"Home, Mr. Stark?" asked Happy, when his employer slipped quietly into the car. Normally Tony Stark would have been accompanied by the beautiful Miss Potts, but tonight the billionaire was alone and seemly subdued.
"Yes, Happy, bring me home. But take the longer route, would you?" Tony smiled briefly at his faithful driver and bodyguard, and then he fell back into his thoughts. Absently his hand brushed against the small bulge in the pocket of his suit and he flinched as if burned. Funny, he thought - how that small piece of jewellery had filled him with so much hope just hours before, and now he couldn't wait to lock it back in the safe where it came from. He would have thrown it away, actually, but it had been his mother's, too precious to lose even in his current dark mood.
Tony sighed and then rested his head in his hands, the passing lights outside his car repeatedly casting him into shadows.
What was he supposed to do now? The thought kept circling in his head like an annoying record.
Even though all the Avengers had eventually migrated into Stark Tower and made it their home, they were far too occupied with their own affairs to spent 24/7 in each other's company and Tony knew that. So he played it to the best, never staying too long with his teammates, half-true excuses about experiments in his personal lab providing him with a means of escape. So it was quite some time until the others realized all was not well with the unflappable Mr. Stark.
It was small things in the beginning – how he would always skirt away when the subject of personal matters came into conversations, his prolonged silences or his more reckless behaviour whenever they were called for an emergency. He would fly higher and faster than ever before, the first to jump into the fray and the last to leave the battlefield, and it wasn't until he remained almost until it was too late next to a bomb ready to detonate, that Captain America knew he needed to take action. So he went to the root of the problem and phoned the one person who had been conspicuously absent from Stark Tower in the last month: Miss Pepper Pots.
Needless to say, that conversation didn't go as well as he wanted – Miss Potts had been ill at ease to speak and whenever the subject of Tony Stark came she would clam up and become ultra professional. Steve barely restrained himself from calling 'bulls**t' when she claimed to not have known what was wrong, but eventually she relented and gave him a phone number and a name.
"Call her," Miss Potts said, just before hanging up on him, "she's the only one that can get him out of his mood."
Steve stared at the number for a whole ten minutes before slowly punching the numbers on his cell phone. His fingers almost slipped on the touch-screen, still a little clumsy with high-tech, but he entered the number right on the first try. He was having second thoughts about involving himself in what he now knew was an extremely private matter as he waited for someone to pick up, while almost wishing nobody will do just that.
He was on the seventh ring and ready to hang up when the call went through, causing his heart beat to beat a little faster. A feminine voice gave him a slightly suspicious "Hello?"
"Miss Potter, Harriet Potter?"
"Yes... May I ask who is calling?" Steve placed her as a Londoner through her accent.
"This is Captain Steve Rogers, ma'am, at your service."
"Oh? Captain America, a pleasure. What can I do for you?" now she sounded a bit amused, but strangely that didn't make Steve feel any better. No, he still felt like a tattle.
"It's about Tony Stark, ma'am. Miss Potts said you were the one to call on this matter."
"I see." A sigh was audible through the connection and when she spoke again her tone was almost business-like. "What has that idiot done now?"
Steve was nervous. Half an hour ago he had been on the phone with someone he'd never met, but on the advice of the one woman that admittedly knew Tony Stark better that the rest of the world, he had talked about his worries regarding the man he was slowly starting to see almost like a friend. And she had listened, only asking questions when some things were unclear, and only then had Steve realized how many things he had found worrying about Tony in the last month. Then the woman, who had asked him to call her Harry had hung up, but not before telling him she would come by the Tower as soon as possible.
And now he was waiting for her, while constantly questioning himself on whether he had made a mistake or not. He was jolted out of his thoughts when the private elevator that connected the top of Stark Towers with the rest of the world pinged and through the opened door came a 5 foot 1, dark haired woman almost bristling with rage.
"Where is he?" she asked without preamble and Steve knew that this was Harry and she was asking for Stark.
"In his private lab," he said, coming forth to shake her hand. "I'm Steve."
"I know," her tone was borderline rude but then she gave him a brisk yet firm handshake. "I'm Harry, and I'm here to set a certain idiot straight. Now if you'll excuse me."
Leaving him in the middle of the room she made a beeline for the hidden entrance to the lab areas and Steve just followed in her footsteps. He had a feeling this was going to be a dozy and he wanted a seat in the frontline. Too bad they were out of popcorn.
Harry navigated the tower with the familiarity of someone who had been here many times and Steve kept wondering when she came to visit and how come he'd never met her before. She finally stopped in front of the closed doors to Tony's lab and punched a code, then started to scowl when the doors didn't bulge.
"J.A.R.V.I.S., open them or I'll blow them up. You know I will," she said through clenched teeth.
"Miss Potter, always a pleasure," the AI spoke as the doors slid smoothly open. From inside of the lab Tony's annoyed voice could be heard quite loudly over Metallica's thunderous guitars. "J.A.R.V.I.S., I thought I said that if you let anyone in, I'd program you as a toaster?"
Facing his workbench he had no idea who had entered his space until Harry marched right next to him. Wisely Steve remained outside the lab, not missing anything as the doors were still open.
"J.A.R.V.I.S. kill the music, it's giving me a headache." The silence that followed was almost painful as Tony turned around slowly, almost not believing his eyes and ears.
"What are you doing here? I thought you were still in China!" he said, his computer's treachery momentarily not mentioned.
"What am I doing here? Funny you should ask that." Harry said, eyes flashing with annoyance and hands resting on her hips. "I've heard that a certain moping dunce almost got himself killed, because he wouldn't listen when they said that a bomb was going to blow. What were you waiting for, Tony? That it would take you with it?"
For a second, regret flashed in Tony's eyes, but then he squared his jaw, smirked and said in his most obnoxious 'I-don't-care-about-anyone-and-anything' tone. "That's not your concern."
"Not my concern? If I hadn't promised your mother…" Harry was so angry in face of his carelessness she wanted to slap him. She searched his eyes for anything that would give her a clue on how to proceed, and stopped when she finally saw the pain hidden beneath the cocky façade. Pulling her anger inside she spoke: "Put on your suit. You have 1 minute before I'm taking you out and making you wish you never crossed me."
"You can't," he said stubbornly, eyes locked in a glare with her.
"Try me." She mocked him in turn. "You have 50 seconds left."
He jumped into action, while swearing profusely. He now knew she wasn't joking. The platform came alive around him as the assembly robots fitted his latest iron suit on him. The last bolt was barely into place when she called "Time's up," grabbed him by the hand and with a 'pop' disappeared together with him from the lab.
Even though he'd seen it all Steve could barely believe his eyes. "J.A.R.V.I.S.," he called a bit shaken. "Did that just happen?"
"What do you mean, sir? Mister Stark listening to someone or the fact that they disappeared into thin air?"
"Both, I think. Although, for some reason the first part seems more unlikely than the other."
"Not to worry, sir. Miss Potter will drop Mister Stark back home in a few hours. She's done this before and he's always been alive at the end."
"Alive, huh? That's good to know." And with that J.A.R.V.I.S. closed the doors to the lab and Steve left for the living room. He was still worried, but there was nothing more he could do and a show he found tolerably amusing was playing on TV. Waiting seemed like the only option he had.
On the Hellcarrier Director Fury was torn from his musings when one of his operators called him on his private line.
"Sir, it would seem that Iron Man has just appeared over the Gran Canyon and he's currently engaged in a battle with an unknown foe. What should we do, sir?"
"Give me a visual," he barked, resisting the urge to rub the bridge of his nose. One of these days, the Avengers would be the death of him, he just knew it. The high-resolution image appearing on his screen didn't help with his blood pressure either, especially when he recognized the dark-robed figure currently battling Iron Man.
"What is she doing back in the States and how come nobody informed me?" he asked barely hiding his annoyance.
"Sir, what should we do?"
"Do not engage. I repeat, do not engage. Send a few drones to keep an eye on things from afar, but do not interfere."
"Yes, sir." The operator quickly executed the order and that left Fury to watch the fight going on. He almost winced when a particularly bright ray hit Iron Man in the chest and send him flying right into a cliff. At least, this time there weren't civilians nearby to watch the whole thing.
When they apparated above the Gran Canyon and Harry quickly released his hand, Tony stumbled about twenty feet in the air before finding his footing. Still nauseous after from the foreign sensations of apparating and the lack of sleep and quality food, he flew a bit unsteadily until he was face to face with Harry who, he noted, had changed into her battle gear sometimes in between. Ticked off at the whole situation he said with feeling: "I hate magic!"
The answer he got was a feral smile and the following words: "Well, I'm right here. What are you waiting for?"
Tony fired full power.
Several hours later, just as the sun was finally setting he crashed into the soil and didn't rise again, too tired to feel even the anger and heartbreak that had fuelled him for most of the fight. This had been what he was craving, a battle where he could let it all out and not worry that he would injure his teammates or kill someone innocent. And Harry had given him that.
She truly knew him better than most. Except Pepper that is, she…and just like that the hole in the heart he's been carrying for four weeks, 2 days and seven hours let itself known once again.
He stubbornly kept his visor on even after he saw Harry land quietly next to him and settled herself on a nearby rock. She was breathing heavily and there were scrapes and bruises all over her, but she was still in better shape than him, something he was planning on remedying as soon as possible. But first he needed to get out of the following conversation.
Unluckily for him, Harry had his number. "Are you going to tell me now what was going on with you? After all I did beat it out of you."
"You did not. I graciously let you win." He denied, but his words lost any credence seeing she was standing and he was not.
"Right. Now spill."
Sighing, he rose from the hole he'd made in the bedrock with his last plunge, and came to stand next to her. He flipped open his visor but chose to look at the setting sun so he couldn't see any pity in her eyes.
"I wanted to ask her to marry me, you know. Had it all planned: my mother's ring, the restaurant just for the two of us, the quartet she liked so much… I've been such a fool."
"What happened?" she prodded him when he felt silent for too long.
"She didn't even let me pop the question. She said she wanted us to break up before the dinner was finished. I couldn't even ask her why. She just looked at me for a moment, I was too stunned to say anything, and then she just got up and…left." Tony closed his eyes as the memory of one of the most hurtful moments in his life played itself over and over in his brain."Why did she do that, Harry? To me…to us?"
Harry sighed, and then got up to stand by his shoulder. "I don't know, Tony. But let me ask you this, and please answer me truthfully. Are you in love with her?"
"What kind of question is that? I was ready to propose, that woman stood by me for my worst and better years. Of course I love her. And I thought she loved me." The last part was almost a whisper and his doubts about his self-worth assaulted him once again. They were never far from his mind and the latest rejection only gave them strength.
"I think you are doing both of you a disservice if you think she doesn't love you. You said it yourself, she stood by you for better and for worse." Harry's voice pulled him out of his thoughts.
"Then why did she say no?" this was something that Tony desperately wanted to know.
"Because she may love you, but she's not in love with you. Think about it, Tony and then ask yourself, is Pepper the first thing that comes to your mind when you open your eyes in the morning?"
"No, that would be coffee," he said, traces of a smirk playing on his lips and Harry swatted him on the shoulder. The armour absorbed the impact while his mind raced and truly thought about it. And it was disheartening to realize that no, he and Pepper had the respect and the companionship that came from truly understanding each other, but the spark was missing between them.
How could he have been so blind? He could now see he hadn't been in love with the woman, but with the idea of love and a stable relationship after the string of meaningless one-night stands that have been his hallmark for most of his adult years.
It was a revelation, but it was a painful one, and Tony knew he still had a long way to go until he was really fine. Still, he was already feeling a bit better than this morning.
Smiling a little more genuinely than before, he finally turned around and faced his companion, who was looking straight at him."What happens now?"
"Nothing, just like the rest of us you heal, wait or go on searching for love and hope that one day it will find you. And maybe, if you're lucky, it will be closer than you've thought."
"Right. Just so you know, waiting has never been my style."
"Duly noted." She smiled back at him and then she became more business-like. "I'm going back to New York. There are some things I need to take care and that means I'll stick around for awhile. Is my room at the Tower still available? It seems the Tower has gotten a little crowded."
Had he not been looking directly at her, in that moment, Tony would have missed the flicker of uncertainty passing through her eyes. He made a mental note to look into it, but for now he declined her offer for transportation. One apparition per day was more than enough for him, thank you very much. Besides, the hours he would be spending flying would help him clear his mind a little.
Shrugging, Harry gave him final fond pat on the shoulder and then she disappeared with a 'pop', letting him plot his way back home.
Later that night, Tony woke up to an unfamiliar but not uncomfortable weight on his chest. Groggily opening his eyes, he was met with a black fur covered shape curled around his arc-generator. Bemused he watched for a moment as the cat slept on without a care, and then gently, he flipped a velvety ear.
"Bolt, what are you doing here. You have a perfectly good bed in your mistress' room, you know?"
Half-asleep emerald green eyes glared at him for having disturbed their sleep. The cat yawned showing wickedly sharp fangs, and extended its front paws. Kneading the cover a little, it moved around a bit searching for a better position and without a care in the world it fell asleep once again on top of Tony.
He debated for a moment shooing the cat outside the room, but past experiences had taught him that it could get ugly fast, and besides even with the added weight on the covers, it felt nice to have extra warmth besides him in the huge empty bed.
"I wonder where Harry stashes you when she's off fighting the bad guys all around the world," he mused quietly just as sleep captured him once again. It was his most restful in awhile.