of the driver's seat and popped the trunk of the limo as beside her Tony shifted, breaking out of the stillness he'd sustained since they'd left the scene of the accident. Without comment he unfastened his cuff links and pulled off his tie, then started on the buttons of his wrecked shirt, exposing the misshapen plane of his chest, the arc reactor's glow muted by his undershirt. A moment later Happy opened Tony's door and handed him a freshly pressed shirt from his emergency stash in the trunk.
After the adrenalin and the panic and the heavy silence that had followed, the need to slip into some kind of normalcy for the party threatened to overwhelm her. Pepper didn't wait for Happy to get her door. She slipped out of the limo and then hesitated, crossing her arms over her chest with her back to the car, chilled in the night air despite her shawl. Taking a deep breath, she focused on the house -- a strange mix of Gothic and Tudor, with mission-style roof tiles and a wide, arched entrance guarded by two slumbering marble lions. A tower curved out to the left of the front doors in weird contrast to the graceful palm trees dotting the periphery of the lawn. It was as if a mad prince had uprooted a European chateau, painted it an unlikely shell-pink, tricked it out with some local details, and set it down again in L.A. A sharper contrast to Tony's sleekly minimalist place would be difficult to imagine.
Pepper turned at the sound of a car door slamming shut to see Tony easing the sleeve of his jacket back over his bandaged hand. Happy must have given him some kind of wet-wipe, since most of the grime from his face and hands was gone, but faint grayish streaks remained near his hairline and over one eyebrow. Cologne she recognized, sage and sandalwood with an undercurrent of cumin, covered the lingering scent of smoke from the wreck. He was presentable at least, if a slightly off-center version of himself.
"Try not to plow into anything while we're inside, Hogan," he bit off, then stalked away from them without a glance.
Pepper stared after him, taken aback by the dig. It wasn't like him, not at all – he made a point of maintaining an easy rapport with his staff regardless of the stress he was under. Lashing out at underlings had been Obadiah's M.O., but at least he'd known enough to apologize afterwards. If Tony kept this up they were going to have a conversation. Not one she was looking forward to by any means, but she couldn't just let it continue. Happy deserved better. Hell, Tony deserved better. She decided not to dwell on what she deserved. If she did – well, this wasn't really the time for that level of honesty with herself, now was it? Not here. Not with Tony balancing on a high wire with her the only thing close to a net.
Happy caught her elbow as she started to follow Tony up the walk. "Miss Potts." He broke off as if his thoughts hadn't gotten any further than her name.
Pepper looked him in the eye for the first time since they'd left the accident behind and found him still ashen, his shoulders slumped. "It wasn't your fault, Happy." On her periphery she watched Tony's gait slide into a saunter as he reached Brett Maguire's front steps, as if he hadn't completely freaked out on the Pacific Coast Highway less than an hour ago. "You probably saved our lives. He'd know that if he was thinking straight."
"His parents," Happy said. "I'd almost forgotten. If the rescue crew hadn't stopped him―"
Pepper gripped one of Happy's big hands and squeezed. "I know."
Tony hadn't filled them in on whatever had happened to the couple in the wreck, hadn't responded to Pepper's questions at all, just spent the rest of the drive to the party staring out of his window at the passing blur of traffic as if she and Happy had ceased to exist. He didn't have to tell her anything for her to know that he wouldn't have given up trying to free those people from the burning car without force. Whatever this was, whatever was going on with him, it had started before his aborted rescue attempt. In the moment following the crash, before he'd snapped into the rage that still frayed his edges, she'd seen a chasm opening up behind his eyes.
This wasn't just about his long-dead parents. From the lingering anxiety weighing down Happy's expression he knew this every bit as well as she did.
"What are you going to do?" Happy asked.
That was the question, wasn't it? What could she do? Tony had already reached the Maguire's door. Damage control. That's what she had to keep in mind. Damage control she could do. It was what he paid her for, after all. The thought carried a bitter edge but she shoved it away and gave Happy what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"Call me," Happy said. "If you need anything. I'll come."
How Happy thought he'd be able to help if Tony decided to lose the rest of his mind in the middle of Brett Maguire's cocktail party was a mystery, but she appreciated the offer nonetheless. And it was good to be reminded that when it came to their boss a quick getaway was often the best option.
Pepper caught up to Tony in the cathedral-like foyer. He'd stopped short just inside the doorway and was staring up at the delicate chandelier that dominated the space, a surprisingly contemporary piece made up of a writhing mass of hand-blown glass curlicues and sinuous sea-anemones that exploded over their heads in red and orange and yellow, casting wisps of colored light onto the high ceiling and the walls and Tony's upturned face.
"Chihuly?" he asked without turning. It wasn't really a question -- she knew he recognized the artist. He had one of Dale Chihuly's Seaforms in his bedroom.
"Yes," she said anyway. "It's lovely."
"It is, isn't it?" A voice rang out from the top of the stairwell that led up from the foyer. "I had Dale come down and install it himself."
Tony pulled a grin out of thin air, bent it to fit. "Maguire."
As their host jogged down the stairs, his focused attention flickered over Tony's loose tie and tousled hair, then down to the bandage on his hand. Pepper smothered a frown, following Maguire's gaze and noticing that Tony had lost a cuff link during his hasty change in the back of the limo, so that under his jacket his sleeve hung slack around the gauze-wrapped wrist.
"I hear you had some trouble on the way over," Maguire continued as he met them under the chandelier.
Tony shrugged. His grin widened into a white flash of teeth. "Just the usual cluster fuck. What'd I miss?"
Maguire waved it off. "Boring small talk, the ritual comparison of phallic stand-ins. You know the drill."
Tony didn't offer his hand at first, but when their host reached out he reciprocated as if he'd needed the signal to remember how these things were supposed to go.
"Ms. Potts, it's wonderful to see you again," Maguire said, shaking her hand, brisk and businesslike.
"And you, Mr. Maguire." She couldn't help a relieved smile when he didn't try to kiss her knuckles the way some of the older board members tended to do, continually forgetting that she was Tony's PA and not a piece of arm candy waiting to be charmed.
"So where's the party?" Tony asked when Maguire turned back to him.
"Not waiting on latecomers," Maguire smirked. And if Tony's answering smile was stretched a little too tight, Maguire gave no indication that he'd noticed.
Brett Maguire was taller than Tony and built like the surfer he'd been in his teens, with broad shoulders and a lanky frame that retained its streamlined charm as he clung to the edge of fifty. Ten years ago Maguire had been just another California real estate investor, but he'd had the vision to sink most of his capital into the development of Phoenix, Arizona, before the market exploded and now he had a personal net worth to rival Tony's own. Obadiah had brought him into the Stark Industries board a year before but he'd already proven to be his own man, speaking against the majority more than once, most recently during the CFO's attempted coup d'etat. Which was why they were here tonight, rather than back at the house where Tony could burrow into the workshop and avoid interacting with anything more sentient than Jarvis. Because Maguire was an unknown quantity. Because they needed him.
It wasn't a position Tony was used to occupying and that had Pepper hovering at his elbow like a nervous chaperon as Maguire escorted them through the antique filled halls of his home towards a din of laughter and muffled conversation. Even Tony was momentarily struck dumb as they entered a huge octagonal space edged with a columned arcade, all buttery marble and carved gilt wood, topped off by a domed ceiling of stained-glass. The marble floor's inlaid star pattern was obscured by scattered tangles of people, near eighty total by Pepper's count. Not a few sets of eyes turned their way, drawn by the arrival of the infamous Tony Stark.
"Speaking of phallic stand-ins," Tony said. "I gotta say, it takes balls to pull off a room like this."
Maguire shot him a smile. "My wife thinks it's ostentatious."
"No, no." A petite blonde about ten years Pepper's senior chided in a soft Parisian accent as she approached, her eyes dancing. "Not ostentatious. That is not what I said. I called it pompeux."
"Pompous? And what's the difference between pompous and ostentatious?" Maguire was beaming. He bent to plant a kiss on his wife's cheek.
"There is a difference." Marthe Maguire turned to Pepper. "Do you not agree, Ms. Potts?"
Pepper found herself relaxing, just a notch, in the presence of such comfortable teasing. "I can't say I've seen anything like it before."
"Marthe. You've never looked so stunning." For the first time that day Tony's smile was genuine. Pepper felt something in her chest loosen.
"Ah, Tony. One day I will have you give Brett lessons in the proper application of charm."
Tony's eyes flickered to Pepper, his lips quirking.
"I'm not so sure that would be a good idea, dear." Maguire said. "You might not like the side effects that come with a dose of Tony Stark's charm."
"Eh, the women?" Marthe peered up at her husband with narrowed eyes. "I am certain I can hold my own."
"I don't think you need to worry," Tony said with a gesture towards Pepper. "I'm not exactly taking on apprentices."
Pepper blinked. Glanced at him sidelong.
"Mmm." Marthe considered him with that frank gaze she'd turned on Maguire. "Yes. I hear you have quite enough on your plate right now."
"Indeed," Maguire added. "Been a busy couple of months for you." The couple had neatly flanked Tony, the act not threatening so much as that of a natural team moving in tandem.
Tony laughed. "You could say that." He turned to Pepper. "Can I get you a drink? Vodka martini, right?"
"Of course, how rude of us," Marthe said, smooth as silk. "Let me show you to the bar. We should not keep you to ourselves. This is a party, after all."
An hour into the evening Pepper had let down her guard enough to actually engage in conversation, her attention only drifting to Tony every few minutes. Marthe Maguire proved to be a gracious and engaging host, introducing her to several of the guests she had never met, taking her under her wing with the ease of an older cousin. Across the room Tony and Brett Maguire had their heads together. Tony gestured every few words with his bandaged hand, the other occupied by a snifter of brandy.
After another hour, two martinis, and no sign that Tony was going to go off the rails any time soon, Pepper had allowed herself to lose track of him. Of course, he still managed to dominate the conversation whether physically present or not.
"He is a difficult man to work for, I expect," Marthe said, sipping a glass of wine.
"Tony? Not so difficult," Pepper said. "A challenge, though, certainly."
"And never more so than now, no?"
Pepper tilted her head. "I like a challenge."
"Hmm, I expect you do." Marthe was watching her husband just as closely as Pepper had watched Tony. Maguire was now deep in conversation with a man Pepper recognized as a major shareholder. "Brett admires him. Admires his mind. It's one reason he agreed to join the board. But this recent business..."
"Yes." Pepper tapped her glass with one nail. "Change is always unsettling, and the kind of change Tony's trying to undertake... well, I know it's rattled many people."
Marthe gave a small shrug. "Ah, Brett thrives on risk. We would not be where we are if he didn't. But the risk, it must be a smart one."
"And he's not sure the risk Tony's proposing is smart."
"Let us say he is intrigued. Since our children were born, Brett has become more aware of the consequences of his own business interests. So when Tony speaks of responsibility, Brett is not unsympathetic."
Pepper considered this. "And you have been involved in the environmental movement for many years yourself, of course. You sailed with Greenpeace before you married."
An appreciative smile spread across Marthe's face. "Oh, I apologize, Ms. Potts. I have underestimated you entirely."
"Pepper, please." She echoed the smile. Maguire was moving towards them through the crowd. "And I you. Thank you for speaking so forthrightly."
Marthe nodded. When Maguire reached them, he wasn't smiling any longer. "I'm afraid I misplaced Tony awhile back," he said, "I had something more to discuss with him. If you see him--"
"Of course," Pepper agreed, swallowing her concern. She excused herself and crossed back to the bar, scanning the mass of people for her erstwhile boss. She completed a circuit of the room before admitting to herself that Tony was nowhere to be found.
On the pretense of taking a look at the art that Marthe Maguire had recommended she might admire, Pepper left the octagonal party room behind and wandered the surrounding corridors. After her initial search proved fruitless she pressed further into the house until she heard the distinct timbre of live music. According to her dossier on the Maguires, Marthe was a classically trained pianist. But Marthe was still in the midst of the party, back with her husband.
Pepper followed the sound of a piano being played intricately and well and found herself in the doorway of what could only be called a music room. Capped by a curved bank of windows, the long room was all warm golds and cream, the ceiling edged by gilt painted garlands. Delicately feminine in comparison to the heavy marble of the room where the party was continuing on without her, antique chairs lined the periphery of the space as if awaiting an audience. Scattered around the center of the room there was a free standing harp, a small harpsichord, a cello resting against a stand. Two violin cases sat on an end table.
Tony was bent over the baby grand that dominated the room, a tumbler of scotch on the rocks sweating a puddle onto the ebony wood, a half-full bottle standing open near by. She recognized the piece as one she'd heard him play before, but this time it felt stilted to her, mechanically accurate but lacking the flair of his usual playing. And then it struck her that barring his fall through the piano in his living room this was the first time he'd touched the instrument since returning from Afghanistan.
More than the casual disregard of everyday etiquette, more than his ongoing conversations with inanimate objects, more than the erratic stream of girls, more even than his occasional hairpin turns towards the serious, Tony's skill on the piano had been the thing that shocked Pepper most after she started working for him. Pepper herself played at an amateur level, a result of sporadic childhood lessons when her family could afford them, but she knew enough to recognize a gifted player when she heard one. While Obadiah had sat down to the grand in the living room far more often than Tony, he'd lacked Tony's innate feel for the instrument. But as with nearly everything in his life that fell outside the realm of the mechanical, Tony's interest in the piano was fickle at best. He'd spend days noodling on the thing, pouring out complex pieces from memory, and then go months without touching it until the next time it struck his fancy.
By the cast of his eyes Tony had delved deep into the scotch since she'd seen him last. Instead of relaxing him the liquor had only fueled the rigid darkness she'd sensed in the car, and he'd shed the blithe veneer he'd shown the Maguires. The aloof string of notes streaming from his fingers jumbled together and then broke off as he reached for his glass with his injured hand, his movements choppy and abrupt. He must have tugged on the gauze until it loosened enough to allow him to play, but even so stretching the hand had to have hurt. Or maybe he'd had enough to drink to go beyond feeling pain – with Tony it was impossible to judge.
She must have made a sound. He peered opaquely at her over the piano as he took a gulp of his drink. "Potts," he said, negligently, before turning back to the keys.
Pepper frowned. She'd been Potts since Happy had picked them up that evening.
He started in on another uneven run, head cocked to one side, and then halted midway through. Slid from the bench to his feet, peeled off his jacket and left it draped over a chair. Dug what looked like a small wrench from the pocket of his trousers and then stuck his head under the piano's hood, into the bowls of the beast.
He'd brought a wrench to a cocktail party? She shouldn't have been surprised. Maybe he'd swiped it from the trunk of the limo. Or maybe he'd already been out to the garage to tinker with Maguire's cars, since the party clearly hadn't held his attention.
Pepper ventured further into the room, sure she didn't want to know what he was doing to their host's very expensive piano. It sounded as if maybe he was attempting to tune it using nothing but the wrench and his bare hands.
"Yeah," he said, muffled and distracted.
"Maguire was looking for you."
"Don't you need specialized tools for that?" she asked, unable to hold back any longer. She perched on the piano bench, watching him fiddle with something in the internal workings of the instrument, as fluid and dexterous as if it had been his hotrod.
"Yeah. Uh -- for what?"
Never mind. If he damaged it they'd just buy Maguire another one. She still had the number for the company that had sent over the replacement piano in Tony's living room. The one that had sat silent and untouched for the past month.
"Play a C," Tony ordered, clipped.
Pepper stared down at the keyboard. "Which one?"
"It's too sharp now," she pointed out. He didn't reply. He seemed on the brink of forgetting about her altogether. "How old were you when you started playing?"
"Don't remember." A muffled banging came from inside the piano and Pepper suppressed a wince.
"You had lessons?"
"Hmm. Yeah, later on. Guess they thought it would make me well-rounded."
A shrug was hard to pull off bent over at that angle but Tony managed just fine. "C again," he said.
"It's still sharp."
"It's supposed to be sharp," his voice drifted out to her, low and preoccupied, "to compensate."
"As you… mess with the other strings, the ones you've already tuned tend to loosen up. Go flat. If they start out sharp…" he trailed off. It was more explanation than she was used to getting from him. Then again, she didn't usually ask him to explain himself when he was working. If this was working. She wasn't sure what exactly this was.
"I'm pretty sure they pay people to do this kind of thing. Professionals."
The logical approach wasn't getting her anywhere. So. Back to her original point. "Maguire wants a word."
"Already gave him one. More than one. You were there."
And before she could respond: "I'd heard you were a man of many talents, Stark, but I never dreamed piano maintenance was one of them."
Tony came up too quickly and caught the crown of his head on the edge of the piano's lid. "Fuck."
Pepper turned towards the sound of the voice to see Maguire leaning against the door frame, regarding Tony with an air of deep amusement. How long had he been standing there?
"You learn that at M.I.T.?"
Tony straightened, rubbing at the back of his head. "Not exactly."
"How much do we owe you?"
Tony stared at him, clearly thrown. Pepper couldn't hide her smile. She was starting to like Brett Maguire -- there were so few people who had ever managed to knock her boss off his stride, it was a sight to behold.
"For your work on the piano. Marthe scheduled a tuner for Friday, but since you've taken care of it..."
Tony just shook his head. "No charge. Consider it a favor."
"You'll probably want to keep that appointment," Pepper added, studiously avoiding Tony's eyes.
"You doubt my ability to tune a piano, Miss Potts?" He'd picked up his drink and swiped at the condensation on the piano with his sleeve. Pepper decided an eye-roll would be completely inappropriate and so managed to refrain.
"Not at all, Mr. Stark."
"I've tuned pianos since I was--"
"I'm sure you have. And how many of them have you gone through since then?"
Tony considered this, his head cocked to the side. "Seven. No, eight."
"Counting the latest--"
"That one doesn't count. There were circumstances beyond my control."
Maguire watched the exchange with an expression bordering on fond. "Beyond your control?" he asked.
"He fell through the roof. The poor piano never stood a chance." Her grin felt a little giddy. Maguire could have taken the sight of Tony tinkering in his wife's piano very badly. Instead, he seemed to be regarding them both as if they were errant children caught trying to explain some elaborate prank gone wrong.
"Fell through the roof? I assume you weren't trying to tune the thing at the time."
Tony shot a glare at Pepper. "Not exactly."
"The piano wasn't the only victim," Pepper confided. "He went right through to the basement."
Maguire raised one eyebrow. "I see."
"I really doubt that," Tony muttered, taking a swig of scotch. "You wanted to talk?"
Maguire didn't blink at the abrupt shift in gears and it elevated him another notch in Pepper's esteem. "I wanted to continue our discussion--"
"Clean coal again?" Tony interrupted. He pocketed the wrench and poured himself another drink. "I told you. It'll never be cost effective. Doomed from the start. No one is going to pay 60% more for energy, no matter how clean it is. And clean coal isn't clean."
Pepper turned to the piano, ran her fingers along the keys. Played a soft chord, then another. Tried to remember the last piece she'd played on Tony's old grand before it was reduced to a pile of splinters.
"It's better than what we've got now. It removes most of the SO2 and nitrogen oxides, not to mention the particulate emissions."
Tony shook his head. "Doesn't get rid of the radionuclides. And CCS hasn't been proven. I'm no environmental nut, but even I know that deep ocean storage of carbon is a bad idea. And long term geologic storage hasn't been adequately studied."
"Even so, state governments are showing interest. New Jersey--"
"The DoE just scrapped a $1.8 billion pilot project in Illinois. Not to mention the plants tied up in lawsuits brought by citizens groups." Tony broke off suddenly, and Pepper looked up to find his lips pursed in thought. Then he shook his head and continued. "If you're pursuing this for environmental reasons, clean coal technology still encourages increasing coal mining, which, by the way, isn't exactly environmentally friendly. Either way you approach it -- from the profit side or the green side -- you lose."
Pepper's fingers settled into a tune, drifting over the keyboard, and she let muscle memory take over.
"You've been talking to Marthe, haven't you?" Maguire said, refilling his own tumbler from the bottle Tony had purloined.
Tony raised a brow. "You've already heard all this?"
Maguire nodded, rueful. "More than once, I'm afraid."
"I wanted your take on it. Marthe isn't exactly unbiased when it comes to these issues."
Tony blinked. "And you think I am?"
"I think Obadiah Stane mentioned revamping that show piece you have running your main plant."
"Had. Had running. Not running so much any more." An edge there, now.
Pepper shivered, and for a moment she could feel the override button under her hand and then the crackle of static on her skin as the reactor blew. Her fingers stilled on the piano keys as the tang of ozone and scorched metal flooded her mouth. Then her eyes flew to Tony, standing stiff and straight and six feet away, staring out of the windows at the surrounding estate, not lying unconscious in the wreckage of the plant with the miniature reactor in his chest barely flickering as she and Phil Coulson and three other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents struggled to free him from the armor.
"So the technology can't be improved? Made cost effective? Stane seemed to think it could, before he died." Maguire had settled into one of the antique chairs, his attention on Tony's back.
The question anchored Pepper back to the present. She took a shaky breath, then another, and resumed playing.
"It might be possible to streamline the design," Tony hedged. "But palladium doesn't grow on trees. It's mined. Still not exactly green."
"There's recycling. Scrapped catalytic converters. And from what I understand, once it's in place it doesn't need to be replenished."
"Palladium isn't really the limiting factor," Tony said. "The cost of the superconducting cables..."
"But it's possible."
"Maybe." Tony turned to stare at Maguire. "I take it you're interested?"
"Clean energy interests me. I think it's going to be the next investment boom. Oil's days are numbered. And as you mentioned, clean coal is a losing proposition. I want in on something with the potential to be the real thing."
Tony ran a hand over his tie, over the hidden arc reactor. The potential made concrete.
"You said you intend to take Stark Industries in new directions. You can't tell me this isn't one that you've considered." Maguire pressed.
"I can't make any promises about the feasibility of the technology." Tony spoke into his glass. "The reactor at the plant was, as you said, a show piece. Large scale production is a whole other ball game."
"You show the board that it's something worth pursuing and you'll have my support." Maguire said. "And I can bring enough of the other members to my side, with a little work."
Pepper fell silent. Tony was studying Maguire, his expression gone flat and unreadable. "I'll take another look at it," he said finally. "See what I can come up with."
Maguire nodded as if he hadn't expected a definite answer. "I'll look forward to hearing from you." And with that he stood, nodded to Pepper, and left them behind.
Tony retreated back to the window. In the sudden silence she could hear the clink of the ice hitting the sides of his glass.
"Play me something?" he asked after a long pause, his back still turned to her. His voice was quiet in the big room.
So she pulled out the only other song she could remember, one of Bartok's compositions arranged for young players. Tony stood motionless so long she started the piece over, and when that was finished she returned to the first song she'd played while he and Maguire talked. When she was half way through, Tony left the windows and crossed to the piano. Stood watching her play for a few bars, then sat down next to her on the opposite side of the bench from the piano, just a hair too close to be professional, his back to the keys so that she couldn't see his face.
"Did I ask you to set up a meeting with Legal?"
"No. What's this about?"
"The Pentagon lawsuits. How soon can we throw one together?"
Pepper didn't bother glancing at her watch. "Not tonight. Maybe by tomorrow afternoon."
"Good." Then, after another long moment: "Will you tell Happy I'm sorry?"
"No," she said. "I won't." She felt him nod.
"Right." He set his empty glass on the bench in the narrow space between them. It nudged her hip as she played.
The music flowed more easily as she warmed up, as her fingers recalled the patterns. She was out of practice, not as good as Tony, not even as good as Obadiah had been, but she'd forgotten how much she'd always enjoyed playing. She never took the time these days, despite the fact that she spent the majority of her work hours in a room dominated by a piano larger than this one.
"What piece is that?" Tony asked after she shifted into a slower, gentle tune.
"I don't remember," she admitted.
After that he listened in silence as she cycled back through the tunes she'd pulled out of her memory, smoothing her technique, adding a little more expression. She'd become so absorbed she'd nearly forgotten his presence when pressure against her side pulled her from the music. Tony leaned against her without a word, his head coming to rest on her shoulder. Pepper froze at the touch; but when Tony didn't move, just sat there so close she could feel him breathing, his hair brushing the side of her neck and tickling her ear, she swallowed and forced herself to relax, her hands returning to the keys of the piano. By the time she'd finished the song he was asleep.
"No, at this time I don't have anything further to add to the record. I think we're gonna sit this one out and see which side of the aisle moves on the bill as is..."
Pepper slipped through the double doors into Tony's office and found him stretched out on the long leather couch, his Bluetooth headset curved around one ear. Warm light washed the open space of the room, but he'd managed to angle himself into a sliver of shadow, his forearm covering his eyes as he listened to whoever was on the line and interjected a hum of fake interest every few minutes. The tangled mess of his tie and jacket lay in a nearby chair, probably already wrinkled beyond rescue. He craned his neck as she approached so he could watch upside-down as she plucked the jacket from the pile and shook it out, then hung it neatly along the back of the chair.
Tony had called her from the corporate offices that morning, sounding more awake and focused than he had any right to be after the previous night. He'd admitted later that he'd let her sleep in -- that he'd driven himself in from Malibu around five a.m. It was close to eight when the trilling of her phone had pulled her from an uneasy sleep and she'd sat up to find herself wrapped in a knit afghan on her couch, still in her cocktail dress.
By the time she'd made it to the office he'd already met with the Vice President of R&D and was deep in conversation with the company's head legal counsel. Meeting upon meeting had followed, until beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows which exposed Tony's office to the outside world the shadows from the adjacent buildings in the Stark Industries complex had lengthened into the oblong streaks that signaled the approach of early evening.
"No, I'm not able to make it to Washington at this time… I appreciate that but frankly, Senator, closed door testimony would still open up questions of legal interest and fiduciary responsibility… Well, according to my over-paid attorneys it would simply be better if I didn't further politicize my statements..."
Senator? She mouthed the word to him and he shrugged, amusement flickering over his face as he muttered noncommittally into the phone. Then he tapped a button to mute the call.
"Hey, how bad would it be if I hung up right now?"
"Who are you talking to?"
"The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the senior Foreign Ops staffers. I think."
"Hanging up would be very bad."
"Even if I'm bored out of my mind?"
"Especially if you're bored out of your mind."
Tony rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the call. Pepper settled into one of the armchairs, her back to the windows, flipping through a folder of documents she needed him to sign before they could take off for the evening. She decided that wondering why Senator Bruckman was calling Tony now would be pointless, so she put it out of her mind. Or tried to, anyway. It didn't quite work. Tony was notoriously... informal with members of Congress.
"That shouldn't be a problem, Senator… Well, if it makes it onto the calendar for debate, I would be happy to take a look at… yes, sir… thank you… sure, just have your scheduler call my assistant… you too… okay, yeah, goodbye."
Sir? "What was that all about?" she asked, setting aside her paperwork.
"They want me to testify about the illegal arms trade. How it impacted... what happened. In Afghanistan." He made a sweeping gesture, as if brushing the topic aside. "But that's not important right now."
"Really. A call from the Committee on Armed Services isn't important."
"Not a priority, no. More urgent, in fact, are the dire results of that meeting we just got out of."
"I assume you're referring to the completely insane legal strategy you've concocted?"
He'd instructed Legal to embrace the Pentagon lawsuits, along with any other suits brought against the company over weapons contracts. To muck them up as much as possible. To drag them out. And somehow he'd convinced Laura Talbert, his chief counsel, that this was a good idea. Talbert had left the meeting with a predatory gleam in her eye, apparently thrilled with the challenge he'd proposed for her team. They had already delivered the news that Stark Industries would be fighting the contract suits to General Franks at the Pentagon's Defense Acquisition Board.
When Pepper had asked Tony if he'd run the scheme by his military liaison, he'd waved the question off and turned away to hash out more details with Talbert. She took this as a no. So Rhodey hadn't been informed, and that was bound to come to a head sooner rather than later, and she wasn't sure she wanted to be here when it did. Tony's only real explanation for his strategy of more or less passive resistance to filling his weapons contracts was that it would buy him some time. And because he'd been in full Tony Stark mode before Pepper had even made it to the office, he was completely uninterested in hearing anything to the contrary. Pepper wasn't a lawyer by any means but instinct and her MBA told her this wasn't a sound plan for the long run.
"Insane? No. I'm referring to the note Jenkins slipped you as we were leaving. What are we, in high school? Passing notes in class? Should I be worried about the gossip from the girl's locker room?"
As Tony hadn't exactly attended high school, chances were better than average that his impressions of the experience owed a great deal to re-runs of Beverly Hills 90210. Or, more likely, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
"Do we have a girl's locker room? If not, I'll get someone on that. Like, right away."
Pepper took a breath. Let it out. "Note?"
Tony sat up and then immediately slouched down so that his head was propped against the back of the couch. Plucked the headset from his ear and tossed it aside. "Yeah. Because, you know, it's not every day that I get the opportunity to observe such a smooth operator at work."
"It was his business card. And frankly I'm shocked you even know his name."
"Still." He rubbed at his face. For a moment he sounded as if he'd already tired of the game, despite the fact that he'd started it. "Cheeky of him."
"He's a lawyer," she said. "And he's..."
"Hmm. Virile then."
She nearly choked. "It's really none of your business, Mr. Stark. Did you happen to see the L.A. Times article this morning?"
"Changing the subject, I see. Not very subtle, Miss Potts. Yeah, I read Mr. Briggs' Opus."
Lester Briggs' profile of Tony hadn't been a complete disaster on the surface, but he'd picked up on a few key things and run with them in ways that had the potential to do real damage -- to the company's stock, low as it already was, and to Tony's relationship with the board. Not to mention public perception. During the interview itself Briggs had avoided asking anything inflammatory, had mostly tossed Tony what had felt like softball questions, nothing Pepper had found objectionable at the time. But upon reading the finished product, she could see clearly what he'd managed to accomplish.
When it came down to it, Briggs had asked Tony what it was like to be Tony Stark, and Tony had answered by deflecting the way he always did, through flippant and borderline inappropriate humor, and in doing so he'd revealed too much of the truth. Briggs hadn't jumped onto the bandwagon claiming Tony was insane or a traitor. Instead, he'd painted a fairly accurate picture of a man who tended towards the impulsive and erratic, and that was far more damning than the ridiculous accusations being tossed about by the usual talking heads.
And then there was the tidbit Briggs had tossed in at the end of the piece: a brief mention that the coalition forces in Afghanistan had announced last night that they'd found the body of one Ibrahim Yinsen, respected medical engineer, in a cave near Gulmira not far from where the Air Force had picked up Tony. Briggs had stopped short of speculating on any connection between Tony's escape -- the details of which, the article had pointed out, had yet to be made public -- and the presence of a fellow scientist who was clearly not a terrorist. But the implication remained, there between the lines. Briggs had the instincts of an investigative reporter and he was starting to put together pieces that Pepper herself was still struggling to collect.
"Tony. Briggs led you right where he wanted you to go. And he used it to portray you as reckless and entitled." And she should have picked up on it, should have realized what Briggs was doing, that he'd been handing Tony the rope the entire time. She was supposed to be better at this. She'd been there, and she hadn't done anything to stop it, and that was her job.
"And you don't see that as a problem?"
"Not really, no. I mean, isn't this common knowledge by now? It's not like I've never shown up in the tabloids before."
"The Times is hardly a tabloid. Briggs claims you're regularly stopped by the LAPD for traffic violations and let off without consequence. Combined with that bit about you totaling your motorcycle just before the interview and laughing it off--"
"Which is ridiculous; I only said I'd gone off the road a bit. And I would never total the Indian, I respect it too much." He scrubbed at his face again, then peered at her from between his spread fingers. "I don't get what's bugging you here."
"He built a pretty convincing case that you're gunning for the nearest cliff and taking Stark Industries with you."
"I've led this company for sixteen years--"
"Yes, I know, but--"
"--and one negative profile from a hack like Briggs isn't--"
"--things are different now. It's not just one negative piece. And Lester Briggs is no hack, he's--"
"How are things different?" Tony left the embrace of the cushions and straightened from his slouch. Leaned forward, all traces of the casual gone.
"Besides the obvious?"
"Humor me, Potts."
"You remember halting weapons production, right?"
"How is that reckless or entitled? It's the very opposite of reckless and entitled. I would think--"
"You didn't give anyone any warning. Not even the board. How do you think that looks? And since you outed yourself as Iron Man the perception is--"
"Why should I care what the perception is? The reality is what matters."
"This is Los Angeles. You know that's not true," she said. "Not right now, not with everything that's happened. The board is already on edge and the perception has always been that Obadiah--"
"Obadiah's dead." The words came flat and hard and his eyes had taken on a glassy, inward focus that she didn't like at all. It was too close to the mute automaton he'd been during Obadiah's memorial service, after which he'd taken off in the armor for the first time since the battle on the rooftop, disappearing for two days without a word. He'd come back with a sprained finger and a slight limp and what Jarvis had said was probably a concussion and it hadn't occurred to him that she might have worried when he went missing unexpectedly. He'd just laughed, still buoyed by adrenalin, and told that next time he'd leave her a note. Next time. And he had, damn him. Four days later. And then a week after that. Two notes.
Pepper - don't wait up. Left taped to the living room windows.
Gone fishing. Left on the door of the workshop, tacked on with something blue and sticky.
Right now, here in the place where she'd seen Obadiah for who he really was for the first time, this discussion was the last thing she wanted to be having with Tony. Pepper wanted to look away, wanted to drop the subject, but it was too important and she'd let him avoid the issue for too long and now the consequences were starting to pile up. "I know," she said. "I know. But he left a vacuum, Tony. No one doubts your ability to keep the company on the cutting edge but the investors need to know there's going to be some stability, and--"
"Stability? Stane's idea of the status quo was dealing under the table with the kind of people who--" he broke off, hunching forward on the couch, his hands gripped together between his knees. This time she didn't interrupt. Let him collect himself. When he spoke again he was very calm, very controlled. "So, what. What do you think I'm supposed to do about it? I'd really like to know."
"That's just it. I want you to think, Tony. You need a CFO. You need someone to handle the financial side of things. Maybe what Briggs wrote won't matter in the long run, but he's right about one thing: you can't do it all yourself. You can't. If you want to move the company in a new direction, you need someone to help you take it there."
He shook his head. Ran a hand through his hair. "How am I going to..." He closed his eyes, collapsing into himself, just a little. "Okay. Yeah, I'll think about it."
She nodded. She hadn't expected to get much further than that with him. At least it was a start. "Can I... look, there's something else I need to ask you about."
Tony picked at the gauze over his knuckles. Stared at the floor. "Go ahead."
"About the man you asked me to research. Yinsen. Briggs mentioned him in the article."
"What about him?" Wary, now.
She didn't want to do this, didn't want to push him more than she already had, but if Briggs' digging led to a connection between Tony and Yinsen she needed to know what it was before it hit the papers. She needed to be on top of things this time. Pepper took a deep breath before she spoke, kept her voice even. "Was he there with you? In Afghanistan?"
Tony cocked his head. His eyes tracked something in the middle ground and she was pretty sure it wasn't the pattern on the carpet.
"Tony?" It was hard to get enough air to form his name.
"What? Uh, yeah." One hand rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Yes. He was there."
"And he -- he's the one who operated on you? Removed the shrapnel, and..."
It looked like he'd stopped breathing, just for a moment. "Yes," he said, and then rose from the couch, abrupt and rigid, eyes scanning the room, darting everywhere but in her direction. "Look, I'll... be right back." And before she could say anything he'd disappeared through the door to the executive washroom.
Oh God. When she looked down she found a tremor running through her hands, as if she had no control at all over her own flesh. Her chest burned and she gripped the armrests of her chair and closed her eyes and refused to acknowledge the memory of the video she'd never told him she'd seen, the one she knew he had to have watched himself because he'd gone through all of the files on Obadiah's ghost drive; but he'd never mentioned it and she hadn't asked and she didn't want him to know she'd ever laid eyes on it in the first place -- the grainy footage of him swathed in stained bandages, staring at the camera, all wide black eyes and blood and confused terror, all because Obadiah had decided to have him killed. Obadiah had decided Tony needed to die, and she'd worked by his side every day, and she hadn't seen it. He'd played the piano for her. He'd played the damn piano, knowing what he'd already done to Tony. Knowing he was going to try again. And she'd missed it all.
Tony was in the washroom a long time, long enough that she'd got herself mostly under control when he emerged, pale under his tan, his hair curling damply at his temples and the back of his neck.
Pepper stood up, absurdly grateful for the excuse. "Of course. Do you want me to get you anything? Coffee?"
He gave her a wan shadow of a smile. "No. Just some uninterrupted time. Chernobyl stuff only, you know the drill."
Yes, she did, she knew it well. But usually when he asked for time alone in his office he had calls to make, or inspiration had struck, or he just wanted to sleep off a hangover. "Okay. I'll be right outside, then. If you--"
"Yeah," he cut her off. She started for the doors, had slipped halfway through when he spoke again. "Pepper?"
When she turned back around he was just standing there by the couch, hands hanging loose at his sides, like he'd forgotten what he'd meant to say. "I -- changed my mind. Coffee would be good. When you get the chance."
"Of course," she said, and if the response felt completely inadequate, it was all she had to give.
He was a cut-paper silhouette against the bank of windows when she brought him the coffee. She waited for him to turn around, to acknowledge her presence, but he didn't, didn't move at all, and she couldn't see his face clearly against the bright light, so she left the mug on his desk and retreated, the coffee's bitter aroma turning her stomach.
Pepper had a desk of her own outside Tony's office that she saw so rarely it felt like taking over someone else's space. Technically, Pepper had a staff as well -- two traditional secretarial types she delegated the routine things to when needed, who managed the reams of stuff she didn't need to see, like travel receipts and minor contracts and payroll -- but she rarely saw them in person either, so they felt just as unfamiliar as her desk.
"Col. Rhodes called," Mary Littlejohn said from her nearby cubical as Pepper settled into her chair.
Pepper's stomach sank. He must have gotten the news about the lawsuits. But why wouldn't he have called Tony directly? "Thank you. If he calls again, please transfer him to my line."
There were things that needed to be done. There were. She had no idea what they could be, suddenly, as if every important detail of the day had fled her mind at once, leaving behind... nothing. Nothing at all, and she knew there was too much to be done to give into it, even for a moment, so she flipped open her laptop and started triaging emails until she could focus again.
"Pepper, I've got the colonel on the line again. I'm transferring him now."
She startled at Mary's voice, realizing she'd been sitting there staring at her monitor for what felt like hours. Shut the screen down and picked up the desk phone when the line blinked red.
Rhodey didn't wait for her greeting. "He's in the office?"
She could hear traffic noise, the rush of wind from an open window. "Yes. But--" But the line went dead before she could finish her sentence.
Twenty minutes later the elevator doors sprung open with a cheery ding and Rhodey stalked past her desk without a glance, heading straight for the double doors to Tony's office.
"He's not—" she started, darting up from her chair, but before she could get the words out he'd palmed open one of the doors, sending it flying inward. "—seeing anyone," she finished, swept along in his wake.
Tony was lying on his side on the couch with his back to the room, his head propped on one folded arm, and by the looks of it he was still mostly asleep when Rhodey started in on him.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
Tony flinched, just a little jerk that was quickly suppressed, then sat up and ran a hand over his face. Squinted at Rhodey in a way that long experience told her meant he was forcing back a headache. "Good question. Covers a lot of territory, though. You gonna be more specific?" Then his eyes shuttered over as he got a good look at Rhodey's expression, at the clear fury there. "You are, aren't you."
"What do you think?" Rhodey snapped. He planted his hands on his hips and loomed over Tony, who leaned back into a loose sprawl and spread his arms along the top of the couch, his head tilting against the cushions so that he could stare up at Rhodey without craning his neck.
"My fault for asking. Fire away."
"Here's specific for you, Tony – you went over my head. You've known for days that the Pentagon was going to move on you for breach of contract over all those weapons orders you've decided not to fill. But instead of asking for my help you had your lawyers throw down with General Franks this morning. You could have at least given me a heads up, but you didn't. You tossed out twenty years of friendship and ten years of working together and you cut me out of the loop."
Tony, of course, didn't have the good grace to look surprised, or even chastised. He mostly just looked drained. "Sorry."
"Sorry doesn't cut it this time. This isn't just my job, Tony. This is my life. It's one thing when you're three hours late or leave me hanging in the wind at some industry shindig. That kind of thing just makes you look like an asshole. But this?" he broke off. "I know you don't give a shit about the uniform I wear but I thought you had a sliver of respect for me, as your friend. Enough not to fuck me over this way. "
Tony launched off of the couch and made a beeline to his desk, to the decanter of Scotch, the one Obadiah had admired. Poured himself a neat glass and didn't offer any to Rhodey. "Fuck you over? What do you think the Pentagon is trying to do to me?"
"Nothing you didn't do to yourself the minute you got up in front of those reporters and—"
Pepper went cold. Tony whipped around to face Rhodey again, one hand clenched around his glass, the other, the bandaged hand, curled into a tight fist at his side. "And what? Actually stood up for something right for the first time in my life? For years you've been trying to tell me that I could be more than I am. Well, I'm finally listening to you."
"Listening? You haven't heard a word I've said! I could have helped you, Tony. We could have found a way to work something out. I know how you must have felt after seeing your weapons kill those kids, but what you did -- you screwed me and you screwed yourself and now they're gonna play hard ball."
"You know how I feel?" Tony's voice had gone low and hard. "You don't know how I feel. You don't know anything."
"Hard ball?" Pepper said at the same time, stepping forward, wading into the fray. "What do you mean?"
"Ask your boss," Rhodey said. He didn't tear his focus away from Tony when he answered. She'd never seen him so angry, not even when he'd been pulled off of the search in Afghanistan a month into Tony's disappearance. "Ask him what the hell he's doing, taking his fight directly to General Franks instead of going through channels."
"I don't give a fuck about channels. I was trying to keep you from getting caught in the middle!" The words sounded like they'd been torn from Tony against his will.
He met Rhodey's gaze straight on for the first time and held it for a long moment, until Rhodey turned his back, breaking the contact. Tony deflated, his head drooping, his attention falling into his glass. From where Pepper was standing he'd looked sincere – but she was absolutely certain Rhodey wasn't in any mood to hear it. She didn't blame him, and she couldn't say she was surprised. What the hell had Tony been thinking, cutting his military liaison -- his friend -- out of the loop?
It was the wrong thing to say. Possibly the worst thing he could have said. Pepper let her eyes fall briefly closed. When she opened them again Rhodey was shaking his head. "You know what's sad? You don't even get why that's an insult."
"Come work with me," Tony insisted. "You can name your own salary. Benefits, the works. Ten weeks of vacation. A staff of lackeys to do your every bidding. I'll make you Vice President of something. I mean it."
"I know you do, man. I know you do." Rhodey was heading for the doors. Tony took a step after him, stopped short when he paused and turned back around. "Effective…" he glanced at his watch, "two hours ago, liaison to Stark Industries is no longer one of my duties. Makes sense, since you eliminated any need for the position two months ago. Probably should have happened then, but you know the government -- takes the bureaucracy awhile to catch up with current events."
"Jim," Tony took another step. Stopped.
"I can't run interference for you with the Air Force any more when you decide to play vigilante. You know that, right? When you fly into hot zones without warning anybody, you step on so many toes... as pissed as they are about your new business plan -- it's nothing compared to their feelings about your extra-curricular activities."
"I don't need you to—"
But Rhodey was already through the doors.
It took her a long moment, but Pepper finally broke the heavy silence that followed Rhodey's exit. "Tony," she started, but after she'd spoken she realized there was nothing to be said. He'd done this to himself, and it wasn't something she could fix, even if she wanted to.
Tony didn't look up, just weighed the glass in his hand as if getting ready to hurl it across the room. Pepper waited for the inevitable crash, but instead he swallowed the last of the liquor, turned, and set the glass down on his desk with exaggerated care.
"It's after seven," he said to the desk top. "What're you still doing here?"
"There's nothing left to do tonight. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Let me call Happy--"
"I'm perfectly capable of finding my way back home," he interrupted, irritation running close to the surface, ready to erupt. He clamped down on it with visible effort. "And if I happen to get lost, I can call the world's most advanced talking atlas--"
She spoke over him. "About the Pentagon--"
"You're trying to get rid of me." She studied him, eyes narrowing.
"Because it's time to leave. You can stay here all night if you miss the place so much, don't let me stop you. But I'm off the clock."
Right. He was never off the clock. He was never really on the clock, either, which was where she came in, but also why she kept getting blindsided by little surprises like his decision to drop two million and change on a nonprofit organization he'd never shown the least bit of interest in before, or completely screwing with his only friend's career out of some kind of newborn, misguided sense of protectiveness.
Pepper retrieved her manila folder full of documents and held it out to him. Handed him a pen. "Sign these, then, before you punch out for the day, and I'll get out of your hair."
She watched his lips quirk as he considered what was most likely a completely inappropriate comment, but in the end he just retreated to sit behind his desk for the first time that day and signed the pile of paperwork in silence. After he finished she gathered up her briefcase and her purse and checked in with him one more time. He was standing by the bookshelves, one of his design awards in one hand. The framed photograph of his father that usually stood nearby was face down on his desk.
Pepper didn't say anything and he never looked up and she left him like that, just standing there, and the next morning when she was greeted by another glib note stuck to the espresso maker in the kitchen she couldn't say she was surprised.
Each time was different, each time defied routine. This time the note read Out to Lunch.
It was a yellow Post-it and Tony's scrawl was smeared and illegible, but Pepper had been deciphering his handwriting for seven years. And the contents didn't matter, because his words didn't mean anything, not at all. The armor was gone and there was a note and that was all she needed to know. The first time he'd gone AWOL she'd tried everything she could think of -- she'd called his cell phone, she'd called Rhodey, she'd badgered Jarvis. This time she knew better than to bother.
At first she did okay. She kept busy. Her email inbox was as full as ever. There were calls to make – Brett Maguire wanted to schedule a meeting to discuss the practical applications of arc reactor technology; Stark Industries' PR department, disgruntled over the company's sudden change in direction, not to mention the lawsuits, wanted a few hours of Tony's time, which once again she had to put off indefinitely; and Lyle Masterson, the old engineering colleague of Ibrahim Yinsen's at Cambridge, had finally returned her call, but when she dialed his number the secretary who answered told her he was out of the office on personal business.
Around eleven Dr. Maya Hansen, a scientist at Nangen Microsystems, a subsidiary of Stark Industries that focused on medical nanotechnology, called. Hansen had prepared a prospectus for a new line of research on which, of course, she wanted Tony's input; and because Tony had never quite learned to draw the line between his duties as CEO and his love of shiny new technological innovations, he had told Hansen to toss it in his lap -- his words, or so Hansen claimed -- when she was ready. Given his interest in miniaturization, Pepper wasn't surprised that nanotechnology had caught his attention.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Hansen, but I'm afraid Mr. Stark's schedule is immovable for the foreseeable future. But I'll be sure to--"
"I know how busy Tony is, Miss Potts," Hansen cut in. "But I'm certain he'll make time for me once he hears about the success I've had in preliminary tests. He was very enthusiastic about the project the last time I saw him."
Pepper absorbed this, considered the slight emphasis Hansen had placed on Tony's name, the red flags it triggered. She was reasonably sure that even Tony Stark drew the line at seducing his employees -- or at least he had since she'd been his assistant. That didn't mean he hadn't slept with Hansen before the scientist came to work for SI, of course, but Pepper decided it was best if she didn't pursue that line of inquiry.
"Yes, Mr. Stark takes great interest in every new technology developed for his companies," Pepper managed. "Why don't you send the report my way. I'll see what I can do about scheduling a meeting if he's interested after reading my summary."
She didn't add that she had no idea when – or if – Tony would ever be back to read it.
The document arrived in the form of a huge pdf file, so Pepper spent most of the afternoon wading through dense text on a subject she knew next to nothing about, which wasn't anything new; but it required a level of concentration she just didn't have and so she found herself reading and re-reading the same passages, absorbing nothing. Coffee didn't help. Instead it set her heart racing and sharpened her already alert senses until she was jumping every time the air conditioning switched on or her phone rang.
After the third time reading through a passage detailing Hansen's experiments with nano-neural interfaces and the possible applications for traumatic brain injury, Pepper gave up. Closed the report, saved her notes, shut down her laptop and carried it downstairs.
The shop was quiet and chilly. Nothing had changed since she'd searched it that morning, looking for any sign of where Tony could have gone. The clothes he'd been wearing at the office last night were still draped over his desk chair, and sitting abandoned near one of the computer monitors was a half full glass of the wheatgrass protein shake he drank when he was too busy to think about food. The left over liquid had separated and congealed into a watery sludge, so Pepper dumped it down the sink in the kitchenette and rinsed out the glass. Tony Stark was her job, yes; picking up after him this way really wasn't part of that, but then she couldn't really do her job while he was out throwing himself in the way of tanks or missiles or whatever it was he did when he took off in the armor. She couldn't do much of anything but settle on the leather couch with her laptop, watch CNN on the workshop's flatscreen and wonder whether the lack of breaking news about Iron Man was a good sign.
So she waited, she waited until the sun vanished and the screen of her laptop went blurry and she realized she hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. By the time she got back to her apartment it was after ten and she fixed a grilled cheese sandwich and then made herself eat it. Somehow she managed to fall asleep.
"I'm terribly sorry to wake you, Miss Potts, especially at this hour."
When she'd fumbled at her nightstand for the phone she'd expected to hear Tony on the line -- 3 am calls were not necessarily out of the question with Tony, and she was so out of it at first that the fact that he'd taken off for parts unknown completely slipped her mind -- but instead it was Jarvis, voice calm and polite as ever. Pepper momentarily forgot Jarvis didn't actually exist, because for an A.I. he sounded remarkably hesitant.
"I know you wouldn't have called if it wasn't important," Pepper managed; unable to shake the feeling that she was three steps behind in a conversation that had just started. She'd only been asleep for a few hours but it had been enough to leave her with that strange strung-out lethargy that had become all too familiar since Afghanistan.
Belatedly, it hit her: Jarvis had never called her before. Never. And then she remembered that Tony had vanished. That Tony was out playing Iron Man, and--
"Indeed," Jarvis said, breaking into her spiraling thoughts. He paused again, as if thrown by the precedent the call represented. "Miss Potts, according to the new emergency protocol Mr. Stark installed I am to contact you first in the event of--"
Emergency protocol? "What happened?" She was awake now, if still groggy, and she tossed back the blankets and crawled out of bed, reaching for the lamp. She should have known. She should have known something had happened the moment she heard Jarvis' voice.
"I'm afraid the autopilot has been activated on Mr. Stark's armor," Jarvis said.
"Autopilot?" He had autopilot programmed into that thing? For a moment the wonder of it short-circuited her mounting panic. Only Tony would think to install autopilot in his personal suit of armor. Then again, only Tony would think to build himself a personal suit of armor in the first place.
"Yes. The emergency protocol was triggered when the autopilot became active and I lost contact with Mr. Stark." Jarvis' speech patterns weren't usually this... well, robotic, but maybe the circumstances had driven him back to his roots. And again, what Jarvis had said hit her on a delay, as if she getting the message from a satellite phone.
Adrenalin flooded Pepper, leaving her knees full of jelly and the edges of her vision too bright, like a flash had gone off in her face. She traded the cell phone for her ear piece and it took her three tries to get it secured to her ear because her hands were shaking.
"What do you mean, you've lost contact with him?" she said once the earpiece was in place. She stripped off her pajamas and dug through her dresser for clean underwear.
Jarvis hesitated, and she imagined she could hear him clearing his throat, which would have been an eerily human expression given his lack of the necessary anatomy. "Mr. Stark is not responding to verbal contact and the armor's autopilot function has been brought online in order to maintain altitude. I have contact with--"
"What is the autopilot function programmed to do in this scenario?" Pepper interrupted, a curious calm replacing the shakes as the implications started to sink in. Jarvis had lost contact with Tony. Tony didn't have control over the armor, and she didn't know what that meant precisely, but it couldn't be good.
"The armor is programmed to return to Mr. Stark's workshop," Jarvis answered, something close to worry creeping into his voice. "I estimate it will arrive at five a.m."
Two hours. Pepper stared at the wall across from her bed, at the antique silk fan Tony had brought back for her from a defense conference in Tokyo last year. It must have cost more than the contents of her bedroom, and he'd handed it to her like it was a tourist stand trinket. He never remembered her birthday but he'd given her that fan, and on Christmas Eve last year he'd taken her and Happy to dinner at Patina, and she'd known it was his only private celebration because he didn't have anyone else but Rhodey and Rhodey always spent the holidays with his family. Obadiah hadn't been there, and at the time it hadn't occurred to her to wonder about it, but now… now she couldn't afford the distraction.
"Where is he? Do you have any information on the armor's condition? What happened?"
There was a long silence, as if Jarvis was deciding which question to answer first. When he spoke again he was excruciatingly polite. "I'm sorry, Miss Potts, but Mr. Stark has prevented me from revealing his location and the circumstances of his mission."
Pepper let out a curse she knew would shock Tony to hear. She yanked on a pair of wrinkled jeans left on top of her laundry basket. Of course he'd told Jarvis not to say anything. He wouldn't want her worrying to be informed by facts. The secrecy was going to change, once she… if… goddamn him.
She shook it off, because Jarvis was continuing. "But I can report that the armor has extensive damage to the helmet and right side."
Pepper filed this away and ignored the images that wanted to spring to mind. Tony, his chest wrapped in bloody bandages, his bowed head framed by guns. "Is the armor intact enough to make the return journey?" she asked instead, pulling a tee-shirt over her head and stuffing her hair into a ponytail.
Jarvis paused again, probably running some kind of scan. "Yes. The flight capabilities have not been damaged enough to prevent return."
"Can you get any kind of diagnostic reading on Tony? Is he okay?" Where were her keys? In her purse – which was out on the kitchen table, where she left it the night before. She was moving too slowly, still. She needed caffeine, but she couldn't spare the time.
"The armor is not programmed to monitor Mr. Stark's physical condition," Jarvis answered, and there was regret there, she could have sworn there was.
Pepper added one more item to the list of Things That Will Change.
By the time she reached the house her heart was in her throat and she had to pry white knuckled fingers away from the wheel of her car. Jarvis was a steady voice in her ear, counting down the time until the armor's arrival. She thought maybe her decision not to call Rhodey might have been a mistake but after the confrontation in the office she didn't want to risk making things worse for either of them. Especially since she had no idea where Tony had been.
"One hour thirty minutes," Jarvis announced.
Pepper paced through the house, calling up news reports on the screen in the living room window, scanning CNN for any clue at all, but everything seemed relevant and nothing gave her what she was looking for.
"One hour ten minutes."
She flicked off the news and then asked Jarvis to bring it up again ten minutes later. She descended into the workshop and dug out the prodigious first aid kit. She traced her way up the tunnel to the driveway outside the house, straining her eyes for any sign of the armor among the lights in the sky. She stalked back upstairs to make a pot of strong coffee, which only turned her stomach when she tried to take a sip. She found herself standing in the parlor, staring out at the inky night, at the water below, and this time Jarvis's voice startled her.
"Forty minutes, Miss Potts."
When the armor finally arrived it took her by surprise. Jarvis had just announced ten minutes, so she'd descended the stairs into the workshop, but when she stepped through the glass doorway there it was, coasting through the tunnel, and if she hadn't known it was on autopilot she wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. It headed for the assembly station and the robots anchored it in place.
Pepper crossed to one of the work tables and set her mug aside. Hovered there, shivering a little in her tee-shirt, all at once feeling weirdly underdressed. How close could she stand? How close was safe? A chemical stench caught in her throat -- the smell of the car accident, the burning Honda – and for a second she was back there on the freeway, watching Tony disappear into the smoke. Had it only been two days? It felt like weeks.
"Jarvis." Tony's voice was distorted by the suit, alien and flat and somehow mechanical. Not Tony at all, but recognizable nonetheless. "Get me out of this thing."
For a brief moment, Pepper let her eyes close. He was conscious, then, at least.
"Sir, the emergency protocol was initiated when I lost contact--" She got the impression Jarvis was trying to warn him of her presence.
"Yeah, I know," the voice said, thin and weary even through the distortion. "Later. Just... get it off me."
He didn't realize she was there, yet. She hadn't been on hand for any of his returns since Gulmira, since he usually came and went in the middle of the night; but this time she was, this time she was there. Thanks to Jarvis, she was there. Pepper waited a safe distance away from the robot arms as they freed Tony from the armor piece by piece. She gripped the cold metal edge of the work table with one hand, watching as the mechanical shell parted from the man inside. Her lips thinned at the blood painting his face and matting his hair, at the way he didn't fight against Jarvis, just submitted to the disassembly in silence.
The armor came away to reveal more blood, wet and dully shining against the black of his flight suit. After he was free and the equipment disappeared he was left wavering in the quiet of the workshop only feet away from her. He had that thousand-yard stare she'd only seen once before -- the last time he'd gone out, when he'd gotten back late enough that he was still in the workshop when she arrived for work. She'd found him hunched on the couch with an ice pack held to one knee and he hadn't quite returned to himself enough to notice that she was right in front of him until the third time she'd called his name.
This time, standing there not two yards away from her staring into nothing, he looked so unsteady she was sure he was going to fall, but he didn't – he just stood there, face white under the red, and then blinked. His left hand flew up to his throat and he fumbled with the zipper of the flight suit but he was too clumsy to make it work. She gave him a moment and then stepped forward, making sure he was aware of her presence before she pushed his hand away and slid the zipper down to his waist.
The material felt slick against her fingers, from sweat or blood – she didn't take the time to look, too focused on Tony's hitching breaths near her ear, the fine tremor she could feel running through his body when she touched him. This close his human scent broke through the burnt odor that had overpowered her before the armor came off, but even so he smelled sharp and metallic, like damp rust. There was a jagged tear in the suit and underneath she could see that something with enough force to breach the armor had driven metal fragments into the flesh of his shoulder under his right collar bone, the largest of which looked to be a little smaller than her hand. He staggered against her hip as she peeled the material away from the wound, her fingers moving slowly, trying as best she could to avoid touching the shrapnel embedded in his flesh.
"What happened?" she asked as he stepped back out of her reach and took over stripping down to his sweat stained tee shirt and boxers one-handed.
He shook his head and avoided her eyes. "It won't be on the news," he said.
That wasn't what she'd asked, of course. She wasn't sure if the statement was supposed to reassure her or not, whether it was fact or wish. The bloodstain spread a little as he moved, soaking into the white cotton of his shirt, but there wasn't as much blood as she'd expected. The adrenalin must have already worn off because he held his right arm tight against his chest as if it hurt to move.
"We're going to the hospital." As much as she needed the words to come out firm and no-nonsense her voice broke, just a little.
"Pepper," he said. "You can – you could –"
"No," she crossed her arms, hugging herself. "I'm not going to pull that piece of— No, Tony. You need someone with medical training; I'm not going to— I'm calling an ambulance and—"
"Not like this," he interrupted. His left hand trembled as he shoved it through his hair, leaving it standing on end where it wasn't stuck to his head with blood. "Let me… let me clean up. First. Let me… I'm… Yeah. Sticky." The words fell out in a breathless jumble.
He needed a doctor. She wasn't sure why she gave in so easily, but his desperation was hard to face and it didn't seem like he was in immanent danger, so she didn't protest. Just nodded. Let him go.
She didn't trust him not to pass out, though, so she followed him as he shuffled to the workshop's small bathroom then sat on the toilet while he washed off the blood and sweat behind the frosted glass doors of the shower. When the water cut off she handed him a towel, helped him step into the pair of slacks she'd found draped over his desk chair, the charcoal grey pinstripes he'd been wearing the last time she'd seen him, stripped off and left behind before he'd taken off for… wherever. Buttoned the pants and then helped him pull the wrinkled dress shirt over his uninjured arm because his hands were shaking too hard to do it himself; left the shirt draped over the injured shoulder, since an involuntary, wordless sound escaped the back of his throat every time he moved his right arm even a little. It wasn't ideal, but she didn't want to take the time to find something else. Didn't want to leave him alone.
He wouldn't meet her eyes. His whole body had gone rigid at her first touch and he didn't relax, not even after she'd let him go and he set to buttoning the shirt himself, clumsy and one-handed, moving as if from habit, so she didn't interfere. He seemed to catch himself after fastening the bottom two buttons and she left it that way, giving him some space. She didn't touch him again. The wound still oozed blood and was ragged and raw around the edges where the metal protruded and she wasn't at all sure now that she wanted to know what could have left him so without fight that he'd actually agreed to the emergency room this easily, when he'd refused to see a doctor of any kind since returning from Afghanistan.
She'd just pulled out her cell phone and had started punching in 911 when Tony spoke for the first time in what felt like hours but was probably twenty minutes, tops.
"Wait," he ground out.
"No," she shot back. "No, Tony. I don't know anything about this. You need a doctor. I'm not—"
"Yeah," he interrupted. "I'll go. But… you drive."
"I don't need an ambulance. I don't want… if there's an ambulance…" He shook his head. "Pepper, I'll be okay. I'll make it to the ER. You can drive me, it'll be okay."
In the end she let him convince her. Let him have that much, since he was doing what she wanted anyway, and it might stave off the inevitable publicity for a little while. It was twenty minutes to the nearest hospital, her hands clenched on the wheel while beside her Tony lapsed into one-word responses to her compulsive attempts to make sure he stayed conscious and then stopped responding altogether but turned his head toward her so she could see that his eyes were still open.
The bleak intensity of his stare was unnerving enough that she had trouble keeping her attention on the road but she made it without killing them both. By the time she pulled the car into the drive to the ER his breathing was coming in short, agonized gasps. She took one look at his face, pasty and beaded with sweat, his forehead and cheek slicked with blood again from some hidden wound under his hair, and made a decision.
"Stay here. I'm going to get help," she said. He didn't argue with that, either, didn't say anything, and she refused to think about it because if she did she wouldn't be able to do what needed to be done.
By the time she returned two minutes later with a couple of paramedics in tow Tony couldn't get out of the passenger seat on his own and his face was closed off and wan and when he finally went slack and boneless as they tried to move him it was almost a relief. The paramedics didn't comment at the blue light clearly visible in his chest. Just eased him out of the car as if they'd expected the collapse and his head lolled back loose as a newborn's, supported by one of the EMT's hands as they lifted him onto the stretcher and Pepper wished her mind would shut off too because this wasn't something she had the skills to process, not in the least.
He came to while they were waiting for the surgeon, in a curtained-off area of the ER, a hospital security guard planted outside to scare off any gawkers. She'd already explained the arc reactor in Tony's chest the best she could, emphasized that they shouldn't touch it. The attending physician clearly thought they were both insane, but he did as she asked and left it alone.
Of course, the first thing Tony tried to do was sit up. The attending rushed forward and pressed his uninjured shoulder down, holding him in place.
"Mr. Stark, we need you to remain still. There's shrapnel in your shoulder, and if you move you could make things worse, okay?"
Tony blinked at the doctor. He didn't look very focused, but after a long moment he nodded and sunk back to the mattress. "Where's Pepper?" he rasped.
She stepped forward, into his line of vision. "You're going into surgery in a few minutes," she said. "But they need to ask you some questions. They want to know what happened."
Tony swallowed and closed his eyes. "Yeah. Okay." When he opened them again they were hard and blank.
"Your assistant told us she found you in your workshop. Can you tell me how you were injured?"
They had him on oxygen, but even so he was having trouble catching enough breath to talk. "Accident," he managed. "Working on a new design. Misjudged a calculation and... woke up on the floor."
The doctor nodded, shot a quick glance at Pepper. She held very still. Everyone on the planet knew by now that Tony Stark was Iron Man. But the doctor didn't press either of them. Tony was also a weapons designer, after all, or had been until recently; and it wasn't inconceivable that one of his designs might have misfired on him. It was hard to say whether the doctor bought the story, but Pepper didn't contradict him. He hadn't asked her to lie outright for him. That was something, she supposed. She was a terrible liar.
He was so pale. His eyes looked sunken into his skull. He was--
No. That had been before he'd woken up in the ER, before they took him into surgery.
She was in the hallway. In a blue and white hallway. Standing with her back to the wall. She wasn't precisely sure how she'd gotten there, and for a moment she didn't recognize her surroundings at all. Every hallway here looked the same to her, low ceilinged and bland, the walls broken here and there by paintings of the type Tony would have mocked as Corporate Expressionism. Art that was so forgettable that she couldn't even use it as a landmark to figure out where she was.
After a little hunting she came across a sign that told her she was a hall away from the surgical waiting area. When she found it, there were two other people in the room, a couple who drooped with exhaustion, leaning on one another for support. They didn't look up and she picked the seat farthest away from them. Picked up a magazine and flipped through it, unable to read a word.
"It's good you didn't attempt to remove the shrapnel yourself, Ms. Potts. The largest piece had compromised Mr. Stark's axillary artery."
She sat in a plastic chair, her knees pressed together and her hands clenched together and her attention focused on the surgeon and she was pretty sure she'd forgotten how to blink.
The surgeon, a woman in her forties with a cap of short black hair and a brusque, no-nonsense manner, had ushered her back to an office a few halls away from the waiting room; but the privacy didn't help. Instead the little room closed around her, too normal, too lived in. There were pictures of a smiling couple on the surgeon's desk, and it took Pepper two minutes of staring to recognize the woman in the picture as the surgeon facing her in wrinkled scrubs.
"The metal was hot enough to temporarily cauterize the wound. If you had pulled it out chances are he would have suffered significant blood loss."
Pepper nodded, and the tension in her shoulders made the movement feel jerky. She'd let Tony control the situation, and she knew better. Corralling Tony was her job.
The surgeon regarded her coolly. "Time was of the essence. Allowing him to change, bringing him here yourself. The shrapnel could have dislodged, with all that movement."
She knew better. She did. She knew better than to listen to Tony. She should never have... Pepper cut off the thought. She didn't have time for it now.
The surgeon's expression softened. "He's very lucky. He made it here and I was able to repair the artery. The damage from the other pieces of shrapnel was minor. We'll have to watch for infection, as with any penetrating trauma--"
Pepper heard the rest, but stopped trying to make sense of it. Saved it for later.
They let her in to see him briefly after they moved him out of the operating room. She wasn't family, but he was Tony Stark, and it didn't matter. He didn't have anyone else.
His eyes were open when the surgeon led her into recovery. His eyes were open but he didn't seem very aware.
"Tony?" He turned his head, just a little, towards the direction of her voice. She tried to smile. There was no expression on his face at all, just bruises and cuts and the oxygen tube.
He was still hooked up to so much equipment that it was hard to get a sense of him underneath it all. His bare feet stuck out from under the white blanket a nurse had spread over him to fight the post-anesthesia chill. Pepper covered them up again and then touched the back of his left hand just below the spot where the I.V. was anchored. He curled his fingers, so she held his hand, but his grip stayed limp and he didn't squeeze back. Then his eyes slipped closed and someone told her it was time to leave.
It would be an hour or two before he really woke up. If he woke up. He'd wake up, they said he'd wake up. Besides the shrapnel wound there was a hairline skull fracture and a bad concussion and a couple of broken ribs but they said he'd wake up. Her watch said it was eleven forty-five but she didn't know if it was day or night until she left the anonymous hallways and ventured down to the first floor to get herself a cup of coffee in the cafeteria and saw the sun shining in the parking lot outside. Glinting on the chrome of the cars. Day, then.
She was in line to pay for the coffee when her pocket vibrated and she startled so hard she nearly dropped her cup. When her turn came she handed the cashier her $1.85 and then carried her coffee to an empty table. Pried her cell phone out of the front pocket of her jeans and found eight messages she hadn't noticed before: one from Brett Maguire, two from Mary Littlejohn at the office, one from a number she didn't recognize, one from Rhodey, and three, including the most recent, from Agent Coulson. She deleted them all.
She'd just pressed the call button for the elevator back to Tony's floor. As she turned towards the voice, her paper cup of lukewarm coffee sloshed a little, the liquid running down the back of her hand. The man who had stopped her had a round, bland face, a sparse beard, and looked as if he didn't see the sun very often – a pretty unusual feat for a resident of Los Angeles. He reminded her of a history professor she'd had back at Bard, which didn't fit at all. Pepper blinked, knowing she should recognize him, but her mind remained stubbornly blank.
"Lester Briggs, Miss Potts. The L.A. Times? We met a few days ago."
Oh. She should have known. Of course someone had found out Tony was here. Of course. "I'm sorry, Mr. Briggs. I'm afraid--"
"Can you confirm that Tony Stark was admitted--"
She couldn't seem to find the words to make Briggs go away. Dealing with the press was her job. She did this every day. Why couldn't she find the right thing to say? "--it's really none of your--"
"Because I received information this morning that he was brought to the emergency room with serious injuries. There wasn't a police report, so I have to assume it has something to do with the so-called Iron Man--"
At the mention of Tony's alter ego, Pepper lost all that remained of her tattered professionalism. "Don't you write for the business pages, Mr. Briggs?" she snapped, speaking on instinct, speaking without thought. "I wouldn't have pegged you for an ambulance chaser." As soon as the words left her mouth, she went cold.
"I'll take that as a yes," Briggs said, not unkindly. He didn't try to follow her onto the elevator when it arrived, but he didn't really need to, now did he? Not when she'd already given him what he wanted. Briggs had confirmation, and the story would hit the L.A. Times website within hours. Maybe even minutes. The rest of the media would follow, if they hadn't already found out. And it was her fault.
She'd lost her coffee cup somewhere between the elevator and the women's bathroom. She'd meant to go straight back to the waiting room, but by the time she got off the elevator her stomach was in cramps and she'd broken out in a cold sweat and her heart was in her throat and the bathroom was right there. She'd thought she might be sick but nothing had come, so she huddled on the floor, arms wrapped around her knees, and just breathed.
The wall was rough against her back, the cold bleeding through her thin tee-shirt. Everything had gone flat and unreal, like the sinks and the stalls and the white porcelain toilets and the trash cans were really cardboard cut outs on some kind of stage set. The tiled floor was too close, the walls too far away. So she sat there for a long time, until things started to regain their proper dimensions.
Later, much later, she found herself in a private room, sitting in a less than comfortable chair next to a high hospital bed. The arc reactor had piqued the curiosity of the hospital staff but mostly they were too aware of the aura of Tony Stark, billionaire eccentric and occasional superhero, to do more than gawk from the doorway as they passed, and Pepper's fierce stare scared off even the bold. She'd threatened them with the mother of all lawsuits if anything was released about Tony's condition or if she so much as caught a whiff of the press anywhere near his room. She must have been convincing because so far they'd been left alone.
No one told her to go home, no one insisted visiting hours were over, and she decided that notoriety might have its advantages after all. She was jittery with exhaustion but the thought of leaving for the night had only fleetingly entered her mind because every time Tony opened his eyes he searched her out as precisely as one of his targeting systems.
Since coming out of the anesthesia he hadn't said much. He hadn't told her where he'd been or who had the firepower to so damage the armor. Instead he dozed fitfully, doped up on painkillers and the lingering anesthetic. Pepper couldn't sleep, too wired by questions she didn't dare ask until they were back at the house and he'd snapped out of the dazed shock he'd been wrapped in since the armor came off.
His skin was grey beneath the scrapes and cuts and the beginnings of a black eye and even though he never truly fell asleep he also couldn't seem to stay awake for more than a half an hour at a time, and on top of that a nurse came by to wake him every few hours to check his responses. While Pepper knew his injuries in Afghanistan had been much more extensive – should have been fatal, in fact – he'd had three months to recover by the time Rhodey had brought him back. This was different. This was new to her. This wasn't something she'd ever wanted to see.
Pepper wasn't stupid – she knew he'd been injured before. He'd been sore and stiff after returning from Gulmira and though he'd done a decent job covering it he'd been in pain for a week following the fight with Obadiah. Since then she'd caught him more than once with ice packs and she'd made sure to keep the ever-expanding first aid kit well stocked – but there had never been anything like this. This was – this was blood transfusions and oxygen tubes and three hours of surgery. This was one step away from the I.C.U.
As she sat next to the hospital bed watching Tony shift in his sleep, unconsciously searching for a position that didn't hurt, Pepper tried to compose her letter of resignation in her head. Somehow she never got past the salutation.
The first familiar face Pepper saw when she made it back to the hospital was Happy Hogan, slouched against the door jamb outside of Tony's room with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his plain black suit.
She'd called in Happy the day before, after Tony's hospitalization hit the media and she realized the security provided by the hospital's rent-a-cops just wasn't going to cut it. He hadn't asked any questions -- he'd already seen the news and knew full well what it meant -- just appeared twenty minutes later and planted himself outside Tony's door, where he'd been ever since.
"You get any rest?" he asked, straightening as she approached.
As the previous night had edged towards dawn, Happy had caught her nodding in the hard plastic chair by Tony's bed and shooed her out of the room, ordering her to get some sleep before he'd let her back in. It had been twenty-four hours since she'd watched Tony emerge from the crushed armor, shrapnel lodged in his shoulder, mute and defeated like she'd never seen him before. She'd been too exhausted to argue. So she'd driven home in Tony's Audi, ignoring the splotch of blood that had soaked into the leather of the passenger seat and dried there in a red-brown stain, smaller than her memory insisted it must be.
"A little." The smile she found for him felt ragged around the edges. "How is he?"
Happy shrugged. "Better. Hasn't been too talkative, but he asked about you a while ago."
She'd given herself eight hours away from the hospital, away from Tony. She'd probably slept three. And now she was back, and Tony was awake, and she wasn't at all sure she was ready to deal with him.
"You want some coffee?" Happy asked. He didn't comment on her hesitation.
"No thank you, Happy."
Pepper took a breath and smoothed out her expression before she pushed through the door, catching Tony in the middle of raising the head of his bed with a remote. Shutting the door behind her, she just stood there for a moment, waiting for him to finish. When he did his attention went first to the television perched in a corner where wall met ceiling, tuned to MSNBC with the sound off, so she took the opportunity to look him over for herself.
When she'd left Tony had been asleep. Now, eight hours later, he seemed more alert than she'd seen him since before her white-knuckled drive to the ER. His goatee had gone to uneven stubble and his hair was limp and dull, flattened to his head in the back from the pillow. The shiner that swelled his right eye nearly shut had turned an ugly purple and yellow, and the side of his face was discolored and marked with reddened scratches from his temple to his jaw.
The lights in the room were still dimmed -- before she'd left, anything brighter had made his headache flare so that he couldn't keep even his good eye open. His right arm was completely immobilized, wrapped up tight in a sling with a strap that circled his chest, and his left hand, the one that he'd burnt on the Honda four days ago, had been re-dressed with a smaller bandage. A white plastic oxygen monitor was still clipped to one of his fingers but there seemed to be less hooked up to his IV, so she assumed that was a good sign.
It took her too long to realize that while she cataloged his condition, trying to reassure herself he was improving, he'd been staring at her, blank-faced and battered, as if waiting for her to speak first.
"Good morning," she said.
"It's after lunch, Potts." His voice still wasn't up to full strength, hoarse from the intubation during surgery. He let the remote go and sank back into his pillows. The thin hospital gown didn't do much to hide the blue-white glow of the arc reactor, but Happy's presence outside kept the curious at bay. They'd put Tony back on oxygen and she wasn't sure what that meant but the monitor next to the bed beeped steadily in the green so she decided not to worry more than she already was.
"I guess it is," she managed, glancing at her watch. At least he was talking -- before she'd left, when he was awake he'd been silent, lying in the bed staring at the wall, even after she'd broken down and turned the television on to distract herself.
Tony coughed, cleared his throat, then took a sip from the cup left on the tray next to his bed. His eyes never left her face, as if she'd been gone for weeks instead of less than half a day. Pepper's face went hot under the intensity of his regard.
"What're you doing here, anyway?" Before she could ask him what he meant she was interrupted by a polite tap at the door. "Thought you'd left," he continued as she reached for the doorknob.
Pepper hesitated, turning back towards him; there'd been something in his voice. "I did," she said. What was she missing, here? "I went to get some sleep. Now I'm back."
The tap at the door came again, more insistent. Tony's focus had returned to the silent television, so she opened the door to Happy, Jim Rhodes hovering just beyond his shoulder.
"I'll be right outside," she told Tony. He didn't respond.
Rhodey was waiting with his arms crossed over his chest when she stepped out of Tony's room and shut the door. He didn't bother with a greeting.
"What the hell is going on?"
Happy's expression remained carefully neutral as she led Rhodey halfway down the hall, hopefully out of Tony's earshot, and then turned to face him.
"I was flying training runs yesterday," he said, "so I didn't find out until this morning. I had to hear it from CNN, Pepper. From the news. You know that little ticker along the bottom of the screen? Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, AKA 'Iron Man,' in serious condition after unspecified accident."
Sometimes she forgot that she wasn't the only one who cared whether Tony Stark lived or died. If she'd found out that way, she'd be angry too. She tried to keep that in mind. Just nodded and let him have his say.
"I called Happy when I couldn't get a hold of you," Rhodey continued. "Pepper--"
"I turned off my phone," she said, as if that explained everything. He stared at her like she'd just sprouted a third eye, and she felt her lips quirk a little at the absurdity -- the infamous Pepper Potts, sans phone. It wasn't entirely true -- she'd turned it back on after she left for home that morning; she'd just ignored any calls that weren't from Jarvis or the hospital. "I'm sorry I didn't let you know myself."
"You could have called me. Jesus, Pepper. Maybe I could have helped."
"Helped?" Pepper clasped her hands together. They were already ice cold; she'd never understood why hospitals were kept so chilly. "Helped with what? It was the middle of the night. By the time you'd have made it to the house--"
Rhodey waved off her excuses, and rightly so. She could have called him. She'd had the time. And if he'd talked to Happy, he knew that.
"Do you know where he went?" he asked instead of pressing the point.
She shook her head, a little surprised that he didn't know himself. Wherever Tony's mission had taken him, maybe he hadn't registered on the radar after all. Or maybe Rhodey was just out of the loop, now that he was no longer the liaison to Stark Industries. "Jarvis isn't talking either. Tony's got him locked down tight."
"You haven't asked him what happened?"
Rhodey's incredulity set her teeth on edge. He hadn't been there. He hadn't felt Tony shaking against him, stinking of blood and scorched metal. Hadn't seen him limp as a rag doll as the paramedics pulled him out of the car. "No, I haven't. It doesn't matter right now. He needs calm and rest and he's not going to get it if either of us gives him the third degree."
"So he's off the hook, then." Rhodey shook his head. "Again."
Off the hook? Pepper felt her hand curling into a fist and deliberately relaxed it. "I'm not letting him off the hook. You know what I did this morning when I got home? I typed up a letter of resignation. It took me three hours, but I did it."
She'd finished it right before she curled up in bed, the catharsis finally exhausting the endless looping of her thoughts enough to let her sleep. Now it sat on her laptop's hard drive like a silent accusation. She just wasn't sure who it was aimed at -- herself or Tony.
Rhodey's eyes widened. "Are you going to give it to him?"
"I haven't decided."
He took a truncated step forward, like he was going to reach for her and then thought better of it. "Pepper--"
She wrapped her arms around her chest. "Not a word of this to Tony. Not one word." She shouldn't have told him. Shouldn't have said it aloud. Now that someone else knew, it was concrete. An option she had to seriously consider.
"Yeah, okay. Okay." Rhodey held up a hand as if to fend her off, even though she hadn't moved. "I get it."
He sighed. "Yeah, I do. You gonna let me see him now?"
"If he wants to see you." And turning her heel on him, she stalked back to Tony's room.
"Don't think I didn't hear whatever's going down out there," Tony said as she shut the door. He fiddled with the oxygen cannula at his nose. "That was Rhodey, right?"
She considered lying. Nodded instead. "Do you want me to let him in?"
He didn't answer right away.
Tony shifted. Let his hand drop from his face, then moved the tube to the I.V. in his wrist out of his way. "How mad is he?"
"He... saw it on the news," she hedged.
If he was surprised that word of his hospitalization had reached the media, he didn't show it. "Pretty pissed, then," he said, closing his eyes. Or, rather, eye. The swelling didn't allow the black and blue one to move all that much.
Yeah, Rhodey was angry. She just hoped he had enough sense to dial it down in front of Tony right now, because he might be more awake, but from the way he'd melted back into the pillows as if they were all that were holding him up, he was far from firing on all thrusters.
"I can ask him to wait until after you get home. He'll understand."
"No, he won't," Tony said. He grimaced, his gaze drifting back up to the television. "Yeah, let him in."
When she opened the door to usher Rhodey into the room Tony straightened as much as he could, scooting back into the pillows until he was more or less upright. Pepper hovered by the door as Rhodey took her usual seat by the bed. Tony turned towards him, fussing with the I.V. again.
"Aren't you going to tell me I look like crap?"
Pepper's shoulders loosened a little at Rhodey's smile. "I have better manners than that. But since you mentioned it, that's a hell of shiner you've got there," he said.
The corner of Tony's mouth twisted. “You’re just jealous you’re not the one who gave it to me.”
Rhodey’s eyes flickered over to Pepper at that, but she kept her expression carefully neutral. Leave it to Tony to make it sound like he'd ended up here after a barroom brawl. Tony's black eye, not to mention the skull fracture he probably wasn't going to tell Rhodey about, was courtesy of something with enough force to buckle Iron Man's helmet like it had been a tin foil hat. Something with enough fire power to penetrate the armor and drive shrapnel nearly through his shoulder. Not exactly a drunken tussle.
"Come on, you know you've always wanted to take a shot at me," Tony pushed, and it wasn't all in fun, not if the way he was studying Rhodey sidelong was any indication. "Now you can see what it would look like if you ever grow the balls to do it right."
"Looks to me like you got off easy," Rhodey said, leaning back in the chair, his posture open and relaxed.
To her utter relief he wasn't taking the bait, but she couldn't stay here and listen to them try to make light of it all. "I'm afraid I haven't had my caffeine yet today. Can I get you anything?" she asked Rhodey.
"I'll have the Kobe sashimi," Tony announced. His wan half-grin only emphasized the bruised right side of his face. "And a Sapporo, while you’re at it."
Rhodey just shook his head. "Sorry to break it to you, but this isn't that kind of joint," he told Tony as she slipped through the door. “For that kind of pampering you’ve got to check yourself in somewhere closer to Hollywood.”
Tony didn't laugh.
It already felt like a routine: coffee in the hospital cafeteria, both an excuse to take a break from Tony and a chance to check her phone for messages. Not that she'd returned any of them, yet. There were... seventeen new voice mails, just since that morning. She scrolled through the list, biting her lip.
On top of all the voice mails, how many urgent emails were waiting for her? How many meetings had she and Tony missed? Now that she knew he was going to be okay there was no excuse for neglecting her duties.
Even so, as she listened she deleted each voice message, sometimes only a few words in.
Agent Coulson from S.H.I.E.L.D.: "Ms. Potts, it's of the utmost importance that you contact us as soon as possible--"
A lilting French accent Pepper recognized as belonging to Marthe Maguire: "We heard that Tony has been hurt. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to be of help--" As the wife of one of the more maverick board members, one they needed more desperately than ever now, Marthe's motives required scrutiny, but her kindness seemed genuine enough.
Agent Coulson again: "Ms. Potts, I realize this is a stressful time for you, but I must insist--"
Rhodey: "Pepper, what the hell happened? Is he okay? I haven't been able to reach--"
Mary, from the office: "Pepper, just checking in. Everything's as under control as it can be for the moment, but we're going to need you soon if--"
She'd sent a terse email to Mary Littlejohn before she'd gone to bed that morning, asking her to triage the urgent business for the next few days; but she couldn't ignore it all for much longer. Mary had been fielding calls from the board and the media alike since Lester Briggs's report that Tony had been hospitalized had hit the web.
She'd made herself incommunicado, dumped it all in Mary's lap. She hadn't been doing her job. Not at all.
It took her a moment to recognize the next voice, and when she did her stomach sank: "Pepper! I haven't seen you in ages. What, your boss decides he's an honest-to-God superhero and you forget all about us? A few of us from the old neighborhood are getting together Saturday for a night out, tell me you'll come and fill us in--"
Jennifer Lake, her first roommate when she'd moved to L.A., and the closest friend she had in the city. The last time she'd seen Jennifer was a couple of weeks after Tony got back from Afghanistan, right before everything went to hell. She hadn't seen anyone since Tony's Iron Man stunt. That world, the one where she got together with her old house mates every few weeks for drinks, the one where she attended openings at the Getty or celebrated her goddaughter's birthday or even bought her own groceries -- after Obadiah's betrayal it all seemed like another universe, like an alternate time line that had continued on without her.
So much had happened, and she didn't know where the lines were anymore, didn't know who she could trust and what she could tell anyone. What was safe to talk about. How much she could reveal, and who would understand. Because even Rhodey backed away when it came to Tony right now, and he was the only one other than Phil Coulson at S.H.I.E.L.D. who knew the whole story.
Biting her lip, she kept the message, and promised herself she'd return Jenni's call once Tony was settled back at home.
To her relief, the message that followed Jenni's was dryly impersonal. "Ms. Potts, this is Susan from Dick Levin's office. Please give me a call back, Mr. Levin would like confirmation on these news reports that Mr. Stark has been--"
There were several more calls from the offices of various board members; and Coulson, terse and vaguely urgent; and then Rhodey again, but Rhodey was here.
A voice she'd never heard before but nonetheless identified instantly from Tony's colorful description: "This is Nick Fury, and I know you know who I am. Since your boss can't be assed to keep us informed of his little field trips, I'm calling you. Tell Stark that if he thinks he can just take off in that glorified--" She didn't delete that one. Kept it for later, when she could focus.
Last came a soft British voice, papery with age but clear nonetheless. "Ms. Potts, this is Lyle Masterson at Cambridge University. I believe we have been trading voice messages for several days now, and I do apologize. I understand you're interested in my former student, Ibrahim Yinsen. I'm sure by now you have heard the news--"
Yinsen. She'd completely forgotten. Pepper considered returning the message, but it was already evening in the UK, and she needed to get back to Tony, so she saved it. Like work, like Jennifer, like S.H.I.E.L.D., it would have to wait just a little longer.
Rhodey was leaning against the wall, waiting for her in the hallway when she got off the elevator half an hour later, coffee in one hand, a paper bag holding a cherry danish in the other. A terrible pick for lunch, but convenient, and convenience had won out over healthy over the last couple of days.
"They asked me to step out for a minute. Time for his check-up, I guess," Rhodey said. He glanced at her, sidelong, and didn't head back towards the room. So she waited, taking a sip of lukewarm coffee. Rhodey shifted from one foot to the other. "Has he... has he been like this since he got back?"
Pepper frowned. How much could he have picked up on in such a short time? "Like what?"
Rhodey glanced towards the nurse's station, down the hall. His hand came up in a truncated gesture. "I don't know. I'd have thought he'd be itching to get out of here by now. Instead, he's... " He broke off and shook his head. "I wouldn't have pegged him as a model patient, is all."
"It's only been a day and a half," Pepper said. Why was she trying to reassure him? "He's been asleep for most of it."
"Yeah." Rhodey shrugged. "It's just, anytime Tony's too quiet, I start to wonder what he's planning. Reflex, I guess."
She couldn't quite find a smile. "I'm sure he's glad you stopped by," she said, starting back towards the room.
Rhodey caught her arm. "Pepper, wait. There's something else."
She turned back and he dropped his grip. Took a step away from her and stuffed his hands into his pockets. "You should talk to him," he said finally. "He was surprised you came back."
Shocked fury rose up through her, wrapped her chest in a tight band. Before she could respond, Rhodey held up a hand. "I didn't say anything, I swear to you. He brought it up. Made it seem like a joke, but when you went home this morning he was sure it was for good."
Thought you left, he'd said. How could he-- "Of course I came back. I wouldn't--"
"Pepper. I know, believe me," The strain in his face helped her reel herself in. "He didn't think I was coming back, either."
What had she done to make him think she'd walked out on him? Rhodey, she got, a little. She'd never seen him so angry at Tony. "Would you have? If he hadn't gotten hurt?"
Rhodey sighed. "Yeah, eventually. I'm still pissed at him. But yeah."
She hadn't made a decision yet, but she'd written that letter this morning and somehow Tony had known. Seen it in her. She hadn't thought he'd been with it enough to notice her agitation last night, but he'd figured it out and taken the worst possible interpretation. "I'm not going to leave right now. But I can't--"
"Yeah, I know." Rhodey said. "What are you going to do when they release him?"
She hadn't gotten that far, and maybe it was in her face, because Rhodey frowned. "Pepper, no one expects you to be his nanny. He doesn't pay you enough for--"
"Are you going to stay with him? Make sure he doesn't try anything before he's healed?" Her words were threaded with an edge that she'd thought she'd managed to erase, the vehemence taking her by surprise. "Because he's not going to let this stop him. He's going to do it again and again, until he gets himself blown into little pieces."
"He's not your responsibility." He didn't mean to be patronizing, she could see that much. He meant it kindly.
It didn't matter.
"Who else is there?" It was like her chest had cracked open. The words wouldn't stop. "He might not give a damn, but someone has to. It might as well be me."
"Do you think that's going to matter?" Rhodey pressed. "Do you think that's going to make any difference? He's not listening to anyone right now. All you're going to do is make your own life hell."
"If you tell me Tony's a big boy, that he can handle himself, I might just--"
"I'm not saying that." Rhodey gave her a grim smile. "But if he's going to go down in flames, that's what's going to happen. There's not much either of us is going to be able to do about it except contain the damage."
For a moment she couldn't speak, couldn't quite comprehend that level of detachment. "He's your friend," she said finally. "How can you--"
"I've known him since before he had to shave, Pepper. I've never been able to stop him from any of the idiotic stunts he's decided to pull. I learned that pretty early, actually."
"This is different," Pepper said. "He thinks he's doing the right thing this time. You heard him at that press conference. He thinks he's a superhero."
Rhodey shook his head. "Who's to say he isn't? He's managed to take out a couple of really bad dudes, in places I just can't go, not even with the whole U.S. military behind me. Maybe he thinks the risk is worth it."
She'd thought he cared about what happened to Tony. He'd spent three months battling desert sands and bureaucratic red tape trying to get Tony back, and now he was talking as if this was about cost-analysis, not his friend's life.
"Risk? He's not even taking that into account." He couldn't be serious. He'd chewed Tony out for flying into hot zones without back up, not three days ago. "He's not a soldier, James. He's an engineer. He doesn't have the faintest idea what he's doing. It's not even about the people he's 'taken out,' it's about the weapons. His weapons."
"I know," Rhodey said. "I understand what you're saying--"
He was trying to placate her, and somehow that only made her angrier.
"I don't think you do. What happens if he finds out our military used some of his weapons against civilians? What happens if there's another My Lai, another Haditha? Will you think he's a superhero when he's going after your guns?"
He didn't get it at all. This wasn't about justice to Tony. She wasn't even sure Tony knew what it was about fully, but she'd seen it. Glimpsed it, at least. It was about guilt, and betrayal, and a desperate rage so deep it frightened her, because he only let it out when he was in the armor. It made him reckless, and yeah, Tony had always been reckless, but it also made him sloppy, and that? That was new.
"I don't think--"
"What? The U.S. military has never been involved in the massacre of civilians? I'm not that naive, James, and neither are you. Do you think Tony's patriotism will stand in the way of his mission?"
"I don't know," Rhodey said, quietly. "I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just saying there's not a lot either of us can do about it right now."
"I can't accept that," Pepper ground out. "I can't sit back and watch him--" She couldn't finish it. Because even though he didn't understand what was happening, she knew he was right about one thing: there wasn't anything at all she could do. But that didn't mean she could just stop trying. It wasn't that easy.
"I have to get back to the base," Rhodey said, glancing at his watch. "Look, if you and Happy need help, you call me, okay? I don't care what time it is. You call me."
He didn't hug her, but he looked like he wanted to, and she was glad he held off. Because if he had, she wasn't sure she'd be able keep up her professional facade, the one that allowed her to walk back into that room without screaming at Tony. Just screaming.
The hospital kept him another day, and when the time came it wasn’t hard to convince the administration that it was in their best interest if Tony’s departure was kept as discrete as possible. She wasn’t sure he was ready to leave, not at all, not when walking the length of the hallway on his own tired him out, reduced him back to monosyllables. But his surgeon assured her he was going to be fine, so Pepper made arrangements.
She had a talk with his nursing team. Got the names of a few people they trusted, nurses who could come by the house every day to change his bandage and keep an eye on his injuries. Happy vetted the list and she narrowed it down to two. Met the final candidate in the hospital cafeteria and knew at once she’d made a good choice.
The nurse wasn't going to be enough, though. Standing in line for what she hoped would be her last cup of cafeteria coffee, Pepper was struck by the sheer amount of time Tony spent alone in the house despite the fact that for the past few months she'd practically set up camp there.
Following the announcement of Stark Industries' paradigm shift the stock had fallen precipitously and late nights had become the rule; but even on days when there hadn't been as much to do she'd found reasons to linger. Because from the first night after his return from Afghanistan Tony had retreated to the workshop. Rhodey had pulled her aside after the initial press conference, tried to warn her that Tony might isolate himself, but she hadn't expected it to be so immediate and the intensity had scared her a little.
In the shop he'd ricocheted between ebullient chatter with his robotic pals and heavy silence. Didn't talk to her until he needed something or she initiated the contact, and even then he never stopped working, as if he didn't trust himself unless his hands were occupied every waking moment. He forgot to eat, forgot to sleep, forgot even to shower or change his clothes unless she reminded him.
Tony's obsessive working streaks weren't anything new, but in the past they'd burned themselves out in a matter of days. This time it had gone on for weeks. Excitement over what she later realized was the armor would give way without warning to days when he wouldn't meet her eyes. Times when he didn't hear her unless she was standing right in front of him, and sometimes not even then.
The easy banter they'd shared for years had returned in fits and starts, but most of the time he'd been too preoccupied to keep up his end for long. Until the night of the benefit, when his attention had snapped onto her with inexplicable ardor. She still didn't know what had prompted him to break his self-imposed house arrest. Only what had happened as a result.
And that made her hesitate.
Rhodey was right; she wasn't responsible for Tony. But he didn't have the best track record when it came to taking care of himself and this time it wasn't just a few bruises or sprains. The ice packs in the workshop freezer weren't going to cut it, not when it would be a few days before he could dress himself and anything more than sitting up in bed still exhausted him. And he wasn't going to trust a live-in nurse. She knew that without question. He probably wouldn't have even before Afghanistan, before Obadiah, but now?
Besides, since the Iron Man press conference she'd been spending sixteen out of every twenty-four hours at the house. What were eight more?
And she knew one other thing: she never wanted to see him this badly injured again. So it was either quit for real this time or... or what? Watch every move he made? Drive herself insane every time he left in the armor? How far was she going to go with this? She had the resignation ready, had her reasons all concisely written out. But she just couldn't... not right now. When he was back on his feet, they were going to have a talk. She just had to make sure he lived long enough for that to happen.
That decided, she moved on. Transportation was an issue as well. To get Tony home without the press catching on – a few diligent news vans were still parked outside both the Malibu property and the hospital, hoping to get footage of Iron Man on his back – Pepper hired an ambulance to transfer him to the Agoura Hills Senior Retreat, a retirement community just off the Ventura Freeway, and the last possible place the media vultures would bother with in search of a good story.
Happy met them in a nondescript hired sedan with impenetrably tinted windows. They made the exchange under a covered entryway in the back parking lot. When she and Happy helped Tony down from the ambulance and he saw where they were his chin lifted, the corner of his mouth twisting, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses.
“What, you’re putting me out to pasture already?”
But Pepper was too wiped out to dig up a comeback and Happy was too busy keeping an eye on their surroundings. Tony's smirk faded as quickly as it had come, lost in the restrained fuss Happy made as he settled them both in the back of the car. It was only a twenty-minute drive to the house but Tony conked out against the door about three minutes after Happy pulled out of the parking lot, and though Pepper was grateful for the silence she found herself nodding off as well, sinking into the leather seat in a hazy doze.
She'd had... probably less than one full night's sleep, spread out over the last seventy-two hours. She wasn't going to be able to catch up with work, let alone make sure Tony didn't do something idiotic to set his recovery back, if she was this sleep deprived. So she made a slight adjustment to her plan. One night at home, one night to sleep in her own bed. Which left Tony alone in that big house; alone with the armor. Even if he didn't try to take it out, she knew him. Knew taking it easy, staying out of the shop, wasn't going to be one of his priorities. He'd want to take a look at the damage, and when he did, he'd want to repair it.
She'd have to talk to Happy.
They couldn't avoid the news vans planted at the foot of Tony's meandering drive, but Happy had extra security standing by to ensure none of the cameras came anywhere near the car, let alone the house. When they arrived Tony shook off Happy's attempt to help him out of the car and walked straight-backed inside on his own; but once he was through the front door he headed for the nearest chair in the living room. Tried to make it look casual, but he just sat there for a moment with his eyes closed and his free hand braced on one knee, then asked Jarvis to bring up CNN on the window screen. He left the sunglasses on.
While he zoned out to Wolf Blitzer, Pepper had a quick conference with Happy outside where Tony couldn't overhear, standing on the patio as the waves below went pink and orange with the first hints of dusk. Happy mostly nodded as she laid out her plan. He didn't try to talk her out of anything, but she caught him studying her with a thoughtful solemnity any time she glanced back at the house.
"He's not going to like it," he said, shaking his head. "Wanna bet on what his choice will be?"
She didn't bother to answer.
Tony hadn't moved from his chair but he'd slouched down a bit, his head resting against the cushion so that his chin tilted upwards, exposing the stubble on his neck. From this angle she couldn't see the black eye or the wide swath of yellowing bruises that ran down his jawline. Even the sling was half-hidden; if it hadn't been for the sunglasses and the strap around his chest it would have been easy to forget that anything had happened at all.
Then he turned his head at the sound of her heels and the tenuous illusion was shattered. He watched as she took a seat on the edge of the polished hunk of tree that served as his coffee table. "You know," he said, "this new thing where everyone talks about me behind my back is getting a little ridiculous."
"New?" Pepper shot back without real thought.
He lowered his chin so he could peer at her over the rim of his glasses. "Touché."
"I'll be back in the morning," she said before he could distract her further. "I have to pack some things. But before I go, I need you to make a decision about something."
"Pack? Potts, I don't remember you putting in for vacation." He said it to the television, the lenses of his sunglasses reflecting back the orange flames of an explosion.
She followed his gaze to a report on a suicide bombing in an Iraqi market. "I asked Claude to open up the second floor guest suite."
Claude had been her first hire, six months after she started working for Tony. The housekeeper was fifty years old, semi-retired and happily married, and couldn't have been farther away from Tony's type. Most importantly, Claude was both discrete and nonjudgmental when it came to his employer's erratic habits. Despite bitching about the change for the first month-and-a-half Tony had quickly warmed to him, haphazardly befriending him in the way he did all of his employees. When she'd told Claude she would be temporarily moving into the house he hadn't batted an eye. Just asked which suite she preferred.
"I'm having visitors?" Tony didn't look away from the television."I thought the doc said I was supposed to take it easy, but okay, I'm game."
She'd braced herself for cracks about the scandalousness of cohabitation when she'd thought a mere public dance was inappropriate, or a bemused, thinly veiled flirtation. Willful misunderstanding hadn't occurred to her.
Tony shifted in the chair, his jaw tightening. "What's the choice, since whether or not I'm okay with you moving in here doesn't seem to be it?"
This was going so well. At least he wasn't going to make her spell it out for him: Tony, I don't trust you on your own. Pepper forced herself to be blunt, to lay her cards on the table. "I need a night off to get some sleep and pack a suitcase. So: Happy or Rhodey?"
"No," he said, finally tearing himself away from the news. "Forget it. I'm perfectly capable--"
Perfectly capable of getting himself killed. "Happy or Rhodey."
"What is this?" He sat up straight, wincing a little when the quick movement jarred his ribs, his shoulder. "Pepper--"
She had to bite down hard on the impulse to tear the damn glasses off of his face, so she could look him in the eye. "Did you forget about my three a.m. call from Jarvis?"
And maybe the sunglasses hid some of it, but his utter confusion was clear enough. "Jarvis called you?"
"When he lost contact with the armor." She ignored the memory, just stated the facts. "He said it was part of his emergency protocol."
"Emergency protocol? The auto-return is the only--" Tony broke off. The disbelief was too raw to be an act. "Jarvis?"
"Yes sir. I'm afraid I lied to Miss Potts."
Tony slid the sunglasses from his face and rubbed at his good eye like a tired kid pushed too far. "Lied? You're an A.I. You can't lie."
"There is nothing in my programming to prevent me from lying," Jarvis said.
"But why would you lie?" Pepper asked, before Tony could respond.
Jarvis' dry voice wasn't the least bit apologetic. "It seemed the most efficient way to convey the gravity of the situation."
Pepper turned back to Tony, who had leaned forward, gripping the arm of the chair with his free hand like he was ready to propel himself to his feet. "So you didn't program Jarvis to inform me if something went wrong on a mission? If he hadn't taken his own initiative--"
Tony seemed to think better of getting up. He sank back against the chair and closed his eyes. "It worked out fine. I don't know what you're--"
"If he hadn't called me, you would have tried to take that shrapnel out yourself and I would have found you on the floor of the workshop the next morning when I came in to work." And this was why she was taking the night off. This burning ache, in the center of her chest.
He didn't dispute it.
"Happy or Rhodey," she repeated.
He chose Happy.
"You know, the idea of having your own personal nurse is much more exciting than the reality," Tony said as Pepper let herself into the workshop the next morning.
His back was to her, so she couldn't read his expression, but she could hear the rueful amusement from across the room. She allowed a smile that she didn't feel: the nurse she'd hired was svelte, blond, six feet tall and, to Tony's inevitable chagrin, named Edward.
"Funny how that works out," she said.
After she'd walked through the door to her apartment the evening before she'd just stood there in her kitchen for a long time, her keys in her hand, feeling like a visitor in her own space -- everything was neatly in its place, no dust anywhere, no clutter. Except to sleep she'd hardly spent more than a few hours at a time there since Iron Man's debut. A maid service came by on Wednesdays -- she made so little mess, though, that they mostly kept the plants alive, the laundry and dry cleaning from accumulating, and the mail out of sight.
She'd limited herself to one call to Happy, around ten. "He took his meds like a good boy and fell asleep on the couch," Happy had told her. "He's not going anywhere tonight."
Even knowing that, even though she was so tired that everything she looked at had taken on a blurry halo, she couldn't sleep. When midnight rolled around and she was still lying in bed staring at the striped shadows cast by her window blinds, she'd dug out the prescription sleeping pills she'd used during the first month of Tony's disappearance and they'd worked like a charm. Worked too well, in fact.
By the time Pepper made it back to the house it was after nine and Happy and Nurse Edward were sitting at the kitchen bar, Edward with a cup of coffee and Happy sipping a tall glass of what looked like one of Tony's more conservative blender concoctions, the L.A. Times spread out in front of him. He'd given her a tired nod but didn't make a move to leave, so she'd left him behind and stashed her suitcase in the guest suite, then went to retrieve Tony for his appointment with the nurse.
She'd found him right where she knew he'd be, standing in the shop in the dark, the wreckage of the armor scattered on the concrete at his feet. The helmet was in three pieces, the chest plates were shredded and bent, and there were bullet holes and pock marks and deep scrapes marking the rest. Only the gauntlets and boots appeared to have escaped intact.
After her worry-plagued night his crack about the nurse had been an unexpected reassurance. But when he spoke again his voice darkened.
"The metal they took out of me... it was gold-titanium alloy."
The abrupt change in tone revived the uneasy flutter in her belly that had become just another part of her daily routine. He didn't turn around and she wasn't even sure he was talking to her, but she was the only one down here, so who else would it have been?
Pepper stepped away from the glass doors and Tony tilted his head towards her as she reached his side. His arm was still in the sling and he hadn't attempted to repair the armor. Yet. She decided to take that as a good sign. He'd abandoned the sunglasses and the swelling had gone down enough that he could open the black eye, but the surrounding flesh was still deeply bruised. He'd showered, his hair still slicked back from his forehead, and though Happy had to have helped him dress Tony must have drawn a line at letting the other man give him a shave because his goatee was starting to approach a full beard.
"The shrapnel was from the armor?" she asked.
She waited, but that was the extent of his commentary on the subject. He had to hold on to the banister with his free hand on the way up the stairs from the workshop and it was awkward, slow going. By the time they reached the living room he was out of breath and hiding it badly.
Next time she'd make sure he took the elevator.
Pepper glanced up from her laptop, her attempt at rearranging Tony's schedule for the next two weeks failing to distract her from his inability to hold still for his examination. She shifted in her chair and tried to return to her work. Maybe she should have asked Happy to stay a little longer so she could have retreated to her office while their boss tussled with the nurse.
Tony was perched on the end of the couch nearest the fireplace, his back to her, his shirt and the discarded sling in a tangle next to him on the cushion. Fading bruises stippled his back above the tight wrap around his ribs and a thin, black ring, a little larger in circumference than a half-dollar, marked the skin of his neck just above his shoulders where the armor had pressed into his flesh. She'd noticed similar markings after that first mission to Gulmira, but when she'd asked about them at the time Tony had waved it off with something about pressure-sensors and supersonic flight.
The nurse had straddled one of the stools, pulled up nearly flush with the couch so he could reach Tony, who kept turning away, fidgeting too much for Edward to get a good grip on him. Nurse Edward overshadowed him by a good five inches, broader through the shoulders and chest with large, long-fingered hands and a light, informal touch Pepper wouldn't have expected from a man with his build.
"That hurt?" Edward asked. He guided his patient back into his reach and then resumed peeling the bandage away from the wound on Tony's shoulder. The sleeves of his linen shirt were rolled up to his elbows, revealing thick corded forearms, and the mid-morning sunlight lit up his short blond hair and burnished the gold cast of his tan.
"Are you kidding me? A piece of metal tried to poke a hole through me. Yeah, it fucking hurts."
"A piece of metal did poke a hole in you. It's gonna hurt for awhile."
While Edward's easy-going charm had set Pepper at ease, it belied a shrewd intelligence and a gaze that didn't miss much, qualities that were always a plus when dealing with Tony. As if reading her thoughts, Edward's eyes met Pepper's over Tony's head with a conspiratorial familiarity and she frowned, turning her attention back to her laptop.
"It'll hurt a lot more if you don't take it easy and let it heal," Edward continued. "Just try to relax, Tony. Breathe."
The muscles of Tony's back went rigid and though he was mostly facing away from her Pepper could just see his jaw clench. There was a heavy pause, then: "Yeah. I... Can't we do this someplace else?"
Edward dropped his hands and sat back on his stool to give Tony a little space, catching Pepper's eye again.
"Would you rather I went into the other room?" she asked.
Tony didn't turn but he shook his head, irritation sharpening his voice. "No. Forget it."
"Are you sure?" she said, setting her laptop aside on the table.
This time he turned half around, out of Edward's reach, and there was something so disquieting in his gaze that Pepper was pinned to her seat. Then he faced Edward again, his left hand tightening to grip the edge of the couch next to his thigh. "I'm fine. Just fucking get it over with."
He stiffened up further when Edward moved to touch him, holding himself taut as if expecting an ambush. After a slight hesitation the nurse resumed his work, this time explaining to Tony exactly what he was going to do before he did it. "Let me finish pulling the bandage off so I can take a look at your stitches, and it'll all be over soon enough."
Tony didn't relax but he didn't try to pull away, either. He didn't move at all. Not until Edward had finished re-bandaging the shoulder and reached up to touch the back of Tony's neck, intending, Pepper supposed, to tilt his head so he could examine the stitches in his scalp. But whatever Edward had meant to do was forgotten when at the contact Tony jerked away, lurched to his feet and stumbled backwards until his calves hit the table behind him.
Pepper's heart tried to crawl out of her throat. Edward held very still.
"I think we're finished here for today," he said with a calm Pepper envied. Tony didn't move. "Let me help you back into that sling and I'll get out of your hair, okay?"
Tony sucked in a noisy inhalation as if he'd been holding his breath. He was hugging his right arm to his side with his left hand and she couldn't see his face but she could see the tendons standing out clearly in his neck.
"Yeah," he ground out finally. "Okay."
He didn't make a move to return to the couch, so Edward ended up rising from his stool to finish up. The nurse helped Tony into his shirt, let him button it one-handed himself, and then secured his arm back into the sling. He talked the whole time, asking harmless questions about the waterfall which Tony ignored.
Once he was all buttoned up Tony stalked away without another word. He headed for the hall that led to the elevator to the workshop and then stopped as abruptly as if he'd hit an invisible barrier. Pepper waited for him to turn around, to say something, but after a long smothering moment where the tension in the room stretched out to a hair-trigger he pressed on and disappeared.
Pepper watched Edward pack away his kit, speaking up once she was sure Tony was out of earshot. "How is he?"
"The wound is healing well. He'll be fine if he doesn't overexert himself or try to use his arm too soon. He still having headaches?"
"You'd have to ask him," Pepper said. "He's not wearing the sunglasses anymore, though."
"Hmm. We'll use a different room tomorrow." Edward said, sinking onto the couch. "Where does he feel safest?"
Pepper's shock at Tony's reaction settled into wariness. "What do you mean?"
"Something spooked him. I'm not sure whether it was the room or the way I touched him, but he mentioned the room so it's a place to start. This'll go easier if he doesn't feel threatened."
"The workshop," she said. "But I doubt he'll go for it. He doesn't let many people down there."
"I'll ask him tomorrow. Is he being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder?"
Pepper was on her feet before she knew what she was doing. Instead of feeling relief that it was finally out in the open, she had to fight down the urge walk away, to deny anything was wrong. It went against every instinct to admit to an outsider, even one who'd signed an incredibly detailed confidentiality agreement, that Tony was far from okay.
"No. They tried in Ramstein, when he -- No. Not since he got back."
Edward nodded. "I'm not surprised. And it can be... difficult, standing by while someone is doing everything in their power to deny that there's anything wrong."
She caught herself holding her breath. Tried to tie together a string of coherent words for a response, but Edward continued on as if nothing had happened. "If he won't agree to the workshop, maybe his bedroom?"
"I'm sure that would be fine," she said, finding her voice. Tony didn't spend any time there when he wasn't sleeping or entertaining. As far as she knew it was a neutral space. Then again, as far as she knew the living room was neutral space too.
"Alright. We'll see what he wants to do." Edward stood, his packed case in hand, and Pepper walked him to the door.
Without letting herself consider why she'd saved this for outside the house, she followed him out to his car. Watched him open the driver's side door before she could get the words out. "Before you go--"
Edward paused, the open door between them. Waited for her to finish. She'd picked Edward for a number of reasons, but the fact that his last full time stint had been at a VA hospital was at the top of the list.
"What should I do if... if he doesn't--" She broke off. Took a breath. "If he doesn't know where he is?"
If Edward was surprised at the question, there was no outward sign. "Has this happened before?"
"Once. In the car." She was pretty sure it had happened in the office when she'd asked about Yinsen as well. And maybe before the armor, before Obadiah, and she just hadn't recognized what she'd seen. "There was an accident in front of us and I didn't notice at first but for a few minutes he... he just wasn't there." And when he'd snapped back to himself he'd been so angry.
Edward hesitated, studying her for a moment before he answered. "As long as he isn't a danger to anyone it's probably best if you let him come out of it on his own."
It was hard to swallow, to get the words out. "And if he doesn't?"
"Most flashbacks don't last very long. It looked to me like he knew where he was back there; he just couldn't control his reaction. But if it seems like he's not waking up or you think he's going to hurt himself, you call 911."
If it got out that Tony Stark was even the tiniest bit unstable, the board would have the fuel to revive Obadiah's injunction. And the media... the media was already on the far side of manageable. "What if that's not an option?"
Edward leaned over the car door, into her space. His eyes were an intense sea green in the bright sun. "Miss Potts, I don't care who he is. If you think he's liable to hurt himself or anyone else, you call 911. Okay? You can deal with the fallout later."
She nodded. Told herself it would never come to that. Watched Edward's car disappear down the drive, straightened her shoulders, and traced her way back to the front door.
Claude kept Tony's pantry and refrigerators well stocked, so there were any number of options for a late breakfast, but Pepper settled on yoghurt as the easiest. Dug the half-crystallized jar of honey only she ever used out of the cabinet and drizzled a spoonful onto the yoghurt. Found a bag of the black walnuts Tony liked to snack on and broke up a handful into the bowl. Mixed it all up with her spoon and then stood there, considering the coffeemaker, sparkling clean on the counter. Decided coffee would be too much work.
Pepper carried the bowl into her office and settled in to resume triaging Tony's schedule. By the time she'd finished eating she was nodding off in her chair and coffee had become a necessary chore. While she waited for it to brew Dick Levin's office called. Chairman of SI's board, Levin was one of Obadiah's old cronies and had been a thorn in Tony's side since he'd taken over as CEO.
Susan, Levin's assistant, told Pepper in no uncertain terms that Levin wanted Tony in New York that evening to meet with the board. "I'm sorry, that's just not possible," Pepper replied in her most immovably pleasant tone as she watched the dark liquid pool in the bottom of the glass carafe.
"Mr. Stark is aware of Mr. Levin's concerns, but I'm afraid tonight is just not enough notice," she continued. "No, tomorrow morning is just as... However, in the past we've... yes, of course. Of course. He's well aware... yes. You know how the media exaggerates these things. You can assure Mr. Levin that... No. He's eager to speak with the board, but given his schedule to do so in person just isn't... yes. Might I suggest -- in the past Mr. Stark has addressed the board by video conference, and... yes. Tomorrow afternoon would be fine."
Pepper ended the call and pried the headset from her ear, pressing her fingertips into her eye sockets until she saw stars. It was only eleven and there was already a tight band around her temples that told her putting off caffeine had been a bad idea. To make matters worse, she'd only just added cream to her mug of fresh coffee when Jarvis spoke up for the first time that morning.
"Miss Potts, Agent Coulson from the Strategic Home--"
"S.H.I.E.L.D., Jarvis. It's shorter," she interrupted wearily, stirring her coffee until it turned a nice khaki.
"Yes, of course. Agent Coulson from S.H.I.E.L.D. is at the gate, and I don't see him on the schedule for today."
"There isn't anything on the schedule for today," she said automatically. A visit from Coulson was inevitable given the number of messages he'd left -- messages she hadn't yet returned. "You'd better let him through. I'm sure he isn't going to take 'go away' for an answer."
"That is most unlikely," Jarvis said. "Given that Director Fury bypassed my systems when he was here--"
"Wait, what?" Pepper blinked, paused with the mug of coffee halfway to her lips. Tony had told her about meeting Fury. He hadn't mentioned anything about Jarvis. "He did what?"
"Bypassed my security systems in order to enter the house. He used a rather elegant Trojan horse, in fact. I spent the next day analyzing the code and--"
"Jarvis," Pepper said. "Be sure to let me know the next time anyone compromises your security."
"I'd assumed Mr. Stark--"
She shook her head. "I'd like to hear it from you. I expect you corrected the weakness?"
"Of course, Miss Potts." The faint edge of offense made it hard to remember that Jarvis didn't actually have feelings to be ruffled. "Agent Coulson is at the door."
"Thank you, Jarvis."
Coulson greeted her with a warm smile and a firm handshake but as she led him into the living room and offered him coffee (black, two sugars) she could feel him weighing his options, making adjustments to whatever strategy he'd decided on before he arrived. While she poured out two mugs of coffee in the kitchen Pepper took a moment to herself to smooth over her surprise at Jarvis's revelation, to excavate her sheath of professionalism from under the debris of the last few days. If it was chipped around the edges there wasn't time for anything but the most cosmetic of repairs.
"You're here about Tony," she said, giving away as little possible as she crossed the living room to hand Coulson the coffee. "About his last mission."
Despite Nick Fury's visit after the press conference, S.H.I.E.L.D. had remained hands-off since Tony had tossed away the script and declared himself a superhero. Given Tony's typical attention span, Pepper figured they'd been waiting to see if the change of heart was going to stick, but she'd known their patience wouldn't last forever.
"I need to speak with Mr. Stark, yes," Coulson said, waiting until she took a seat before he followed suit.
"Just let me pull up his schedule and see when--"
"Miss Potts," Coulson interrupted, "it's important that I speak with him now. If you could let him know I'm here--"
"I'm sorry you came all this way, but this isn't a good time. He's working," Pepper said. She assumed that was true -- she hadn't actually seen Tony since Edward had left, though she'd asked Jarvis to notify her if he tried to remove the sling. Not that it mattered. A reasonable discussion about Iron Man with S.H.I.E.L.D. was not something he was going to be capable of today. Maybe he'd never be capable of it, but given his mood the last time she'd seen him today was not the time put it to the test.
"Miss Potts. He flew into a war zone. Again. I'm sure you realize--"
"I realize more than most what's at stake here, Agent Coulson," Pepper said.
Coulson knew where Tony had gone. Knew what had happened. Coulson knew what she didn't and she couldn't ask him outright. Not if she was going to make sure S.H.I.E.L.D. had to go through her to get to Tony.
"Then you understand the gravity of the situation. The political climate is delicate. The Pentagon is breathing down our necks about this. They looked the other way until now but this time the consequences of Mr. Stark's unilateral actions have ramifications that go beyond a couple of stray weapons caches. They want him under control before he--"
"Before I what?"
Pepper couldn't help the flinch, and from his quickly schooled expression Coulson had been caught off guard as well. Tony was leaning against the wall on the landing near the waterfall. If he was breathing a little heavily from his climb up the stairs it hadn't been evident from his voice.
How long had he been there?
Coulson didn't back down, just switched tactics. "Mr. Stark. It was my understanding that you had reached an agreement with Director Fury about--"
"Fury broke into my house and rapped my knuckles with his ruler. Proverbially speaking -- he didn't have an actual ruler, though with the eye patch that really is a striking image. But my point is, I don't remember agreeing to anything in particular."
Pepper wondered if Coulson's unshakable poker face was what had landed him the job as Iron Man's handler or if it was some kind of obscure punishment duty.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. can be a resource if you let us, Mr. Stark. Our assistance with the problem of Mr. Stane's death was only the beginning. We can--"
Mentioning Obadiah had been a bad miscalculation on Coulson's part. Tony's eyes narrowed and the corner of his mouth lifted in an ugly imitation of a smile.
"Agent Coulson," Pepper interrupted, turning back to the agent. In the periphery of her vision she saw Tony push off from the wall, his stance shifting into one she recognized as just this side of volatile. He wasn't going to let her smooth this over, but she had to try. "While we appreciate--"
"Yeah, I'm well aware of Fury's talent for making troublemakers disappear," Tony snapped over her as if she hadn't spoken at all.
Coulson straightened, his voice going hard. "You misunderstand our--"
"No, I think I understand pretty fucking well. If the truth had come out my stock would have gone into a death spiral so steep we'd have been giving it away in Happy Meals. Not to mention the inevitable investigation into whether I'd been involved in the double-dealing. So I have S.H.I.E.L.D. to thank for what little control I still have over my company, don't I?"
She might as well have been on another planet. All of the sarcasm had drained out of Tony, leaving him staring at Coulson with a fierce defiance. After what felt like a silent eternity, Coulson spoke, composed once more.
"Stane was under surveillance for two years before Miss Potts came to us with the hacked ghost drive. He was very careful; there was never enough evidence to build a case. If we'd thought you had anything to do with his crimes we would be having another kind of conversation altogether, Mr. Stark. Our interest in you is of a different nature."
The admittance, though shocking, hadn't actually answered any of Tony's accusations.
"Yeah, I bet," Tony said. "Tell Fury I decline the opportunity to be in hock to him any more than I already am." He didn't wait for a response. Just turned and disappeared back down the stairs to his workshop.
And that was it. Coulson set his coffee mug down on the table and stood. "Thank you for your time, Miss Potts. We'll be in touch."
It wasn't until Coulson was long gone and Pepper was standing at the kitchen sink dumping out his cold coffee that she realized Tony's appearance had distracted her before she could learn anything at all about where his last mission had taken him or why it had sent S.H.I.E.L.D. scrambling when they'd looked the other way for the last month. And now she had a whole new crop of unanswered questions.
Questions she had to set aside for the time being in favor of more immediate concerns. But as she tried to focus on the 231 emails Mary Littlejohn had flagged as top priority, all she could think about was whether Obadiah would have been caught if his desire to needle Tony with the truth the night of the benefit hadn't overridden his careful covering of every trace of impropriety. It still didn't make any kind of sense to her -- why go to all that trouble, for years if Coulson was to be believed, only to blow it by tipping off Tony?
Tony had never explained just what had happened to the workshop that night, but after Pepper found out about Obadiah's part in the injunction she hadn't needed to ask. If Fury and Coulson thought they could play on Tony's non-existent gratitude to them for the cover up of Obadiah's betrayal, S.H.I.E.L.D. risked losing him completely. And Pepper wasn't sure anymore whether or not that would be a good thing.
Through the glass that separated the staircase from the workshop Pepper could see Tony standing hunched over the 3-D vector station, waving his light pen with his left hand as if to emphasize a point. She took a moment to gauge his mood -- she needed him cooperative, and though he'd had a couple of hours to cool down since Coulson had left, it looked like cooperative might just be a pipe dream. He had the lights on this time, dialed back to half strength, and even mostly turned away from her she could see the coiled tension in the way he moved. When she opened the door she was met by the sound of him talking over Jarvis.
"Sir, the calculations I just ran indicate peak efficiency at this--"
"No, no, no. The coupling isn't efficient enough. We lose--"
Tony didn't glance up from the station where a ghostly blue three-dimensional model floated in midair, nearly the same shade as the light embedded in his chest. She recognized the glass ring of the arc reactor but it had been separated from its casing, the components scattered in an exploded view. The television was on behind him, CNN again, mumbling to itself quietly underneath the ongoing argument.
"Your calculations are wrong," Tony continued. "You're not factoring in--"
"My calculations rarely deviate more than 3%. May I suggest the possibility that you're distracted by--"
"I didn't ask you to suggest anything, Jarvis. Run the numbers again."
Tony pocketed the light pen. Reached into the floating model and manipulated part of the wiring, yanked it out and tossed it into the virtual trash can, then leaned one-handed on the light table, peering at the design. If the loss of the use of his right arm was hobbling his work at all, he didn't show it. Then again he was sticking to computer-aided design rather than actually machining anything. But how long was he going to be content playing with models?
Pepper took advantage of the momentary lull and stepped forward. "Is that the redesign of the arc reactor that you promised Maguire?" she asked.
Tony whirled, throwing his good hand up, arm straight out and palm spread flat towards her in midair. Pepper froze, recognizing the stance from that first test of the repulsor when he'd ended up in a heap five feet away from where he started. She waited and after a few uneven breaths he blinked and curled his fingers into a fist, then lowered his arm.
"I've run the calculations three additional times and they come out the same," Jarvis said into the silence.
"Fuck the numbers." Tony turned back to the table, running his hand through his hair. His voice was threadbare. "They're not right. I know they're not right." Despite Nurse Edward's admonition that he needed to take it easy if he wanted his shoulder to heal properly, he'd clearly been at it since he'd fled the examination that morning, barring his run-in with Coulson.
It wasn't as if she'd expected anything different. Hoped, maybe, just a little. But not expected.
"Jarvis," Pepper said. "Turn everything off. I need a moment." Jarvis didn't respond but the model winked out and the computer monitors flipped to their screen savers.
She crossed to stand on the other side of the light table from Tony. He raised his head and turned the full strength of his glare on her. "What the hell, Potts? I'm in the middle--"
If she let herself react, she'd regret it. "None of it is going anywhere."
"Jarvis, bring up the model," he said. When nothing happened he kicked over the steel wastepaper basket that sat under the table.
"I need you to give Brett Maguire a call this afternoon," Pepper said after the clatter faded. "The board has been making noises since reports of your 'accident' hit the news. I set up a conference call with them for tomorrow afternoon, so it's important you touch base with Maguire."
Tony rolled his eyes. "What are they, a bunch of timid schoolboys, afraid someone's going to snatch their allowance? If this is what's going to happen every time--"
"I told Maguire's assistant you'd be calling him at three."
He glanced down at the inside of his wrist, at the face of his watch. It had been two-twenty when she'd come down the stairs. "Thanks for the advanced notice," he snapped. "But I'm a little too busy to talk to the money men right now."
"Without Maguire's support, how long do you think it will take the board to reconsider Obadiah's injunction?" Pepper shot back.
"Jarvis, bring up the schematic," he said, turning his back to her.
"Jarvis, please disregard that order until Mr. Stark gets off his call." She circled the table until she could see his face, and his attention flickered past her to the television, to the endless cycle of news. The security gate at the end of the drive outside appeared on screen, the curves of the house just visible in the background.
The headline read Stark Remains Sequestered In Malibu Compound. The cameras outside were watching the house while inside she was watching them watching the house. It was far from the first time, but she'd never gotten used to it. The discomfort must have registered on her face because Tony's eyes narrowed and he turned away.
"Jarvis--" he started.
"Sir, perhaps after a break, you'll be better able to focus on--"
"Since when has your programming included impersonations of Dr. Phil? I said--"
"Maguire flies out to New York this afternoon to meet with the board. He leaves at five," Pepper interrupted, tearing her gaze from the news. "So I suggest you get the call out of the way."
Message delivered, she turned and left the workshop.
Tony resurfaced around four-thirty, just as Pepper was putting the finishing touches on a response to another request for his testimony by the Armed Services Committee.
"Maguire says hi. He and Marthe invited us to brunch on Sunday."
She'd stretched her legs out to catch the warmth of the late afternoon light from her office windows, but at the sound of Tony's voice she pulled her ankles back under her chair. When she glanced up from her letter she found Tony leaning heavily on the door jamb, the dark plum of his rumpled shirt accentuating his pallor.
Us? "That's very kind of them. How was your call?"
Tony ran his hand under the strap to the sling where it dug into his left shoulder and then prodded gingerly at the bruise under his eye. "I let him know the news of my demise had been greatly exaggerated."
"Tony, not even the Enquirer said you were--"
"Yeah, I know. It went fine. I sent him some specs for the modified reactor. Preliminary stuff. I used small words, so he shouldn't have trouble pitching it to Levin and his cronies on the board."
"Really." She tried to keep her surprise from her voice. Whatever Maguire had said, he'd managed to convince Tony to give up more than Obadiah had been able to.
"Yep. Are you sure we can't get another nurse? One with a softer touch, maybe?"
"Edward comes very highly regarded and he passed Happy's security check. He was an Army medic in Afghanistan." His expression closed up, either at the mention of Afghanistan or because she hadn't played along with his game, but she didn't give in. Couldn't. She wasn't in the mood. "Do you have a problem with his qualifications?"
"No," he said, dropping the topic, but he didn't retreat, either. "So, how's the guest suite?"
"I'll let you know after I actually sleep there."
"Hmm. Don't you, you know, have plants or something? At home, I mean? Won't they die without your loving attention?"
"Yes, I do, and no, they won't. I pay someone to water them." She didn't mention that it hadn't even been a day. Not nearly long enough for her plants to miss her. If plants did that.
"I pay you enough for a very lovely apartment. I've seen it. It's much nicer than the rooms you're staying in here."
"The guest suite has a jacuzzi," Pepper pointed out, drawn in despite herself. She wasn't sure what about her staying here bothered him. It wasn't like this was the first time; she'd slept in one of the guest rooms on a handful of late nights, usually when they were preparing for a big presentation.
Tony spent most of his time down in the workshop and the house was large enough that he didn't have to see her outside of her regular hours if he so chose. And it wasn't as if she'd be able to stop him if he decided to leave.
"We can get you one of your own, you know. Have it installed by bedtime, I bet."
"Thank you, that's very generous, but no."
"It's a limited time offer," he pushed.
"Don't you have something else to do besides sell me a new bathroom fixture, which, by the way, is probably against my building's regulations?"
"Jarvis and I aren't seeing eye to eye right now about the new design," he admitted, pushing off from the door frame to wander into her office. He toyed with one of the delicate fronds of the papyrus plant by the window. "I don't remember adding stubborn idiot to his personality profile."
Careful. She had to be careful here. "Are you sure he's wrong?"
Usually Tony tackled design problems as if they were a big game, approaching the possibilities with the a playful enthusiasm she liked to imagine he'd had as a kid. None of that was evident from what she'd seen in the workshop that afternoon.
"Yeah," he said. "I am." Flat, not open for discussion.
Part of Pepper wanted to prod him into admitting that maybe working under these conditions wasn't the smartest idea. But she knew exactly how well that would go. "I've got a couple more hours of work here," she said instead.
He released the poor papyrus plant and pulled out a preoccupied smirk. "Trying to get me out of your hair?"
"I'd probably be less distracting if you worked from home. Stark Industries has a very liberal telecommuting policy. I know, because I'm pretty sure I signed off on it. And if I signed it, you were there, so I know you've read it."
She ignored him and dug through her in box, picked out the binder that held the print out of Maya Hanson's research proposal. "Here," she said. "If you're so bored, take a look at this. She wants to hear back from us about additional funding, and I don't know enough about nanotechnology to tell if her project is even viable."
Tony took the binder from her, glanced at the name on the front of the report, and frowned. "Maya? I forgot she worked for me," he said. "Huh."
"Yeah, yeah. I'll read it." And then he proceeded to sink down onto the floor in the corner of her office, leaning his back against the wall, and settled in to do just that.
She tried to remind herself that she'd moved in so she could keep an eye on him, but after fifteen minutes of watching Tony's silent reading out of the corner of her eye, Pepper couldn't take it any more. "Wouldn't you be more comfortable out on the couch?"
"Uh-huh," he said, face buried in the binder balanced on his knees. He didn't make a move to get up.
She let it go.
The next time she looked up it was six o'clock and she hadn't heard any pages turning for a long time. Tony was half-way through the binder. He was also out cold, his head tilted back at an awkward angle against the wall, his free hand marking his place. She closed down her spreadsheet and opened a chat window to Jarvis.
How wrong is his math? she typed.
He's missing things, Jarvis responded. He's uncharacteristically sloppy in his calculations.
And the armor?
Jarvis paused. I have not yet been asked to make any repairs to the Mark IV. I will be sure to notify you when this changes.
Of course, Miss Potts. This transcript will be deleted from my logs when you sign out.
She closed her eyes, considering what it meant that she was conspiring with an A.I. What it meant that Jarvis was more concerned about Tony's mistakes than Tony himself. Shook it off, signed out, then shut down her laptop.
Kneeling down next to Tony's corner, she slid the report from his lap and the movement was enough to wake him. He blinked up at her, eyes opaque and empty for a long moment before they finally focused on her, and then fell closed again, his jaw tightening.
"Yeah," he breathed, eyes snapping back open. He tried to push off of the floor, bracing his good shoulder against the wall, but fell off balance with a grunt. "Fuck," he said, apparently before he could stop himself, because his attention darted to her as soon as the word left his mouth.
"When was the last time you took your meds?"
He tried to move again, then inhaled sharply. Let the breath out, slowly. "Don't remember."
Of course he didn't. And not because he was trying to be some kind of martyr. No. The thought simply hadn't crossed his mind.
"This is why I'm staying in the guest suite," she said evenly. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
She didn't bother with the medicine cabinet, she went straight down to the workshop and found the little orange-brown bottle of Vicodin on Tony's desk, under his welding goggles. By the time she returned with the pills and a glass of water he'd gone white and stiff in his corner. He took the offered pill and swallowed it without comment. Then she sat with him until his shoulders loosened enough that she could help him up off of the floor.
Tony's solid weight dragged at her arm until they reached the hallway, then as if he'd only just caught himself leaning on her he straightened and let her step ahead of him a pace. Even so he followed her into the entertainment room and settled on the black leather couch without protest.
"I was thinking about calling for Thai," Pepper said, perching on the other side of the couch as he picked up the remote and flicked on the room's custom-built plasma television. She jumped, her heart racing as the room filled with a screech of sound that cut off just as abruptly as it had come as Tony hit mute.
"Hmm. If I never have rice again it'll be too soon," he said into the ringing silence, melting into the cushions as the medication deepened its hold.
She'd never asked what they'd fed him during his captivity. She wasn't sure how to ask now. "You can order something without rice, you know."
His head rolled towards her, his eyes half closed. "Yeah. They have soup, right?"
Soup? Pepper just nodded.
"I'll have whatever you're having," he said finally.
By the time the food arrived, Pepper was starving. Tony wrinkled his nose at the paper carton of Ga Pow that she set down in front of him on a folding tray and reached instead for the plastic container of glass noodle soup. She handed him a spoon and settled in with her laptop and her own Ga Pow as he picked up the remote and flipped back and forth between the talking heads on MSNBC and CNN.
Tony was more or less ambidextrous but even so she caught him struggling a little with the soup, so she brought him a mug from the kitchen so he could at least sip the broth. He didn't touch his main course. By the time he pushed the tray away and sank back into the couch cushions he'd settled on CNN and only seemed to be half-watching, his eyes drifting closed every few minutes.
After she'd finished her own meal, Pepper turned back to her email. At the top of her queue was a new message from Lyle Masterson, the head of the engineering department at Cambridge University, who had known Yinsen.
Miss Potts, it read, I'm terribly sorry it has taken me so long to get in touch with you regarding Ibrahim Yinsen. Ibrahim was a close friend and colleague, and I was devastated to learn most of his family were victims of a massacre in Gulmira. For months I'd feared him dead with them but as I'm sure you're aware by now he in fact survived that attack, only to die later at the hands of a terrorist group known as the Ten Rings.
His body was recently released by Coalition Forces for burial in Gulmira, but because the region remains too unstable for me to risk attending that funeral, I have taken it upon myself to organize a memorial service here in Cambridge. I understand your employer, Mr. Stark, had some connection with Ibrahim. I--
"Oh," she said, looking up from her laptop. "Hey--"
But Tony had gone rigid next to her on the couch, the remote poised in mid-air.
He bumped up the television's volume with his thumb. The image of a burned-out shell of a building filled the screen then cut to a screaming man, spatters of blood painting his grizzled cheek, holding the limp body of a young boy in his lap. Then the correspondent's voice registered, a dark-haired woman Pepper remembered from the initial reports on the ambush of Tony's caravan.
"...tensions over grazing rights between the local Hazara people and the nomadic Kochis exploded unexpectedly this week in the Behsood district in Afghanistan's central Wardak province, as the Kochis, rumored to have been backed by fellow ethnic Pashtuns in the Taliban, attacked a packed village mosque. An ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan, the Hazara are Shiia Muslims in a country dominated by Sunnis..."
Afghanistan. Pepper closed her laptop and set it aside, her stomach clenching. Maybe the spicy Ga Pow hadn't been such a good idea. She leaned forward, monitoring Tony out of the corner of her eye as she watched the report unfold. The light from the television played over the tight planes of his face and his grip on the remote had gone white-knuckled. She could hear him taking slow, deliberate breaths.
"...have not yet determined what provoked the renewed fighting, which had remained at a simmer after a 2007 cease fire agreement. Locals fear a repeat of the massacres of Hazara civilians by the Taliban, documented by Human Rights Watch..."
"Tony," Pepper ventured.
He didn't respond, just sat there, staring at the television. After the images of destruction, the car advertisement that followed felt obscene. When Pepper reached over and tugged at the remote in his hand, he opened his fingers and let it go. She hit the power button, plunging the room into dimness.
"What is it?" she asked.
Turning his head, he stared at her, the half-healed bruises and scratches standing out livid against his skin. Then he smiled.
"Well," he said, casual and empty of intonation. "That was informative." With that he stood up and walked out of the room.
She sat there, torn between following him and setting Jarvis to find out more about the news report. The need to know what the hell was going on won out. "Jarvis, collect anything you can about the fighting in the Behsood District. And see if there's a file in Obadiah's ghost drive that might be relevant."
She'd only hesitated a few minutes but by the time she made it down to the workshop, the Audi was gone. At least he hadn't tried to take the armor.
When she got back to her laptop the shipping manifest Jarvis had found on the ghost drive was flagged in her in box, along with several AP and Agence Francais reports on the fighting. It took another two hours of digging through Human Rights Watch reports on the Taliban and labyrinthine histories of the region's politics before the bare bones of what had happened became clear.
Obadiah had sold several shipments of weapons, including the model of rocket fired grenade that had nearly killed Tony, to a local Hazara warlord in Behsood. Shortly after the sale there had been a renewed push to expel the Kochi nomads from Haraza land, but the skirmishes had been limited, both sides at a draw. Until around the time Tony had been in surgery, five days ago. The Kochi began an unusually emboldened attack on the Hazara village, backed by a group of resurgent Taliban forces.
Pepper closed her eyes and swallowed down a wave of nausea as the pieces fell into place.
"Jarvis, can you confirm that Mr. Stark's last mission took him to Behsood?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Potts, but I cannot reveal mission details without Mr. Stark's authorization."
Thirty seconds later, though, another email arrived in her in box, routed through a spam provider, with the subject line INCREASE YOUR ROD SIZE NOW. When she opened the attachment she found herself looking at a file history -- and the last document Tony had accessed before disappearing in the armor had been the manifest Jarvis had already sent her. Behsood again.
"Thank you, Jarvis, I understand," she said.
She didn't bother trying to call Tony. Instead she retreated to the guest suite with a mug of chamomile tea. Wrapped herself in a blanket on the wide bed with a paperback spy novel she'd picked up in the hospital gift shop and pretended to read. It took another two hours but eventually the words blurred and she fell asleep.
"You can't keep doing this,” Pepper said. She curled around one of the pillows on the couch, tugging her robe closed over her nightgown.
Tony didn’t respond, didn’t look up from the piano, just picked out an anemic, one-handed melody she didn't recognize. She’d woken to the high tinkling echo of piano music and come downstairs to find him bent over the baby grand, sharing the bench with a half-empty bottle of thirty-year-old cognac. He was due for another Vicodin in a few hours, but on top of that much liquor…
The music cut off and Tony took a swig straight from the bottle. Disheveled bangs hung down in his eyes, and his shirt collar was open, yanked to one side, exposing the edge of the bandage around his shoulder. The darker cloth of the sling crossed his chest, muffling the light from the arc reactor. He set the bottle back on the piano bench and started a different song, lower down the register.
Pepper rubbed her eyes and returned to the issue at hand.
“You were nearly killed, and this time--" They’d been dancing around the heart of the matter for the last hour but she still couldn't come out and say it. This time you were the one causing the collateral damage. "Things are more complicated than good guys and bad guys. You can't just fly in and--"
He roused, finally forgetting the piano. In the flickering light from the fireplace the bruising around his eye and jaw divided his face unevenly, into halves of unmarked and marked, light and dark.
"Don't you think I fucking know that now? I thought--"
"You thought it would be easy?"
He jerked back on the piano bench as if she'd slapped him.
"Where does it stop, Tony?"
"When you find all of the weapons Obadiah sold under the table? When they're all destroyed? Then what?"
"I have to do this, Pepper. I have to--"
"No, you don't. You don't." They'd had this argument before, in the aftermath of Gulmira, when he'd admitted Obadiah's betrayal. "S.H.I.E.L.D. has the evidence now, and they'll--"
"It's my responsibility. You don't understand."
"No. I don't understand. Explain to me why it has to be you. You're one man. No one expects you to--"
"I should have known. It's my company, I should have--"
"I didn't catch on. Nobody did." Well, that wasn't entirely true. S.H.I.E.L.D. had known, apparently. Known and not done a thing about it. "Why do you think you're any different?"
"I don't have any choice." As if he couldn't sit still any longer, he made a sudden move to rise. Overcompensating for the way the sling changed his center of gravity, he tried to brace himself on the bench and knocked the bottle of cognac to the floor.
"Fuck," he muttered, collapsing back to the bench.
The thick glass didn't break. Instead, the bottle wobbled before coming to rest on its side. Tony just sat there watching the liquor trickle out onto the floor, so Pepper sighed and retreated to the kitchen. In the middle of digging through a drawer for some towels she caught herself -- when had she started cleaning up Tony's messes quite this literally? It had to stop. She shut the drawer and left the towels behind. Let the mess stay where it was.
"You do have a choice," she said as she crossed back to the couch. She couldn't look at him, not yet, so she kept her focus on the black lacquer backgammon box on the coffee table. "You make it every time you put on that armor."
"My weapons... they're out there. They're going to hurt people," he said to the floor. "I'm responsible for that. If I don't do anything--"
"When you take off without warning you sacrifice all of your other responsibilities. To your company, to the board, to the people who work for you." Even sober he didn't listen to logic, she knew that from the last couple of times she'd tried to have this conversation. But how else was she supposed to reach him? "I can't do my job when you disappear, Tony. When you're not here, and I don't know when you're going to come back -- if you're going to come back -- "
"It's just money," he said. "I'm talking about saving lives."
Images of the destruction in Behsood flashed in the back of her mind. "Because that went so well for you this time," she snapped, before she knew what she was saying. His eyes blazed, his free hand curling into a fist.
Pepper tried to backtrack. "The way you're going about this -- you say you want to protect people from your weapons, but when you go into these situations you don't -- when you don't have all the information--" She took a deep breath. "You're hurting people anyway, Tony. I just want you to think about what you're doing. You don't have to do it alone. There's Rhodey, and S.H.I.E.L.D.—"
“And what do you think they'll want in return for their help, Potts? Have you given that any thought?" He spit the words out, sharp and staccato. "Because I have. S.H.I.E.L.D., the military -- they're not going to help me out of the goodness of their hearts. If I learned anything from Stane, it's that there's always a deal to be made. And I'm sitting on two of the biggest leaps forward in military tech in thirty years."
He wasn't wrong. That was the worst part about all of this. He wasn't wrong.
He just wasn't right, either.
Pepper closed her eyes. Took a breath. When she opened them again he was turned half away from her, leaning heavily against the piano, his forehead propped up by his good hand, his expression blocked by the line of his wrist.
"You say you want to take the company in a new direction, but it's not going to find its own way, Tony. You have to lead it there. You're worried about S.H.I.E.L.D.? You should be worried about the board, because right now there's a very real chance they're going to finish what Obadiah started. And you know where they'll lead the company without you -- right back to where it was before you got home. Building weapons."
Why did she think he'd listen to her now? He never listened to anyone. Not anymore. Not since Obadiah.
"They'd stockpiled more than I'd expected." It took her a moment to realize he'd returned to the weapons cache he’d hit in Behsood. “When I realized... it was too late. I couldn't stop it. The explosion took out--" he broke off, then, returned to coaxing a listless scraping of sound from the piano. "The weapons depot was in the middle of the village."
Oh God. "How many..."
"I don't know."
He didn't need to elaborate. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," he said, a little color returning to his voice. "I couldn't -- I couldn't help them. They were firing at me and -- I couldn't do anything. The nomads must have seen it as an opportunity. Moved in after I left."
And without the weapons he'd destroyed, the Haraza village had been defenseless in the face of retaliation from the Kochis.
He shifted on the piano bench, his voice barely audible over the music. "I thought I knew what I was doing. But after everything... I'm still just building weapons."
The fireplace popped. Tony hit a high note on the piano, barely audible, and it lingered for a long time before fading away.
"When you quit this time," he said, "you'll mean it."
It wasn't a question. The words fell into the silence and hung there until she forced herself to speak.
"Every day," he said. "Every day I'm surprised you're still here."
His face was still hidden, but it didn't matter -- his words were stripped bare, raw with the awkward honesty that had cropped up more and more frequently since Afghanistan. She still didn't know what to do when he got like this, whether she could believe it, whether it was real. Pepper toyed with the hem of her robe and took too long to pick her next words.
"I don't want to leave," she said, finally. "But when you disappear without warning, when you go out there and I don't know where you are and there's no way for me to know whether you're still alive, and this time even Jarvis lost contact with you -- what am I supposed to do? I... I love my job, Tony. But I can't do it anymore if this is how it's going to be."
He shifted, his hand moving to cover his eyes. "I can't stop," he said.
"I don't know what to do."
"I know. But you can start by letting me in on your missions, so I can at least--"
"I understand why you're wary of coordinating with S.H.I.E.L.D. or the military, but--"
"That's not it." The hand dropped from his face. The shadows cast by the firelight only deepened the lines of exhaustion carved under his eyes and framing his mouth.
Her feet were cold. Pepper tried to tuck them under her robe, gave it up as impossible. When she looked up again, Tony was glancing away from her, his attention falling back to the piano.
"Jarvis knows the details," she said, "and Fury proved that Jarvis can be hacked--"
"Jarvis isn't... Jarvis is code. Very clever code. Too clever for his own good, maybe, but he's still just ones and zeros. He can be hacked but he can't be--" Tony's gaze locked somewhere over her left shoulder, then veered away, up to the windows, to the darkness outside.
"I've worked for you for seven years, Tony. I know what Obadiah did might leave you with doubts... but if you can't trust me after everything I don't know why I'm--"
"--hurt," he continued, as if she hadn't spoken. He didn't look at her. "Jarvis can't get hurt."
Oh. Oh. For a moment Obadiah loomed over her in his monstrous perversion of Tony's creation. Your services are no longer required. Her hands tightened around the pillow she hadn't realized she'd picked back up, gripping it like a shield in front of her chest. When she could breathe again she caught Tony watching her and set the pillow aside. Folded her hands together in her lap.
"So it's okay for you to try to protect me," she said, "but no one's allowed to help you?"
The cover to the keyboard slammed down with a crack. "Bingo. The jackpot goes to Pepper Potts."
But he was already sliding off of the piano bench, catching himself on the closed cover of the keyboard with his left hand when the liquor and weariness hit him full strength. "The last person who tried to help me bled out in front of me on a sack of rice," he said. Before she could respond he'd picked his unsteady way past the overturned bottle of cognac and was halfway up the stairs towards the bedrooms.
Yinsen. He'd been talking about Yinsen, finally, and she'd let him go without saying anything, without asking him to explain. And now it was too late.
She wanted to curl up on the couch right there and forget any of this had happened. She wanted to go back to when corralling Tony had at least been within the realm of possibility, when the biggest surprise of her day had been whether or not he'd remembered to come home from a party. Mostly she wanted to go back to sleep, but the chance of that happening before sunrise was smaller than she cared to admit.
Somehow, though, she managed to beat the odds.
Pepper sat up, her heart fluttering madly, and opened her eyes to the dizzying sensation of being suspended over the ocean.
When she blinked, swallowing down nausea, the room resolved around her -- the wide bank of tinted glass opposite the bed, the delicate lines of the paper and bamboo Noguchi floor lamp -- she was in one of Tony's guest suites. The blankets were twisted around her hips and the sheet was clenched in her lap in white-knuckled fists. A band tightened around her chest as she tried to shove away the dream of Tony staring at her, blood running into his eyes and soaking through his shirt as she drove exactly fifteen miles over the speed limit all the way to the hospital.
It didn't quite work, because her hands were sticky.
Her hands were sticky and she was covered in grit and maybe she hadn't woken up at all. Maybe she was back on the factory roof because there was glass in her hair, smoke burning her eyes, and Tony wasn't moving. He wasn't moving at all and the arc reactor was dark and his helmet was gone and oh God the explosion had caught him and--
The bedroom solidified again, filled with the muted light of dawn.
Not her room.
A low buzzing filled her ears, the panic starting to return with her momentary confusion. She took a deep breath, another, a cold sweat chilling down her back. Obadiah was dead. Obadiah was dead and Tony was okay. He was. He was okay.
"Good morning, Miss Potts," Jarvis said, brightening the windows to let in more of the morning light."Would you like the weather report? Or I could pull up your email."
She latched onto his voice, onto the normalcy of it, and her pulse faded back to its regular rhythm. "No, I'm fine, Jarvis. What time is it?"
"Is Tony up yet?"
"Mr. Stark is still asleep. Shall I wake him?"
"No, thank you." She pushed the blankets aside and crossed to stand in front of the windows, staring out at the calm expanse of water, at the glow of dawn on the horizon. Nurse Edward wasn't due for another two hours and the conference call with the board was the only other item on the schedule. On Tony's schedule, anyway; she still had a mountain of catching up to do.
Tallying her mental to-do list, Pepper turned away from the window and went to wash the bits of glass she knew weren't really there out of her hair.
She was sitting at the bar picking at toast and half a grapefruit when Tony shuffled into the kitchen. He stopped short just inside the doorway, blinked at her, and then turned away without comment, moving with arthritic stiffness to the refrigerator. He was still wearing last night's untucked shirt and wrinkled jeans and his sling was askew, as if he'd tried to take it off and then thought better of it.
"I'm sorry," she said, watching him stand in front of the open refrigerator. "I should have offered to help you get changed last night." She was supposed to be staying in his house was to keep an eye on him, and she'd let one more in a long line of unsettling conversations throw her off stride. Again.
Every day I'm surprised you're still here.
Tony turned around, a bottle of Gatorade in his free hand, and let the refrigerator door swing shut behind him. "I'm pretty sure undressing the boss strays into dubious professional territory, Potts, and I'm already in the tabloids enough for the both of us as it is."
She decided not to point out that she'd helped him strip and shower before she'd taken him to the hospital -- she wasn't sure how much of that night he actually remembered. So she could have kissed Edward when he arrived twenty minutes later. He gave her an excuse to leave behind the charged silence that had built up between her and Tony while they both ignored everything that had been said the night before.
Edward took one look at her and whatever she was failing to hide prompted him to offer to get Tony showered and dressed. And Tony didn't argue -- he seemed as relieved as she that the nurse had come to their rescue. Pepper decided not to think too hard on just what that meant.
When she started for her office she caught Tony staring after her, yesterday's panic lingering in the tightness of his jaw. He didn't say anything, didn't ask her to stay, but she followed them into the bedroom anyway. Settled in the chair by the telescope with her laptop perched on her knees and tried to finish her preparations for the meeting with the board.
She’d just pulled up her notes when a wave of exhaustion rolled over her. All at once the screen went blurry and her head filled with cement. She closed her eyes, her chin dropping towards her chest while she massaged the back of her neck with one hand.
"Jarvis said it was a surface-to-air missile."
At the voice, Tony's voice, right there next to her, Pepper’s head snapped up -- but she was alone in the bedroom and she could hear the shower over the pulse slamming in her ears.
She took a shallow breath, her eyes burning, but the memory of the way Tony's voice had limped along when he'd spoken those words the night before wouldn’t stop.
Jarvis said... That was when she’d realized he had no memory of the explosion that had driven shrapnel from his own armor into his shoulder, no memory of what had put him into the hospital for three days. No memory at all.
"How long were you unconscious?" she’d asked.
He’d shrugged it off. "I'd strayed into Pakistani air space. Didn't see it coming. By the time I came to the autopilot had kicked in and I was over the ocean."
Unconscious, kept aloft over the ocean by a metallic shell, a high-tech marionette controlled by nothing but an A.I.-- Pepper shuddered. To put his life in the hands of a machine like that…
"You gonna do the full service?" Tony’s voice, in the flesh this time, startled her out of the memory.
He'd pushed through the door from the bathroom, Edward trailing behind, face beaded with sweat from the heat of the room-sized shower. Even though the hot water had raised a little color in Tony's face, he still looked drained. But his stance had loosened up, and he was moving a little easier than he had been in the kitchen. Edward had helped Tony into a dark blue dress shirt and charcoal pin-striped slacks, and the fresh clothes went a long way towards erasing that just-out-of-the-hospital vibe, but his beard was still leaning more toward the desert-island look than usual.
"Shave and a haircut, two bits?" Tony continued, holding his right arm steady against his chest with his left hand again, the same way he had during the previous morning's freakout.
Pepper blinked, mentally scrambling to catch up.
"Not in my job description, buddy," Edward said. "Can't you afford to get someone in?"
Pepper watched as Edward refastened the sling around Tony's shoulder and chest. "Yes," she said. "He can."
"He can, but he's very particular about these things, and he's supposed to talk to his board in like, an hour, right?" Tony tossed a tight grin in her general direction, but his attention stayed on Edward's hands. "So there's probably not enough time."
"He's also ambidextrous," Pepper retorted.
"Not that ambidextrous. This is precision work here. I should probably avoid looking like an extra from Hellraiser if I'm going to sell the board on that whole competence thing."
"Since Edward turned down the chance, I suppose that leaves me," she said dryly. "I'll do my best."
Things changed, though, once Edward left.
"I'm no barber," she said, rejoining Tony in his bedroom after she’d seen the nurse to the door, "so don't expect perfection."
But he was already moving back towards the bathroom, a dark blue-and-silver tie looped around his free hand. "Forget it, Potts. They're smart. They'll see the sling and figure it out."
"My personal grooming isn't exactly in your job description either," he said, then shut the bathroom door behind him.
She left him to it and headed to her office to set up the video conference. But her mind kept looping back to the night before, the way Tony’s voice had lacked all tone, as if he'd shut down everything but the mechanics of speech. She’d wanted him to think things through, but last night…
Pepper rubbed the bridge of her nose. A low-grade ache seemed to have permanently settled behind her eyes. She tried to ignore the memory, tried distracting herself by checking the webcam for a fourth time, tried staring out her office window at the calm surface of the ocean below, but nothing took away the crawling sense of slow-motion panic.
Maybe if she'd confronted him sooner, back before he'd completed the armor, back when she'd found him tinkering with what he'd told her was a flight stabilizer. Maybe if she'd asked him then what he was working on and why...
No. It was useless. There'd been no way for her to know what he'd intended to do, and she was pretty sure even he hadn't had any idea what he was building at that point. It was a useless waste of energy, but even so she couldn't stop the train of thought, the endless nagging what-ifs. And when Tony showed up half an hour later too preoccupied to notice her tension, she couldn’t help but be relieved at the distraction.
He was wearing a rough approximation of a more standard goatee, his tie dangling loose around his neck and his suit coat slung over his good shoulder. If it hadn't been for the pinstriped suit he would have passed for a slumming rock star. Ever aware of his image, of course, he'd already realized this.
"First one to ask me about my next acoustic coffeehouse gig gets a personal demonstration of the armor," he said, brushing past her to settle in her chair.
He held still long enough for her to tie his tie and smooth foundation over the worst of the lingering bruises along his cheek and jaw before he mumbled something about needing some notes he'd left in the workshop. He was out of the office before she'd put the compact away.
When Tony returned empty-handed ten minutes after the video conference was set to start, Pepper let it go. The board was used to worse from him; in fact, when he sat down in front of the flat screen monitor at her desk they were still filtering into the meeting room in New York. Pepper took a seat out of camera range and waited, her laptop at the ready, crossing and uncrossing her ankles while Tony tugged at the empty sleeve of his suit coat, trying to make it look less conspicuous.
"Brett." Tony acknowledged him with a nod to the camera and ignored the rest. "Did Marthe ever get her piano tuned?"
Maguire leaned back in his chair and grinned. "No thanks to you. You've been banned from her music room until she has the chance to pay you back in kind."
Tony smirked, a little of the stiffness easing from his posture. "She's welcome to tinker with my grand any time."
By then the rest of the board had settled into their chairs, Dick Levin at the head of the table. Clinging to the tail-end of the Greatest Generation, Levin was one of the few board members left who'd known Howard, who'd been around since Tony was a boy. His suit was every bit as tailor-made as Tony's was but he wore it like a uniform, every crease precisely pressed.
"If we could get started," Levin said.
It was afternoon in New York -- the board had already met for three hours before breaking for lunch, so Levin had Tony at a distinct disadvantage and knew it. Tony straightened, his eyes flickering over to Pepper, and the smile she found for him felt pasted-on.
"I know we met less than a month ago," Levin continued, "and I want to thank you all again for coming at such short notice.Tony, I'd rather you'd been here in person, but given recent events I suppose we're lucky you're here at all."
Tony's mouth twitched like he'd suppressed a retort, and Pepper shifted in her chair. He had to tread lightly here.
"This company has weathered a great many storms since it went public. The untimely death of its founder, the cut backs in military funding in the 1990s, and a few months ago the disappearance and tumultuous homecoming of its CEO. Recent events notwithstanding, our stock remained stable because there was a steady hand at the helm. And now that hand is gone."
Tony's jaw worked, but he remained silent.
"I fought in Korea, son, and Landry and Simonson here are veterans of Viet Nam, so we have a little insight into what you might have experienced over in that desert. We understand that it wasn't pretty, that people died. We understand you feel responsible. And we're willing to listen to your ideas. But you have to understand that we have a responsibility to our shareholders, a responsibility that we shirk if we let this company's market value continue to plummet."
Pepper pressed her lips together, glancing over at Tony. He was absolutely still, as if Levin's words had triggered some internal switch that had shut down everything but his breathing.
Levin didn't give him time to respond. "We also have a responsibility to our customers. My contacts at the DoD tell me you've filed counter suits to delay delivery of all unfilled orders. It's not good business, son. But the process is in motion, and we've decided to wait and see how it pans out. If the decision goes your way, we'll discuss it further, but if not, Stark Industries will fulfill its obligations."
Tony gave a curt nod and an expression Pepper couldn't read flickered over his face. It was gone before he leaned forward, an agreeable mask falling into place.
"I understand completely," he said. "Stane left behind a legacy I'm only beginning to come to terms with."
There were nods around the table in New York. Pepper's hands tightened around her laptop.
"Practically speaking, he also left a vacancy," Tony continued. "Which is why I'd like to propose that Brett Maguire take over as Chief Financial Officer."
From Maguire's lack of reaction this wasn't the first he'd heard about the idea. Pepper let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Maguire was a good pick -- he and Tony got along, for one thing, and the board knew he wasn't likely to become a yes-man. Tony sat back and propped his feet on her desk, letting them hash it out. By the time they'd agreed and Maguire had accepted the position, Tony's eyes were at half-mast. She set her laptop aside and leaned forward, ready to prod his attention back to the meeting, but before she could, he straightened, his shoes hitting the floor with a thud.
"By now Maguire's presented my specs for the upgrade to the arc reactor. It's still in the preliminary stages, but Google has already expressed interest in the old model, and by the time I'm finished with it this new design will be half the size and exponentially more efficient."
Pepper spared him a sidelong glance. Half the size? The one in his chest was easily a hundredth the size of the original reactor.
"I understand my decisions regarding the company's future might seem rash without anything to back them up. Which is why I'm proposing that as Stark Industries transitions away from the manufacture of weapons, a world of opportunities opens to us. Clean energy is just one aspect."
Tony leaned forward again, as if he was there in the room with them, as if there weren't 2,700 miles and a slightly fuzzy computer monitor between him and the ten board members around that distant table. There were two retired generals on that board. They were going to be the hardest to convince.
"There's nanotechnology -- a few of the field's rising stars works for one of our subsidiaries. And at least half of our current product lines are already non-lethal technologies -- I'm talking about satellites, medical equipment, robotics. You're worried about instability, and I don't blame you. But profiting from weapons requires instability. It provokes instability. It's yesterday's game."
Had he prepared this? She'd forgotten how easily he played the showman, forgotten his flair for the dramatic. Which was silly -- he'd let it fly full strength at that press conference less than two months ago when he'd declared himself a superhero. It usually worked; this time was no different. From the nods around the table in New York, he had at least half of the board leaning towards his side, and they already knew where Maguire stood. If he convinced enough of them, Levin became irrelevant. At least for now.
"I think we should set our sights higher," Tony continued. "Invest in the future, not the past. And yeah, make a couple of bucks along the way."
Maguire flashed a smile at the screen as the table erupted in a buzz of discussion. Levin pushed back his chair and stood up, commanding the room's attention.
"No one's ever denied your enthusiasm, Tony, or your skill as an engineer. I think I speak for us all when I say that we're willing to stay open to your input on the company's direction. The market is fickle; there's a chance it will come around if it's clear Stark Industries is delivering quality products. But there's another element we haven't touched -- the elephant in the room, so to speak."
Iron Man. Tony's chair squeaked as he shifted. He aimed a cocksure nonchalance at the camera, his head tilted to one side.
"The recent press reports--" Levin continued.
"I'm no stranger to the tabloids," Tony interrupted, "and you've never had a problem with it before."
He'd had them. Pepper was close enough to kick him in the shin, but that wouldn't accomplish anything besides making him look like an idiot on camera. Tempting as that was, there was too much hanging in the balance here.
Before Tony could dig himself in deeper, Evan Landry, the board's Vice Chair, spoke up. Where Levin was as fit as he'd been before Tony was born, Landry was barrel-chested and phlegmatic, but whenever he spoke he commanded full attention.
"As I understand it," he said to Tony, "your... side project is coordinated through the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division."
Levin took his seat. Planted his elbows on the table and steepled his hands. "Is this true? You're working with S.H.I.E.L.D. on this?"
Down out of camera range, Tony's free hand folded into a fist, then slowly released. "More or less," he said. "Is what I do with my off hours really that interesting to you guys? I could set up a demonstration, if you'd like."
Maguire seemed to be the only one who found that amusing.
"That won't be necessary," Levin said. "Son, we only care in so far as what you do directly affects the success of this company. You initiated this period of transition. If your attentions are divided, how do you expect to see it through?"
"I'll let you know when it becomes a problem," Tony snapped.
Pepper stood up. Put a hand on his good shoulder. "Tony, you have a call," she said, pitched low enough that the mic wouldn't pick it up. It was an old signal, one she saved for when he was heading for the rails. He shrugged her off without turning away from the camera. "It's urgent," she insisted.
He let out his breath in a huff. "Sorry, guys, my assistant says I have to take this call. I'm sure you can amuse yourselves while I'm gone." And without waiting for Levin's response, he slapped at the feed to shut it down, then whirled in his chair and was on his feet, crowding her before she could step back out of his space.
"What the fuck, Potts?"
His free hand had curled into a hard fist at his side, the tendons standing out in his wrist. She had an inch or two on him in heels, but he outweighed her and had the advantage of maneuverability -- she was pinned between the desk and the wall and he stood between her and the door.
"You were antagonizing Levin."
"And here I thought I'd outgrown adult supervision when I went off to M.I.T.," he shot back. "What, are you my minder now?"
"Apparently," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "You wouldn't need one if you would just think before you--"
"Before I what?" He pushed forward, close enough to touch, close enough that she could smell his peppery aftershave. She didn't want to give ground but she took a last step backwards, her thighs brushing the edge of the desk; but he just pressed in, closing the distance again. "Before I tell that cocksucker off? It's been coming for years, Potts. Since well before you started babysitting me."
"Maybe you need a babysitter. Someone's got to make sure you don't cut your own throat now that Obadiah's gone."
The silence that followed was so complete that she could hear her own heartbeat thudding in her ears.
Tony didn't say a word. Something hollowed out behind his eyes and when he turned on his heel and left the room it wasn't quite the relief she thought it would be.
Pepper gave herself twenty minutes, but he came back on his own after fifteen. Didn't meet her eyes, didn't look at her, just took his seat in front of the camera and restarted the connection himself before she could try to apologize. His hair was ruffled and damp at the temples and she could smell mint from where she sat, her feet tucked under her chair and her hands clasped together so hard they ached.
"Yeah, sorry for the interruption," he said to the camera, once the board settled back down around their table. "I believe we were discussing my mind-boggling capacity for multitasking."
On the monitor, Maguire shifted in his chair and Levin sat back, hands loose on the table top. The mood of the room in New York had solidified during the break, the faces around the table gone uniformly opaque.
"Let me be frank, son," Levin said. "When you shut down weapons production without consulting us, you violated your contract, your trust with your board. We're willing to overlook the fact that this potentially allows us to discontinue our relationship with you, as long as we're assured that the best interest of this company is your first priority. Recent events have not convinced us that this is the case."
Jesus. Breach of contract? Tony's lawyer should be here. This had become a negotiation.
Tony stared into the camera. "It isn't in the best interests of this company to make sure that the weapons we produce don't--"
He broke off without warning. Pepper straightened, tearing her attention from the monitor to find him wearing the calculating non-expression he got during poker games when the cards were lining up against him. He cocked his head, studying the faces around the table, and it hit her, a moment after it had him: Oh God. What if Obadiah hadn't acted alone?
Maguire frowned down at his lap for a second, then gazed straight into the camera. "Tony, we have every faith that your instincts are sound, here. It would be the height of lunacy to toss away everything you bring to this company. But--"
"You have terms," Tony interrupted. "Let's stop dicking around the point. Lay them out."
Evan Landry cleared his throat. "The board agrees to back your new business plan, with the caveat already stated that Stark Industries will adhere to the will of the court on the matter of existing weapons contracts. In return, you will submit to oversight from and coordination with S.H.I.E.L.D. when it comes to your activities as Iron Man."
Landry was S.H.I.E.L.D.'s. Had to be. No wonder Coulson hadn't pressed his case -- Tony had been outmaneuvered from the start.
Tony smiled. "I assume my contract will be redrawn to reflect this? Or is this a handshake kind of deal?"
"We'll be sending new language to your lawyers within the week," Levin said.
"Well then," Tony said. "This has been fun. Catch you all later."
He shut down the camera and was out of the room again before she realized the meeting was over.
For once the workshop was silent and empty, so she tried upstairs. At first Tony's bedroom looked unoccupied as well, but the overpowering reek of scotch drew her further into the suite.
The bathroom mirror was cracked, twisting her reflection into one of Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar, her nose divided, one eye higher than the other in her face. A cut glass decanter lay in three big pieces in the marble sink. She was standing in a shallow puddle of what had probably been the 1973 Bruichladdich he'd kept in the bedroom.
Ah, Tony. He always gets the good stuff.
"Slipped out of my hands. Hand. Whatever."
Pepper didn't jump at the voice, but it was a near thing. She hadn't noticed him there in the room with her, wasn't sure what he was doing -- it looked like he'd been standing in the farthest corner from the door, his back pressed to the tile wall.
"Was that before or after it hit the mirror?" she snapped, then reigned herself in at the way his eyes didn't reflect anything back to her. "Are you-- did you cut yourself?"
There wasn't any blood that she could see. Just the scotch, everywhere. Running down the mirror and the wall, pooling on the floor. His slacks were soaked through in three wide splashes.
He held up his left hand, as if the thought hadn't occurred to him. "Don't think so." Then he swiped at his face with his sleeve.
Pepper took a breath. Let it out. "Claude will be here any minute, I'll let him know it will need to be cleaned up. Don't-- just be careful, okay?"
"I'm, uh. I'm going to--" He picked at the wet cloth of his pants and frowned. "Fuck."
"Pick something out and I'll help you get changed," she said.
"Unless you want me to send Claude in? I'm sure he could--"
"I think I can change my own fucking pants."
"Fine. I'll be downstairs," she said, and left him there.
Pepper retreated to the living room and stared out at the sky, bright and bluer than she remembered, hanging over the ocean like a silk veil. It had been days since she'd spent any real time outside, weeks since she'd been able to do so without taking her laptop along. Months since she'd taken off her shoes and walked ankle-deep in the water without carrying her phone with her just in case.
She didn't turn when she heard Tony on the stairs, heard the plink of one of the keys as he passed the piano on the way to the bar. When she heard the sound of liquid pouring, that's when she turned around. He was already moving away from the bar, a tumbler of something wheat-gold in his good hand. He'd managed to strip off his wet slacks, but he'd replaced them with a pair of grey sweatpants, probably the easiest thing he'd found to pull on one-handed. With his untucked dress shirt and the tie still hanging loose around his neck, he would have looked ridiculous if it hadn't been for the way his gaze roamed around the room, circling back to the front door every few seconds, checking the few corners, skipping right over her face. Dismissing her as a threat, maybe, or just not able to look her in the eye. She should have been able to tell the difference.
The open expanse of the living room was easily large enough to fit her first apartment in L.A. It was such a strange room. Not impersonal, no, everything in it reflected Tony's penchant for the organic and abstract when it came to art; it just never seemed to quite fit him, or he it. Sometimes it felt like he'd designed it for someone else, some other Tony she'd never met.
Tony barricaded himself between the bar and the piano. She waited for him to say something, say anything, but all he did was take a sip of his drink.
"I don't know why I'm staying here if you're not going to let me help you," she said finally, an edge creeping into her voice.
"I didn't ask you to stay," he snapped back. Ice rattled in his glass as he gestured, taking in the room, the empty space between the piano and the couch.
Pepper wanted to sit down, didn't want to have this conversation standing, but she couldn't seem to make herself move away from the windows. Her hands found the back of the couch instead.
"No, you didn't. You didn't give me any choice."
He tossed back the liquor and crossed to the bar again. Bourbon this time. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he asked the bottle. For all the pissy irritation in his words, his shoulders were pulled inward, the lines of his back misshapen by the strap to the sling.
"This isn't a sprained ankle, Tony. You could have died."
He whirled, the refill sloshing a little in his glass. "Didn't we go over this already?"
She ignored him. "If you go out in the armor in this condition odds are you will die."
"I haven't tried to use the armor," he said, his mouth turning down into a self-depreciating smirk. "I'm not a complete idiot."
He still couldn't look at her, focusing on the low table in front of the couch instead. Carved on commission by the artist Hugo Franca from one huge slab of pequi wood, it cost more than Pepper had paid for college and graduate school combined. She loved it, loved its cracks and crannies, the smooth warmth of the burnished wood.
She'd never quite understood this house. It was as if whatever small slice of Tony that wasn't taken up by numbers and metal and calibrating destruction had been sublimated into an obsession for natural forms. Wood and water, curves and sky. When he'd been missing, she'd spent hours in this room, running her hands over the polished grain of the table, wondering what would become of it all when his estate was inevitably broken up.
She'd never seen the specifics of his will, but she'd known he'd intended that most of his assets be divided between Obadiah and the Maria Stark Foundation. The table most likely would have been auctioned off with the rest of his art collection. Maybe bequeathed to a museum. And all anyone would have remembered about him would be the robots and the weapons.
"There was no hope for such a long time and then we got you back and I just--" Her fingers smoothed over the leather of the couch where it had been warmed slightly by the sun. "I can't watch you throw it all away. If Jarvis hadn't taken the initiative and called me that night--"
"For fuck's sake, Potts." Tony set his glass on top of the piano. Pulled at his collar, at the wrinkled tie. The tie bothered her; she wished he'd take it off. The tie kept him clinging to the edge of the business day, like he had somewhere to go, an appointment she'd missed. If it hadn't been for the tie, she could have forgotten the neat trap S.H.I.E.L.D. had used the board to spring on him. A trap she should have seen coming, but she'd underestimated Coulson and Fury. He turned towards her, his eyes narrowed but still cast downward. "I managed to make it through three months in a cave courtesy of some crazy motherfuckers who thought I could build them an advanced weapons system from spare parts without you looking after me. I think I can--"
"And you weren't alone then, either, were you?" Pepper's hands curled into tight fists that she couldn't release, so she crossed her arms over her chest and tucked them in at her sides. "You had help. This man Yinsen, he saved your life."
Tony picked up his bourbon again, all his attention suddenly on the melting ice cubes.
"He made sure you lived through it, didn't he? What happened to him? Why can't you--"
"What do you think happened to him?" He advanced two quick steps past the piano and then stopped, the glass forgotten in his hand. "I didn't ask him to save my life. I didn't ask him to cover for me, to lie to protect me while they held him down and--" he broke off with a strangled curse, finally meeting her eyes straight on as if he couldn't look away. "I didn't ask you to sic S.H.I.E.L.D. on Stane or stay here and wipe up my piss and hold my hand like I can't-- like I'm--"
He wasn't yelling. He didn't even sound angry anymore. Mostly he seemed as worn out as she felt. "What the fuck do you all want from me? I don't need your help. I don't need looking after."
Now she was the one who couldn't hold his gaze. She stared down at the table, at the plant cradled in one of the carved-out hollows in the wood. She didn't know what to say to make things okay. Part of her didn't want to make them okay any more, knew it wasn't her job to fix this. Part of her knew there was nothing to be said anyway, and she was tired of trying.
"You're right," she said, numb and calm. "I'm sorry. You didn't ask me to stay, and I shouldn't have imposed on you. I'll see you tomorrow."
And before he could say another word, she found her purse and her keys and walked out. She was ten miles away before she realized she'd left her suitcase and everything she'd brought with her in the guest suite.
Half way home the ocean beckoned and she gave in without thought. Pulled her car over, unfastened her shoes and stood in the sand for a long time before walking down to the water's edge. This stretch of beach was deserted; mid-day and mid-week and her only companion was a stray dog, wet from snout to tail like he'd been in the surf, trotting along the shore as if he had someplace more important to be. He ignored her completely as he passed and she watched him until he disappeared into the distance, heading for a line of beach side condos.
Pepper thought about stripping down to her bra and underwear and diving into the water, swimming out until she was deep enough to float on her back so she could stare up at the sky and let the intense blue of it blot out her thoughts. She didn't have a towel, though, and all she needed right now was for some kid with a camera phone to catch Tony Stark's personal assistant without a bathing suit on a public beach. So she spent a few more minutes with her toes in the damp sand, the waves swirling around her ankles, then trekked back to her car.
The first time her phone rang she was in her tub, submerged in hot water up to her chin, so it was easy to ignore the call. The second time she was wrapped in her pajamas and a quilt on her couch even though it was barely evening and seventy-five degrees according to the thermostat. She picked up the phone and held it in her hand and then set it back down again. Flicked on the television. The phone was silent for another three hours, and when it rang this time Rhodey's name popped up on the display. When she didn't take the call, he tried again fifteen minutes later, and she gave in to the inevitable.
She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. "Yes?"
"You're okay?" Why wouldn't she be okay? "Pepper, are you there?"
There was a note of strain in Rhodey's voice she hadn't picked up on right away. She hit the mute button on the remote, stared at the unfamiliar face filling the television screen, mouth opening and closing with a silent monologue. What had she been watching?
"I'm fine," she said. "What's wrong?"
"Tony showed up on my doorstep about an hour ago," Rhodey said. Oh. That explained the strain. then.
"He didn't seem to know where you were, he wasn't making a whole hell of a lot of sense and I-- I thought I should make sure you--"
"I'm fine," she repeated. "Really. I don't know why... he was there when I left. I told him I'd see him tomorrow."
On the other end of the connection a door closed and realized she hadn't heard Tony in the background.
"Is he still there?" she asked.
"Yeah," Rhodey answered, with a short, brittle laugh in her ear. Boy, did she ever know the feeling that sound encapsulated. It was shorthand for so many of her run-ins with Tony since he got back, and Rhodey had been dealing with him for far, far longer.
"What happened? Today, I mean," Rhodey clarified, with a wry undertone. "He wasn't exactly forthcoming."
As if that was anything new. Rattling off a list would probably be overkill. "The board meeting went... it didn't go well. Is he okay?"
Another laugh. "Well, if by 'okay' you mean passed out on my couch, yeah, he's fine." Well, that explained the silence, then. Rhodey continued: "When I couldn't get a hold of you I called Jarvis and he said you'd gone home for the night, but you didn't pick up--"
"Tony didn't want me there." Pepper interrupted, stitching together what must have happened. Tony had... what? Forgotten she went home? Gotten too drunk to remember her leaving? Then went to Rhodey with his panic when he couldn't find her and she'd ignored his calls.
A sudden, irrational defensiveness bubbled up in her chest. "He hasn't wanted me there since we brought him back from the hospital, and I tried, but there didn't seem to be any point any more." Once she started it was like a dam giving way, the words pouring out before she could stop them. "He doesn't want my help, and so I left. I can't do this anymore. I can't. He's going to get himself killed. If it's not one of our F-22's or one of their missiles, he's going to drive himself right off a cliff in one of those cars of his, and I don't want to be here when it happens. I don't. I don't know what to do. I can't just leave. If I left and he-- I couldn't live with that, either."
She couldn't move her hands. She glanced down at her lap to find the blanket wrapped around her fists like boxing gloves. On the television a cartoon cat chased a cartoon mouse with an axe the size of a tree. Itchie and Scratchy, her brain helpfully supplied. She freed herself from the blanket, and when she focused on the screen again the cat had died horribly, the mouse standing over him gloating, axe in hand.
"You're not responsible for his life, Pepper," Rhodey insisted, with a raw edge of commiseration. How many times had he been here, where she was, right now? He'd been Tony's friend for twenty years, which made him the closest thing she had to a Tony Stark expert, now that Obadiah was dead.
Whatever barrier had held her back, held everything together for the last few months, it was gone now.
"That's just it. I am responsible for his life. I am. It's my job. I run Tony Stark's life. And I can't even do that, not anymore. Not when he's Iron Man. Not when he's decided his life doesn't matter. It's just... it's just another tool for him to use. He doesn't care what happens to himself as long as he can complete his mission. I saw it before, and I tried to leave, I knew where this was heading. I knew it would just get worse. I thought I could stop it by going to S.H.I.E.L.D. I thought I could protect him. It's my job to protect him. I should have--"
"Pepper. Pepper. Stop it." Rhodey barked, in the voice he used in the field, when one of his pilots was about to get themselves seriously injured in the stupidest possible manner. It didn't come out very often; for a career soldier, Rhodey was unusually laid back.
She wasn't one of his pilots, though, and she'd been around Tony long enough to have lost much of her autonomic response to military commands. "I should have seen it coming," she said. "Of course Tony wouldn't have seen it, even if he wasn't, you know, Tony -- he's insanely busy. It's why he hired me in the first place, to catch things like this. To keep him informed--"
"What are you talking about?" Rhody interrupted, incredulous. "You mean Obadiah?"
"Of course I mean Obadiah." Pepper tried to stifle a laugh, afraid it would come out more hysterical than she could handle. If she started, she might not stop, and then Rhodey would really think she'd lost it. "God, he played me, he played Tony, he knew all the notes to hit. It was right there in front of me and I missed it."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Obadiah looming over her again. His hand dwarfed hers while she sat at Tony's desk, desperate to keep the shock off her face. His fingers were warm and dry. He didn't try to hold on to her when she pulled away, didn't threaten her -- he hadn't needed to threaten anything. He was a man, and he was bigger than she was, and he hadn't needed to say a word.
"He worked for Tony's father," Rhodey broke into the memory, driving away Obie's ghost. "He was Tony's goddamn godfather. He had a security clearance higher than mine, for fuck's sake. He knew exactly where the convoy was going to be, when to tell the Ten Rings to strike, which Humvee Tony was in. The Pentagon didn't catch on that he was double-dealing. You couldn't have--"
"S.H.I.E.L.D. knew. If I'd insisted Coulson arrest him right there on the spot-- but I let them delay and instead he went to the house and he-- I don't know what he did, exactly, but he had to have-- I know he took the arc reactor from Tony for his-- for that thing. And if I'd stopped him in the office, God, none of this would have-- and then I pushed that button."
"I knew what it meant, knew it would kill them both, and I did it anyway, Rhodey." She'd never been able to voice these things before. Not to Coulson during the debriefing, and definitely not to Tony, who cut that night out of conversations as if it had never happened. But Rhodey -- Rhodey was a soldier. Her voice hitched, her chest tight. "I pushed the button, I overloaded the reactor. I destroyed that entire building."
He let her wind down and took a deep breath, his next words gentle and firm. "I know you did. If you hadn't-- if you hadn't, Obadiah would have killed Tony. Killed you. Probably a whole lot of other people. You had to stop him. Tony couldn't have done it, he was outmatched, outgunned, and he knew it. You did what needed to be done."
Her face was hot, her eyes aching. Tears ran down her neck and soaked into the collar of her pajamas. She freed her hands from the blanket's clutch and swiped at her face, mortified. Her nose was dripping, but her box of Kleenex was in the bedroom, so she used her sleeve. At least no one was here to see.
"There was glass everywhere, and I don't-- I don't remember how I got out of the building, and it exploded, and by the time I got down to Tony he wasn't moving, he was barely breathing--"
"Pepper, listen to me for a minute. It's okay--"
"It's not okay," she snapped. "Don't you dare patronize me."
"I'm not." Rhodey said, voice pitched low. Probably trying to avoid waking up Tony, avoid having to deal with another hysterical idiot. Poor Rhodey. "Feeling responsible, feeling guilty -- you know it's natural. That's what you told me after Tony went missing. Did you mean it?"
Pepper blinked, thrown. He couldn't think-- "Of course. Of course, the attack on the convoy wasn't your fault--"
"And this, what happened with Obie, all of it-- it's not your fault, either. Any more than losing Tony was mine. God knows it felt that way, for a long time, but you were right. There was nothing I could have done to stop it."
Grainy surveillance footage flickered on the TV screen -- it looked like a convenience store robbery. The image cut to a local newscaster promoting the ten o'clock news.
"I saw the tape," she said, before she even knew what was going to come out of her mouth.
There was a moment of silence, then: "What tape? What are you--"
"The ransom tape. From the Ten Rings. They sent a tape to Obadiah; it was on the ghost drive."
She could hear the low drone of a television in the background. Wondered what he was watching. "Jesus," he said finally.
"I saw that tape, saw Tony with all those guns behind his head-- and I panicked. I panicked and I let Coulson talk me into waiting, just like I let Tony talk me out of quitting. And now the board's blackmailed him into working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and it's not like I even think that's a bad idea, but I don't trust their reasons for it. I don't know whether I can trust Coulson and Fury with Tony's life, and I know I can't trust Tony with it. I just know I can't do this anymore."
"So don't. Do it differently."
"I don't know how," she said, sniffling like a little girl knocked down on the playground by the bigger kids, and hating herself for it.
"Pepper, you're one of the most strategic thinkers I've ever met. Have to be, to keep up with Tony." There was a rueful grin in his voice, now. He was intimately familiar with what it took to keep up with Tony, probably better than anyone. "I know you can figure this out."
They all had such faith in her. Where did it come from? "Ever since he disappeared, it's felt like I can't keep up. And then he came back, and everything got worse instead of better. Everything started moving faster and faster until I never know what's going to happen from one day to the next. I thought for awhile that I could get it back under control, but I can't."
"So stop trying."
"It's not that easy."
He let her just breathe for a long moment. She could hear him making small, insignificant sounds on the other end of the connection. Moving around, but still there, listening. After a few deep breaths she found her voice again. "Thanks, Rhodey. I... I guess I keep forgetting--"
"That you're not in this alone?"
Pepper smiled, just a little. "Yeah." Kramer barreled through Jerry Seinfeld's door, arms akimbo. She dug through her blankets, found the remote, and turned the thing off.
"There's something else I meant to call you about, before Tony showed up."
"What is it?" She wished suddenly that she was still in the bath, that she could plug her nose and disappear under the hot water and not have to deal with whatever it was Rhodey was going to tell her.
"The man you asked me about, awhile ago. Yinsen?"
Pepper closed her eyes. Everything kept coming back to Afghanistan. "Yes?"
"Well, I saw the article--"
"What article?" She sat up, the quilt falling from her shoulders.
"In today's Times. You haven't seen it?"
Pepper shook her head, remembered he couldn't actually see her. "No, I haven't." With everything that had happened, she'd forgotten to check the press.
"At first I thought that's what had Tony so worked up, but he didn't have any idea what I was talking about, and he wasn't exactly in the mood to chat."
"Let me guess," she sighed. "Lester Briggs figured out the connection between Yinsen and Tony."
"Not Briggs. Christine Everhart."
"Jesus," Pepper said. "That's all we--"
"Everhardt connected Yinsen with Gulmira. She went over there herself, spent a month interviewing witnesses to the Ten Ring's rampage. Found a few people who knew Yinsen and his family, knew about his work with landmine survivors. So she backtracked to Cambridge--"
Just like Pepper had, before she'd dropped that ball in favor of more pressing matters. "And she found out about the memorial service. And that Tony's invited."
"Yeah. There'd been rumors that Yinsen was working with Raza. Yinsen's old teacher seemed to want to set the record straight. "
Damn. "I haven't even had the chance to tell Tony about it. About the memorial, I mean."
"You think he'll go?"
Tomorrow. She'd have to ask him tomorrow, if she was going to have time to arrange everything. "I wish I knew." Pepper scanned through her mental list of Tony Stark's Commitments: Business/Personal. "Look, he's got a ten o'clock meeting in Mountain View. I hate to ask you--"
"I'll kick him out when I leave for work," Rhodey said. "Bright and early."
"Thanks." She bit her lip, searching for something more, but she'd exhausted her capacity for anything meaningful. "'Night, Rhodey."
"He's okay," Rhodey said, answering her unspoken worry. "He'll be okay. So will you."
She wasn't so sure, but she didn't have the heart to contradict him.
True to his promise from the night before, Rhodey dropped Tony off at the Stark Industries air strip that morning on his way to Edwards, just missing Pepper as she pulled up in her own car. Bleary-eyed, her head full of grit, she was in no way ready to face her boss, but she needn't have worried. By the time she made her way into the main cabin Tony had vanished into the bedroom suite and the white-noise of the shower was audible through the open bedroom door.
So she took a seat at the table in the main cabin and gratefully accepted a mug of coffee from Janine, the regular flight attendant for short trips, as the jet taxied down the runway. It was nearly nine hours from L.A. to Mountain View by car; hopping a jet between two private airstrips knocked the trip down to an hour. Long enough for her to review her file on the Google green energy initiative while she picked at a bowl of fruit salad and yogurt with granola. Long enough to nod off in her chair and snap awake with a start to find Tony leaning over the table toward her, half out of his chair, toying with an empty glass of orange juice.
"Morning, Potts," he said, sinking back into his chair.
He was wearing wrinkled sweats the last time she'd seen him. Now, in his charcoal-grey pinstripes and pale gold pocket kerchief, he was a GQ cover in the making. A gold and black striped tie hung loose around his neck, the ends trailing under the lapels of his jacket. Still wet from the shower, his hair was slicked back from his forehead, curling at the nape of his neck.
"You know, drool's a good look on you." Dark sunglasses hid whether his smirk had spread beyond the lower half of his face.
So, they were pretending last night hadn't happened. Fine with her. She didn't bother to check for drool, just scrubbed at her eyes, took a sip of coffee, then grimaced -- it had cooled to room temperature.
"You want a warm-up?" Before she could respond he shot up from the table and retrieved the pot of coffee from behind the bar, waving off Janine. He'd refilled her mug and poured one for himself before she realized something was missing.
He wasn't wearing the sling. His right arm was held close to his body but free, the coffee carafe in his left hand. He followed her gaze and shrugged.
As the jet came to a stop, Pepper pulled out her kit, plucked the sunglasses from Tony's nose, and hid the worst of the fading bruises and abrasions around his temple and cheekbone under a light coat of foundation. Then she looped the gold silk tie into a careful Windsor, pushing the knot snug up against his throat without comment.
He'd pulled it loose from his collar by the time they hit the tarmac. That, at least, had been routine.
"The arc reactor my father built ran our factory for thirty years," Tony said from the front of one of Google's sleek conference rooms, winding up his sales pitch. "The one I'll build you will make that antique look like a car battery."
Pepper blinked, then pulled herself up from her slump against the back wall of the room, straightening her shoulders. A car battery? Tony tapped his fingers over his tie, against the center of his chest, then smoothed his hand over the silk. It was the first gesture he'd made in nearly an hour -- for most of the presentation he'd been subdued, his hands lodged in his trouser pockets. As she'd watched his stance had gradually stiffened, and now his right arm was pressed tightly to his side, the line of his jacket wrinkled from the pressure.
His smile, though, showed nothing but teeth.
"Today you produce a third of your energy in-house. My reactor will get you to 100% self-sufficiency. Take you completely off the grid."
The audience -- a senior vice president or two, a handful of engineering executives, and a busload of curious lower level techies -- had been predictably dubious about the merits of arc reactor technology until Tony presented the same simplified -- and carefully censored -- specs he'd given Maguire for the Board.
Then the questions started. Cost effectiveness. Long-term stability. Inevitably, safety.
The toothy smile went fixed as Tony acknowledged the press reports of the 'accident' at Stark Industries. "Now, statistics isn't my field, but even if you had a secret robotic prototype housed with your arc reactor, the chance that your robot would go haywire and cause an overload the way ours did seems a bit slim. So, how soon do you want one of your very own?"
His new Google fan club swarmed him as he stepped away from the podium, so while he bantered and shook hands without a hint of his earlier rigidity, Pepper ducked to the front of the room to gather up the flash drive he'd used for the presentation.
"Pepper," he called over his shoulder as she surreptitiously kneaded the back of her neck, swallowing a yawn. "When's that meeting in L.A. tonight?"
She glanced up, smoothing the confusion from her expression.There was no meeting in L.A. He was still mobbed -- the suits had given way to what looked like a group of engineers and technicians in tee shirts and jeans. One had even asked him for his autograph, which Tony scrawled left-handed without thought.
Pepper made a show of checking her Blackberry. "Six o'clock," she said.
"Sorry, kids." Tony shook his head. "Duty calls. Potts will have my ass if I'm late."
The crowd around him deflated.
Twenty minutes into the flight back to L.A., Tony tore himself away from obsessively flipping through news channels on the jet's big projection screen long enough to signal one of the flight attendants for a fresh Tom Collins. Pepper just shook her head when the attendant asked her if she wanted anything. It was only four o'clock, and she had three or four more hours of work ahead of her after they landed, but what she really wanted was to curl up in bed.
Tony dropped the remote onto the table between them and dug through his pocket for his phone. He'd settled into the armchair across from her at an awkward angle, with his back to one of the arms, and the chair swiveled a little every few minutes as he shifted position. The knot of his tie hung in a noose down to his breastbone, his white dress shirt was wrinkled beyond repair, and though it was usually the first thing to go, he hadn't stripped off his suit jacket yet. If there had been anyone else to wager with, Pepper would have bet he couldn't take the jacket off without help, but after last night she wasn't sure she should offer.
So she kept her opinion to herself. Anything she might have said would sound too much like I told you so.
Listening in on his phone conversations wasn't new, but this one was particularly hard to avoid -- she was sitting right across from him and there really wasn't anyplace else to go in the jet's enclosed space besides the bedroom, and... if he'd wanted privacy, he could have gotten up from the table. Ignoring him was useless, but Pepper took a shot at it anyhow, annotating her Google file with updated information and contacts.
“Never mind how I got your number. How do you think I got it?" Tony grinned into the air, his phone pressed to his left ear.
The flirtatious tone brought Pepper's attention back up from her laptop. She hadn't heard him lay on the charisma quite that heavily since... well, before Afghanistan.
Tony took a long sip of his Tom Collins and laughed, ice rattling against his glass."Nope," he continued. "Yeah, good guess, but no. And you call yourself a reporter? Too bad, that was three. Three's the magic number.”
Reporter? It had to be Christine Everhart. What was he doing? While it was good to hear him lighthearted and actually mean it after the last few days, he had an uncanny talent for picking exactly the wrong person to joke with at exactly the wrong time.
“You really wanna know how I got your number?" Tony said to Everhart. "You met Jarvis, right? Well, Jarvis doesn’t like snoops, so I’m not surprised, but he’s a decent gumshoe when he puts his mind to it--Well, you said you wanted to know. ”
There was a long pause. His grin faded. "Look, I saw your newest exposé."
Pepper's hands stilled on her keyboard. He had? When had he had time to read Everhart's Times article? How did he even know about it? She'd only found out from Rhodey last night, had only read it after lying in bed for two hours worrying about what was in the damn thing.
"That's what I'm-- You are unrelenting," he continued, the corner of his mouth turning up. "Yes, they've asked, no, I'm not going to testify."
He was talking about the repeated requests from the Senate Armed Services Committee. Where did Everhart get this stuff? Pepper had to hand it to the reporter -- she certainly had connections. Nothing about the possibility of Tony testifying before Congress had been made public, and Everhart was the last person Pepper wanted digging further into their reasons for turning Senator Bruckman down.
She shut her laptop. "Tony."
"Right thing to do or not, I leave that kind of decision to my lawyers. Are all reporters this combative or are you a special case? I mean, don't get me wrong, it's incredibly--"
"Mr. Stark." She rose from her chair, stifling the urge to snatch the phone out of his hand. "Tony--"
"Hang on, just a sec," he said to Everhart.
"What are you doing?" Pepper said as evenly as she could manage when he looked up.
His amusement glazed over and hardened. "Having a personal conversation."
"With Christine Everhart. Who just wrote about you in the Times."
"And?" He shifted back in his chair, his right arm pressed tight to the side of his chest, his hand limp in his lap.
"Just-- be careful what you tell her, okay? She's a reporter, Tony."
He turned away without responding and raised the phone back up to his ear. "My assistant reminds me to remind you that this is off the record. I don't care, whatever record you're keeping. I know you're at least taking notes."
Pepper sank back into her chair and let her eyes fall briefly closed. Bad enough that he'd so blithely contributed to Everhart's original Vanity Fair profile -- now he was doing it again, while she sat right there.
"Yeah, well, that's what I pay her to do, so suck it up, Lois Lane." Without warning, the lingering playfulness fell away from his tone. His chair swiveled around so that she couldn't clearly see his face. "I didn't call to play true confessions, you have information I want."
Where Lester Briggs's L.A. Times profile had highlighted Tony's mile-wide impulsive streak, Everhardt's article had only mentioned him in passing. Instead, she'd focused on the negative space around his disappearance. She's started off with Iron Man's destruction of the weapons caches in Gulmira, carefully leaving out the fact that she'd been the one to tip him off to their existence in the first place. Then she'd linked that story back to the dead scientist found in the nearby caves -- Dr. Ibrahim Yinsen, the village's prodigal son.
Pepper had to hand it to Everhart -- she'd done a hell of a lot of legwork on this one. After connecting the dots Pepper herself had uncovered before everything went to hell -- Yinsen's professor at Cambridge, his stints at Johns Hopkins and the Landmine Survivors Network -- Everhart had dug deeper. Talked to the locals in Gulmira about Iron Man, about the doctor who'd come home to help them after the war started. In a few short paragraphs, she'd obliterated the lingering rumors that Yinsen had willingly aided the Ten Rings.
"I don't know yet, I just found out about it, and if I was going you'd be the last to--" Tony let out a frustrated huff. "Yeah, I read it. I want to know where you got your--" A hint of admiration crept into his voice. "Well, Miss Brown, jetting into a war zone is a tad hard core for a Vanity Fair reporter, isn't it? So it occurs to me that you must have an inside-- no, this isn't a threat, I don't care who it is. I just want to know what you know. What you didn't publish. Call it a hunch."
Everhart obviously had contacts at the Pentagon. Someone had leaked her excerpts of interrogation transcripts for two members of the Ten Rings captured within days of Tony's escape. Turned out that Raza's interest in Yinsen had started months before Tony even arrived in Afghanistan. The Ten Rings had stormed Gulmira and slaughtered Yinsen's entire family -- his wife, his teenage daughter, his nine-year-old son, his elderly mother -- then took the doctor hostage, forcing him to tend to their fighters. The deal was simple: either Yinsen cooperated, or the Ten Rings would level the rest of his village.
And then Raza had brought him the great Tony Stark, the Merchant of Death, dying of shrapnel wounds inflicted by his own RPG.
The captured terrorists had known more about Yinsen than they did Tony -- Raza had restricted access to Tony to his top lieutenant. The portion of the transcript that detailed Tony's escape had been heavily redacted, but one bit had slipped past the censors: Yinsen had helped, despite the threat to his village. One of the terrorists, a young Hungarian, had laughed in astonishment as he relayed the tale: he'd gone to investigate an explosion in the cavern cell Tony and Yinsen had shared, only to be met by the doctor running towards him, yelling and waving a gun.
"But he just fired at over our heads!" the man had told the interrogator in disbelief. "He didn't even try to shoot us!"
The Ten Rings hadn't returned the favor, of course.
Tony shook his head at whatever Everhart was saying, his attention straying back to Pepper. "No, I don't think she'll go for that. Not a good idea, not right now. Because you're making a name for yourself over something that happened to-- You already know I knew him. Do I sound like I'm going to give you a heart-to-heart about this? No. Forget it. No. There's no quid pro quo here. I just want to know--"
He swung around to the face the table again, bumping Pepper's ankle as he did. She pulled her feet back out of the way, trying to gauge just how willing he was to piss off Everhart and how much damage control it was going to take if he did.
"It's no one's goddamn business, that's why. This isn't a story to me. You don't have the right to--"
Mid-sentence he chucked the cell phone across the cabin. It collided with the bedroom door with a crack of shattered plastic.
Well. She didn't have to worry as much about damage control if he was going to be the one to lose his temper first.
Happy was leaning on the Rolls in the usual spot when the jet landed back in L.A.. He shimmered, insubstantial, like he was floating over the asphalt. Pepper blinked and Happy solidified and a second later the late afternoon heat hit her full strength.
"--sure Jameson's on board for the reactor, but he's got to convince Larry and Sergey. Not to mention Schmidt," Tony rattled off as he picked his way down the stairs to the tarmac, his knuckles white where he gripped the railing.
He'd been planning aloud since they'd touched down, as if the slight jolt when the jet's wheels met concrete had snapped him back to the day's business. She entered a note into her Blackberry, following on his heels as he made a beeline for Happy and the car.
"Give 'em a few days and then set up a lunch, will you? But keep Jameson in the loop, this green energy thing is his baby. And I want to talk to Maguire. Get a sense of how far the board is gonna let me run before they yank on the choke chain."
Happy held open the door to the Rolls for her and she ducked her head as she took a seat, still poking at her Blackberry.
"Maybe I should have the Maguires over for dinner. A little welcome-to-the-madness party," Tony said as he settled into the seat next to her, leaning sideways against the leather. Happy slammed the door shut. A moment later he slid into the front seat and the engine purred to life.
"You don't cook," Pepper said, lips quirking. She could see the edge of Happy's grin in the rear-view mirror.
"Obviously." Tony rolled his eyes, shifting against the seat. His left hand curled around his right bicep just above his elbow and his jaw had gone stiff.
"Unless you plan on serving them one of your famous seaweed shakes." Dinner with Maguires, she typed into the Blackberry. "And I don't cook, either," she reminded him.
"Algae," he retorted, "not seaweed." He squirmed in his seat, rolling his head back, stretching his neck. Then: "This is why god invented catering, Potts."
"Hey, boss," Happy turned in the seat, tossed something over the divider. It landed with a rattle in Tony's lap. "Thought you might need these."
Tony picked up the orange plastic bottle of pills and shook them, squinting at the label. She'd completely forgotten she'd asked Happy to grab them when she'd called to tell him when they'd be arriving at the airstrip.
"Uh... thanks," Tony said. "You got any..." Before he could finish Happy passed a water bottle to the back seat. She grabbed it and handed it over to Tony, watched as without comment he popped one of the Vicodin and swallowed it down with a gulp of water.
It took awhile, maybe twenty minutes, but when the medication kicked in it was obvious. Tony gradually sagged into his seat, expression going slack around the edges, the sudden relaxation emphasizing just how stiffly he'd been holding himself all day.
Happy met her eye in the rear view and nodded.
It wasn't until they were stuck in traffic on the 405 that Pepper remembered that she'd driven to the air strip that morning. She straightened with a start, blinking as if she'd just woken in someone else's bed with no idea how she'd gotten there. How could she have forgotten her car?
"French would be too obvious, I suppose." His eyes half closed, Tony was still mulling over his plans to impress his new CFO and his wife, oblivious to her dilemma. "Maybe Indian? Or, you know, that whole fusion thing is still hot, right?"
Pepper leaned forward in her seat, the belt pulling at her shoulder. "Wait, Happy--"
"Who did we use for the fourth of July party?" Tony asked her, but she'd stopped listening.
"My car. I... It's back at SI."
"What?" Tony turned a vague frown on her. "What're you--"
"I drove this morning. My car--"
Happy shook his head. "We're bumper to bumper here."
And they were -- every lane was clogged, the glare of the sun bouncing off of the hot roofs of cars as they faded into the horizon, miles ahead.
"What's wrong with your car?" Tony asked.
She blew out a frustrated puff of air that left her bangs hanging in her eyes. Swiping at her forehead, she rummaged through her purse as if finding her keys would somehow transport her back to her own car. "Nothing's wrong with it. As far as I know, it's perfectly fine, sitting there back at the air strip. I just... I forgot I drove this morning."
"So... wait. What's the problem?" Tony scratched at his chin, peering down his nose at her like she'd just asked him to explain string theory as a parlor trick.
"The problem is I left my car back--" She bit her lip. "Nevermind. So there's no way to turn around?" she tossed to Happy.
"I'm really sorry," Happy said, hangdog. "Not anytime soon, anyway. I can take you back for it after I--"
"Yeah, okay," she said, taking a deep breath. "It's not a big deal. Sorry, Happy."
Happy shrugged. Tony's gaze finally focused on her face, shifted to the keys clenched in her hand, then away, out her window, at the traffic.
"I've been running you kind of ragged lately, huh?" The quiet tone overwrote the casual words with something she didn't want to look too closely at.
She shook her head, stuffing her keyring back into her purse. "It was a stupid mistake. I just forgot I drove this morning, that's all. It happens."
"Not to you, it doesn't. People ask me if you're eidetic, you know that?"
"You're the one with the photographic memory. I'm just organized," Pepper said. "I was tired and we were talking and I--"
"Forgot. And you left your stuff at my place last night, too."
"You're making a big deal out of nothing. I'll just have Happy drop me off after we're finished tonight."
"Look, I'm trying to... I know things have gotten... complicated. I mean. Last night--"
"God, last night. I'm sorry I left like that. You were right, I shouldn't have been treating you like an invalid, I--"
"I'm trying to say I get it. You're fucking tired, of course you are, I mean, I haven't exactly helped matters, what with the flying robot suit and the explosions and... I'm trying to take responsibility here, but most of the time I have no idea what the hell I'm doing, and you always seem to know what you're doing, how do you do that?"
She tried to get in a word, to insist he'd misread the situation, that she was fine; but he was rambling now, his words sliding together with that earnestness that never failed to knock her off her stride.
"I mean, I'm jealous. Or I was. You know, until--" His left hand lifted from his lap to trace a lazy wave through the air. "Look, if you're going to take a walk on the scatterbrained side for awhile it's probably about time. Even I realize you deserve a break, so that's saying something; but I just need to know, so I can--"
And it all came together, the pieces snapping into place, just like that: the way he'd cut the visit with his Google fan club short with the excuse about the meeting that didn't exist, the way he was watching her, right now, as if he thought she'd scatter apart like a dandelion puff at the slightest breeze. He'd gotten her coffee that morning, for heaven's sake.
"Oh god, you--" she ran a hand over her face, every bit of the forced calm she'd used to bolster herself all day draining away. "You heard. Last night."
The brittle set of his mouth was answer enough.
"Things have been complicated," she said, wrapping the strap to her purse around one fist, over and under and over again. How much had he heard? He'd have only gotten Rhodey's side of the conversation, but that was probably plenty. "I was just blowing off steam, I didn't-- I can't believe you were listening."
A lopsided shrug, and. "Rhodey has thin doors."
"He said you were--"
He just gave her a look.
The traffic broke and Happy pushed the Rolls forward, the hum of the engine the only sound until they exited onto the Pacific Coast Highway. Then Tony straightened, leaning forward in his seat.
"Hey, Hogan. Changed my mind. Stop off at Moonshadows, alright?"
A Malibu fixture that had started life as a surfer hangout -- she'd never heard whether the Cat Stevens song had been an influence on the name, but the place dated back to the seventies, so it was as likely a story as any other -- Moonshadows perched on the beachfront a little over ten miles east of Tony's house. There'd been a time when she'd eaten more meals in a week at the restaurant than she had at her own apartment, and the outdoor lounge was a favorite of Tony's when he wasn't trying too terribly hard to lay on the shock and awe. Despite the dated moniker Moonshadows had three things going for it in Pepper's eyes: it was a twenty minute drive from the house, the food was consistently excellent, and she'd once spied a group of dolphins bucking in the waves from the windows that overlooked the ocean. And it didn't hurt that the staff was used to celebrities.
"Tony," she started, glancing at her watch. "I really--"
"Come on, I'll let you start with the oysters."
Her nose wrinkled. "I hate oysters."
"Right, I knew one of us did. I'll order the oysters, then. You can have the--"
"Tuna Tartare." Drawn in despite herself, she felt the corners of her mouth lift up. "If it's still on the menu. It's been awhile." With a jolt, Pepper realized she hadn't been since Tony's return from Afghanistan. When were things going to stop being divided into before and after in her head?
"All the more reason why we should go," Tony pressed, glossing over the why and how long.
"Boss," Happy called from the front seat, "we're coming up on it in a few." Which was Happy's way of saying make a decision, please. Pepper couldn't help a smile, but a yawn broke through before she could smother it.
"It's been a long day," she protested, in another attempt to disengage herself from Tony's impromptu dining plans. "A couple of long days, actually, and I've still got--"
"It's just dinner, Potts, and it's only five-thirty. I hereby grant you an hour off the clock."
There was no way to win with him in this mood, and God, all she could think about was how thoroughly she'd lost it on the phone to Rhodey the night before. Had they... had they discussed her?
"Aren't we a little formally dressed--"
With a huff, Tony stripped off his jacket -- taking care with his right shoulder -- and yanked off his tie. Unfastened the first two buttons of his shirt then proceeded to pocket his cufflinks and roll his sleeves up to his elbows.
"That doesn't help me," she said, shaking her head. She was wearing a camisole with spaghetti straps under her suit jacket. She supposed it would pass muster. Besides, now she had a craving for the tuna and all she had at home was yogurt and probably some eggs. "Okay, okay. Have it your way."
"I usually do," Tony said, grinning.
Two glasses of wine and the broomstick in her spine finally dissolved. Tony had only ordered Perrier, and she'd raised an eyebrow at that, but he'd been too busy tormenting the waiter to notice. The hostess had greeted them by name at the door, ushered them to Tony's favorite table by the wide bank of windows that leaned out over the ocean, and they were deep into their entrees -- Kobe beef short ribs for Tony, the roasted red fish for herself -- when the thought struck her. He'd been coming to this restaurant since he'd had a beach-front condo he'd only stayed in a couple of weekends a year, back before he'd decided to settle in Malibu permanently. Or as permanently as he was likely to settle anywhere.
"All the times I've eaten here, and I never realized until today -- you stole these windows for your house."
Tony glanced up, a wave of puzzlement breaking through whatever had been distracting him since their food had arrived. He took in the windows, which ran the length of the dining room and offered a floor-to-ceiling view of the horizon, and frowned.
"I don't see it," he said, shaking his head. "Look, I need you to do something for me. Not tonight, but..."
She set her fork aside, smoothed her napkin over her lap. "What is it?"
"That article. Everhart isn't gonna talk to me, but maybe she'll, I don't know. Maybe she'll spill something to you. I need--"
"You want her sources?"
He nodded. "I want the stuff she couldn't confirm."
She toyed with the stem to her wine glass. Took a sip. "We don't need her," she said.
"Of course we--"
"We don't need her," she repeated. It was a weeknight, and early, and the restaurant was only half full. The tables around them were empty. No reason not to lay it out. "Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s bound to have any information Everhart could give you -- they probably even have a file on her, given her interest in you."
A muscle jumped at the side of his jaw. When he spoke his voice was low and clipped. "What makes you think I want anything--"
"That little checkmate the Board set up yesterday hasn't left us with much choice," she interrupted. "You know Fury's investigated everything that had anything to do with the armor."
He picked up his fork and took a bite of meat.
"I... like how your mind works, Potts," he said finally.
She nodded. "As long as they're going to use us..."
"Might as well use them right back," he finished.
"I'll give Coulson a call tomorrow."
"Ten to one they figured we'd call yesterday after the board meeting," Tony said, picking at his plate. "I'm surprised Fury didn't show up at the house again to spank me in person."
Outside the windows a gull swooped down to pluck something from the waves. Pepper eyed the half-full bottle of very good Pinot Noir that she'd ordered despite the fact that it didn't complement her entree in the slightest. "Maybe he did," she said, refilling her glass.
"In that case, he's probably still there, waiting for me," Tony said, his mouth twisting. "Unless he couldn't get past Jarvis's new security protocols."
"If we're stuck with them," she said, "and it looks like we are, unless you're willing to retire the armor--"
"The worst part is, I don't know if he's after me, or the tech." Tony stabbed at a carrot. "He didn't make handing over the tech part of the deal, but that doesn't mean he--"
"Exactly," she said. "Until we know what their intentions are, we have to be careful. But that doesn't mean we can't use their resources."
"Coulson said they'd been investigating Stane for years. Seems convenient that they never found enough evidence to move on him." He left the obvious unspoken: if S.H.I.E.L.D. had been watching Obadiah so closely, how had they missed his attempts to kill Tony?
She tilted her head. "Either they're incompetent, or--"
"Exactly," Tony said.
When had she finished her glass of wine? "Either way, we have to work with them. So you're going to need someone to watch your back."
Tony went still. "No," he said. "And don't think I didn't notice what you're doing. There's no 'we' here, Potts."
"You're not going to give up on your missions, I know that, and they're going to make you coordinate things through Coulson or someone else and how can you trust them when you're halfway across the world? Jarvis isn't enough. Jarvis can't protect your interests."
"No," he said again. "Absolutely not."
"I'm not looking to take a bullet for you." She sat back in her chair, her hands pressed flat on the tablecloth on either side of her plate. "I just want to do my job, Tony, and whether you intended it to happen or not, when you went public as Iron Man the armor and what you do in it became a part of that. I'm already your liaison to the Board. I don't see this as being any different."
The waiter approached their table, took one look at their faces, and discretely backed away. She emptied the rest of the wine into her glass, watched the last few drops dribble from the bottle.
"Why were you there that night, Pepper?"
"...what? What night?"
"You know what night. At the factory. When S.H.I.E.L.D.went to arrest Stane." He laid out his words like a mathematical proof, even and inevitable. "You'd already given them the ghost drive. They didn't need you to get inside, am I right? So why were you there?"
"I..." She frowned, her hands sliding to twist in the napkin on her lap. "I couldn't get a hold of you. I wanted to make sure."
"You saw the plans. You knew he'd built himself his own armor."
She shook her head. "I saw the plans, but I didn't think he'd had time to--"
"Bullshit," Tony said, hunching over the table. "You were a civilian, Coulson and his men were trained agents. Why did you have to be there in person for the arrest?"
"Civilian? Tony, you're just as much a civilian as--"
"I stopped being a civilian when Raza's men mowed down a Humvee full of airmen in front of me. Why did you go back to the factory with Coulson?"
How had he managed to turn this around on her?
"Because I should have insisted Coulson arrest him right there at the office. If I had--"
"Coulson wouldn't have moved without seeing the evidence first. I get why you gave him the drive. I get why you went to the S.H.I.E.L.D. offices. What I don't get is why you had to be at the factory that night."
"Because you were right. When you said that I'd stood by you all those years while you built those weapons, weapons that nearly killed you, you were right. And I stood by, completely oblivious, while Obadiah sold them to the highest bidder. I thought if Coulson arrested Obadiah, if S.H.I.E.L.D. had the evidence, that they could take over. Find your weapons for you."
"Those weapons are my responsibility--"
"I know you think that, but at the time--"
"I never asked you to put yourself in Stane's sights. I never asked you--"
"I was in his sights the minute he figured out what I was doing in the office, the minute I saw what was on that ghost drive. It wasn't just the shipping manifests or the plans for the armor... he knew I knew. About Raza. He'd tried to have you killed, Tony. I went with Coulson because I wanted to make sure."
After she'd left the office Obadiah had gone to the house, she'd put together that much. He'd known she was going to give the evidence to S.H.I.E.L.D. He'd gotten desperate and he'd gone to the house and--
"Yeah, Coulson and his goons were oh so effective against Stane and his hackneyed battle-bot," Tony snarled, then ran his hand over the nape of his neck, over his eyes. "You shouldn't have been there."
"If I hadn't been there," she pressed, "Obadiah would be running your company right now, you'd be about a foot shorter, and I'd probably be dead anyway. You wanted to know why I was there? Well, I want to know how you ended up with the old arc reactor that night."
His chin lifted. "Don't change the subject. This isn't about me."
"Tony," she said, trying for gentle. "If it's not about you, what is it about?"
A tight fist came down to rest on the table by his forgotten fork. She watched as he deliberately opened his hand, relaxed his fingers, curled them around his water glass. He didn't take a drink.
"It's about how people can't seem to stick to the plan," he ground out.
"You say you don't want to... that you aren't going to step in front of a bullet for me. You say it like working with S.H.I.E.L.D. will be just another part of your routine. I don't want this to be... I don't want you involved."
"I'm already involved," she said. "Like it or not, I can't do my job anymore if you leave me out of the loop. Look, your mission -- it's not mine. I... I don't want my life on the line any more than you do. It doesn't have to be that way. All I'm suggesting is that I act as a go-between, a liaison with Fury's people. If only to make my life easier, okay?"
Tony stared out the window at the ocean, where the early evening sun painted the water orange and laced the waves with glitter.
"I know what you're thinking," she said into the silence. "But I'm not Yinsen." She willed him to meet her eyes, but he didn't move. She wasn't sure he was even breathing. "He'd seen his entire family killed in front of him. He'd been held hostage for months before you met him. He didn't have anything to live for, Tony."
"Raza promised to wipe out the rest of his village if he let me die," he said to the window. "Did you know that?"
She shook her head.
He didn't look away from the window. "I didn't either. When's this memorial?"
"What?" Her back went stiff again as she caught up. "Oh god, I'm sorry. I got an email a couple of days ago and I meant to ask--"
"Yeah, well, as I said, things have been..." he trailed off, dismissing her apology with a wave of his hand.
"It's on Saturday. In Cambridge. If you'd like to go, I've already cleared--"
"Whatever. Yeah. You saw the article?"
Pepper nodded. "I'm sorry you had to read about it in the paper," she ventured. "I should have--"
"Potts," he said, "if I ever hear you or Rhodey apologize to me again I won't be held responsible for what happens."
"Rhodey? What has--"
He just looked at her, then turned away.
"Yeah. You both seem hell-bent on winning the gold in the Guilt Olympics." Tony scrubbed at his face. "I'm pretty sure, comparatively speaking, that your side of the cosmic balance sheet is paid in full."
"I'll make arrangements for the trip to Cambridge," she said. "Did you want to speak at the service?"
He just shook his head. Pepper drained her glass. Her nose had gone numb. Her food was cold, a half-eaten mess of white flesh and translucent fish bones. She folded her napkin into thirds and set it aside.
When the waiter came by this time they let him carry their plates away. No one ordered dessert.
Everything was blurry and swimming and she blinked again, light and dark congealing around her into shapes: into her hand curled next to her chin, into polished wood, into another hand -- not hers -- toying with something too tiny for her to focus on. So she closed her eyes and lay still, listening to the small sounds coming into focus around her: the steady patter of rain on the roof, the rustling of cloth. The quiet plink of metal on metal.
In the distance thunder rumbled and died away. The crackle and pop of a fire filled the room and the sound was a familiar comfort, but she didn't have a fireplace. She hadn't lived anywhere with a fireplace for years.
There was a cascade of metallic clinks like someone had dumped out a jar of screws and that was exactly what it was because when she cracked her eyes open again, against her better judgment, there was Tony. Well, there were Tony's hands, and Tony's corded forearms, and she'd have to move her head to see the rest of him. But moving seemed like a bad idea.
"For someone so fond of martinis," Tony said, "you really are a lightweight."
She craned her neck a little, not quite lifting her head. And of course, of course, she was in Tony's living room, lying stretched out on his couch, one of the furry white throw pillows under her head. Tony himself was perched on a stool not three feet away, hunched over the pequi wood table with his back to the fireplace, unidentifiable metal parts spread out in neat piles on a large tray. When he raised his head from whatever he was working on Pepper let out a helpless snicker.
"What?" The dual lenses of a magnifying headset turned his eyes into insectile appendages that straddled the attached light in the middle of his forehead. She covered her mouth, trying to smother another laugh as he pulled the headset off, leaving his hair ruffled at the crown. "And top of the morning to you, too, Miss Potts."
Squinting at her watch set off a dull pounding behind her eyes, so she snapped them shut again. "Eleven o'clock is hardly morning," she managed, running a hand over her face. "I thought Happy was going to drive me home last night."
Last night. Right. Over dinner she'd tried to convince him she wasn't about to sacrifice herself for him the way Yinsen had, that all she wanted was to be able to do her job, but Tony... Tony wasn't ready to share Iron Man with anyone. But the choice was out of his hands now. The board had backed him into a corner. Only thing left was to wait and see which way he'd lash out first and hope she wasn't the one blocking his escape when he did.
Apparently that wasn't going to happen this morning, though, for which Pepper was groggily thankful.
A hint of a grin crinkled the corners of Tony's eyes. "That was the plan, but you couldn't find your keys and you decided you liked the couch too much to leave."
"I wasn't that... it was only a bottle of wine," Pepper sniffed, propping herself up with one arm. Her brain sloshed a little and then steadied, so she pushed the rest of the way up to sit back against the couch.
"That was at the restaurant," Tony corrected. "When we got back, you took a liking to my scotch."
Her skirt was twisted around her thighs, the zipper at her hip, and her camisole looked like it had been put through a wringer. "I didn't drink that much," she insisted. "Not any more than you do."
"Yeah, well..." Tony turned back to his bits of metal as she tried to straighten her clothes. "If you don't give that muscle a regular workout, it atrophies."
She let that one go. Watched him use a pair of tweezers to sort minuscule components into three piles on his tray. "Wouldn't that be easier downstairs? What are you working on?"
"Salvaging what I can from the helmet. Most of the circuitry is shot."
"Can't you just build a new one?"
"Yeah, but some of this stuff is still usable."
Pepper let her head drop back against the cushions. Her suitcase was still in one of the guest suits. Hot water, clean clothes, and she'd forget all about waking up on her boss's couch.
She didn't bother with an answer. Forgetting about waking up on her boss's couch required actually getting up off said couch and navigating the stairs. Which seemed to Pepper like maybe a stretch right now.
"Want some tea?"
"Tea, as in the Boston Tea Party. Not the T in Einstein's theory of gravitational time dilation." Tony dropped the tweezers and brushed his hands against his thighs. He hadn't changed, either: he was wearing yesterday's dress pants and a smudged sleeveless undershirt that had probably started out white. Didn't make her feel any better. "Though I suppose T could be the time interval in an equation describing the brewing of tea," he rattled on, "but I don't know why you'd want to go to the trouble."
"It'll just take a minute." With that he disappeared into the kitchen.
Lightning lit up the room as Pepper tried to smooth the worst of the wrinkles from her skirt. She pulled the blanket up around her shoulders and turned to lean against the back of the couch, chin on her forearm, watching the storm over the ocean. She supposed there were things she should be doing, but for the life of her she couldn't remember what they could be.
She half expected a call for help with the tea, but the only sound from the kitchen was a low, tuneless whistle from Tony, the same three or four notes repeated. After awhile there was the smell of something delicately spicy and unfamiliar and curiosity overcame her inertia so she pulled herself up off of the couch, blanket and all, and followed his whistle into the kitchen.
Tony stood before the window over the wide stainless steel sink, hands in his pockets, staring out at the sheets of rain falling between the house and the waves. He'd ignored the copper-plated teapot she usually used in favor of a small saucepan.
"You know you have a perfectly nice tea kettle, right?" she asked, making a face. The spicy scent must have been coming from the green seed pods bobbing in the boiling water.
"You want milk in yours?" He turned, brow raised at the blanket clutched around her shoulders. Shooing her aside, he eyed the saucepan and grabbed a canister she hadn't noticed from the counter, then stood there as if waiting for an answer.
"Um. No thank you?"
He shrugged. "Guess it's supposed to have milk, traditionally. Tried it once but couldn't get used to it."
"The tea," he said, patiently, as if explaining a finer point of supersonic aerodynamics. He popped the top off the canister and dumped a handful of shriveled black tea leaves into the saucepan, then turned the heat down to a simmer.
"What's..." she gestured helplessly, not sure how to encompass the tangled ball of questions raised by the sight of Tony Stark boiling tea in a saucepan.
"The green things? Cardamom. They came back with a sack of it once after a raid, I guess. Gave us some. Yinsen," he hesitated, glancing at her sidelong like he'd forgotten she didn't need an explanation for who Yinsen was, who they were, then continued. "Yinsen started putting it in the tea. Made a nice change."
He had cardamom. And loose tea. And by the sounds of things, he'd been experimenting with it while she wasn't looking. Maybe she'd woken up on the couch belonging to some other Tony Stark. "So this is..."
He shrugged. Dropped the lid on the pot of simmering tea, moved it off the heat and killed the flame. "You drink that chai latte crap from Starbucks, right? Don't deny it, I know you do."
After a moment he pulled out a pair of mugs and poured them both tea straight from the pot, without a strainer, and when he handed her one of the mugs there were only a few stray tea leaves floating on the surface. "So?" He asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet like he'd just shown her a new schematic and was waiting for her verdict.
The tea was strong and hot and the cardamom gave it a subtle depth. "It's good." She wrapped her hands around the hot ceramic and watched Tony empty the dregs into a bowl with the care he usually showed the engine of his roadster, then set the saucepan into the sink before picking up his own mug.
Pepper smiled. "Are you saving those for something in particular?"
He glanced down at the bowl of tea leaves as if he hadn't realized what he was doing, as if it had been automatic, then turned away, his back rigid, and dumped the dregs into the trash. Dropped the bowl into the sink next to the pan with a clatter.
"Got more where that came from," he muttered.
Almost like he was reminding himself.
"Yinsen taught you?" she managed after a long heavy moment. A double crack of thunder, and the lights flickered. She couldn't remember if he had a stash of emergency candles, in case the-- oh. Right. Jarvis would automatically switch over to generator power.
"Taught me what?" A slight edge now.
She left aside the subject of saving the dregs. "How to make tea this way?"
"Didn't have a kettle," he said into his mug. "Believe me, this is better than poppy tea any day."
She blinked at the non sequitur. "Poppy tea? From poppy seeds?"
He stared through her like he wanted to take the words back. "No." The lights flickered again.
"You mean..." Her head was too foggy. Poppies, in Afghanistan. She should have caught on right away. "You mean from opium poppies."
"They don't grow them for decoration."
"Raza hadn't stolen enough morphine," Tony continued conversationally, but his face was empty. "And the stuff he did have he saved for his top guys. Didn't want to waste it on the grunts, I guess, so Yinsen brewed them poppy tea. Tastes foul."
She didn't ask how he knew what it tasted like. Didn't want to ask.
His mouth twisted. "Sorry, Potts, that was too heavy for a hangover morning. Come on." Grabbing his own mug, Tony led her back to the living room, where he installed her on the couch and settled back onto his stool.
Pepper let the blanket fall away and took a sip from her mug. Something dripped onto her wrist, but she hadn't spilled her tea, and the air felt cold on her face. Her cheeks were wet. She...
The couch dipped as Tony sat next to her, not quite touching. "It wasn't that bad."
She scrubbed at her eyes, jerky and embarrassed. "Don't lie."
"Okay." He shifted, his hands hanging between his knees. "You know how to play shesh besh?"
He was too close but he wasn't looking at her, so that helped. Another swipe at her face and she could shake her head. "No."
"It's easy, it's like backgammon. I'll teach you."
Pushing his tray of metal helmet parts aside, he grabbed the black lacquered backgammon set. Unfolded it on the table in front of them and started setting up the pieces.
"Since I kicked your ass, like, twice, I'm ordering you to take the day off," Tony said. He sat back against the couch, rolling his neck until it cracked, and when he straightened up his grin was smug.
"You can't order me to--"
"Who writes your checks?"
"Actually, I do," she said, smiling.
"Who signs your checks? Don't answer that, it was rhetorical."
"There's business to finish up here if you're going to be in Cambridge on Saturday. I have to--"
"Whatever, it can wait until we get back."
We? "No, it can't. Your new contract with the board is most likely already in my inbox, and--"
"Right," he said and turned away, stacking the checkers back into the box. She waited for him to push further, but he just closed the backgammon box and pulled his magnifying headset back over his eyes.
The freak thunderstorm had faded to a steady rain by the time Pepper emerged from her borrowed room, damp hair pulled into a ponytail, concealer drying under her eyes. When she descended the stairs back to the living room Tony was still there, hunched over his dissected helmet again, a small welding gun in one hand. He didn't look up as she passed on her way to the kitchen, or on the return trip, so she left him alone and carried her breakfast -- a plate of plain toast and a big glass of water -- back to her office.
Three hundred and four unread messages in her inbox. She stared at the laptop screen until the letters bled together, but she couldn't bring herself to even begin the triage. Her head was heavy and her back ached and she wanted to go home to her own bed but that would mean calling Happy and she had so much to do.
First thing first: she had to straighten out this Cambridge trip.
Scheduling Tony's pilot was the easy part. Arranging for a car and driver in Cambridge turned out to be a little more complicated than it would have been had she not woken at a ridiculous hour with a hangover, since the time difference meant that most everyone across the Atlantic had gone home for the day. It took her six phone calls, but finally she reached a human being. After she booked the penthouse at the Hotel Felix -- where Tony had stayed during a conference at Cambridge University a couple of years ago -- she had to stop and fish a bottle of ibuprofen out of the desk drawer.
Her toast had gone hard and cold but she ate it anyway so the pills wouldn't unsettle her already roiling stomach. Rain streamed down the office windows in thin runnels, distorting the grey-on-grey of the clouds hanging over the ocean outside. She watched the silent fall of water until her eyes unfocused and everything went distant and she didn't think she'd nodded off until her head snapped up with a start.
Pepper blinked and straightened in her chair.
Her laptop had powered down. Her office windows were clear again, clouds breaking up over the water, hints of sun gilding the edges of her potted papyrus, the unseasonal storm blown back up north where it belonged. Without the rattling of the rain the house seemed wrapped in a silent vacuum. Empty. After Tony's disappearance she'd tried to keep working here in the office but the dead quiet had stripped her nerves until she paced the rooms, checking each one even though she knew she was alone.
It wasn't like the house was noisy when Tony was there: even before Afghanistan he'd spent most of his free time in the soundproofed workshop after all. She'd known the smothering silence was in her head, but despite the much longer commute, three weeks after the ambush she'd started driving in to the Stark Industries campus in the mornings instead of the house.
Clearly, caffeine was in order if she was going to get anything else done. Without thinking too hard about why, Pepper scooped up her laptop and her Blackberry and carried them out into the living room, where it wasn't silent at all, because even while perched nearly motionless on the couch doing whatever it was he was doing to his damaged helmet, Tony was incapable of quiet. She dropped her stuff on the opposite side of the couch and stood for a moment, watching the reflection of the arc reactor on the tweezers in his careful hands and the way his hair curled behind his ears, and he finally tore himself away from his welding.
"Would you like any coffee?"
He hadn't taken off the headset, so his eyes were blurry and huge and cartoony. "Weren't you going home?"
"Black, as usual?"
An eyeroll at magnification was not attractive but it made her smile, and the corner of his mouth lifted, then he went back to squinting at the tiny circuitry without answering. She brought him a mug anyway and set it out of the way of his equipment. He took a few sips and then promptly forgot about it. Which was fine, because the next time he noticed the mug, he'd drink it cold.
"So where're we staying in Cambridge? The Felix?"
Pepper glanced over the screen of her laptop. Tony had pushed back from the table finally, the magnifying headset gone; it left a thin red line running under his eyes and bisecting the bridge of his nose, curving up under his bangs on his forehead.
"You have the penthouse booked. I wasn't planning on--"
"When was the last time you got out of town?" He turned the helmet's faceplate in his hands, thumb caressing a scorch mark.
"It's a memorial service, Tony. Not exactly a vacation. And it wouldn't be... I didn't know Yinsen."
Tony shrugged. "I didn't know him either."
This conversation was entirely too nonchalant. "You lived with him for three months."
"He knew more about me before I met him than I ever..." he trailed off. "He didn't even tell me his family was dead. Not until..."
"Everything I know about his life is from the stuff you dug up. Or the newspaper."
"You don't have to go," she said.
He shot her a startled frown, as if he hadn't considered it before. Something like a sneer came and went as he spoke. "He's big news now. If I go, all anyone will care about is that I'm there. If I don't go, they'll write about that. Everhart, the others. Either way, it'll be a story. But it won't be about him, it'll be about me."
"Yes," she said. "It will. And there's nothing you can do about that."
Tony shook his head. "For weeks, I didn't even know his name. I don't know why he tried so hard. All he had to do to keep them happy was make sure I didn't die, but he..."
She waited but he didn't continue. Instead, he picked at a hairline crack in the faceplate, his expression as blank as the metal in his hands.
"There are probably rooms left at the Felix," Pepper said into the quiet, before she'd really made a decision. She hadn't had weekend plans, anyway. He nodded without looking up. "The board sent your new contract. Would you like to read it over before I pass it on to the lawyers?"
He took a breath and let it back out. "Anything I should know about?"
"Just the new terms. Iron Man reports to S.HI.E.L.D., and you're bound to honor existing weapons contracts should the court rule against you. Otherwise the language is the same."
"Fine. Anything else?"
"Another letter from Congress, about testifying. Shall I--"
"Same response as last time," he said.
"I haven't called Coulson yet about your meeting with Fury. I'll touch base with him before we leave for Cambridge. Is there--"
"Liaison to S.H.I.E.L.D., huh?" Tony said, tapping his knee.
It took her a long moment to switch gears. "What?" She'd thought he'd forgotten about everything they'd discussed at dinner last night. Or, more likely, chosen to ignore it.
"I wasn't that drunk." She glanced at him, sidelong. "I remember last night."
"Liaison to S.H.I.E.L.D. It was your idea."
"As I recall, an idea you shot down without--"
"Changed my mind," he said. "But I have terms."
"Really." She shut her laptop with a click.
"You hand over the day-to-day office stuff you've been micromanaging."
Micromanaging? What would he even-- Before she could open her mouth, he barreled on. "Yeah, I'm not completely oblivious, I know that much. You're gonna do this, you don't need to still be doing the goddamn payroll. Hire somebody if you have to."
She stared at him, dumbstruck. "Is that all, Mr. Stark?"
"Nope. When I meet with Fury, I'm making it clear that they're gonna send you through their basic agent's training as part of the deal. And you're getting a nifty new panic button as soon as I can whip one up. Non-negotiable."
"S.H.I.E.L.D. training? Whatever for?"
He just looked at her. "Non-negotiable, Potts."
Pepper tilted her head, weighing her options. The panic button was excessive, but not exactly a surprise given their conversation last night. The rest would be worth it in the long run if she played her cards right. "Fine," she said, finally.
"Good." He turned back to his circuitry.
She clasped her hands on top of her laptop and smiled. "But after you do all that you'll add sensors to the armor that monitor and transmit your vital signs."
His eyes narrowed. When he started to protest she spoke over him. "And you'll give me full access to your mission planning and communications with Jarvis, so I can coordinate between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Industries. I want real-time access when you're on missions.
He crossed his arms over his chest. "I--"
"Non-negotiable." With Tony, you couldn't be the first one to blink or it was all over.
"Fine," he said, breaking into a rueful grin. "When did you learn to play hardball, Potts?"
Pepper laughed. "You really haven't the slightest idea what I do everyday, do you?"