(That Would Be) Enough
Chapter One: Help
Phil’s phone rings on a Wednesday. It’s been a day of nearly endless calls, so this would hardly be remarkable, except for the fact that isn’t his general-purpose Shield phone (an iPhone, a fact which Tony has complained endlessly about since they’ve known one another). It’s his second phone, his Avengers-specific StarkPhone. It has also been conspicuously silent ever since his return from the not-quite-dead.
He lunges across his desk for it with such speed that the still-healing wounds on his chest protest loudly. When he looks down at the screen, breath coming out in painful wheezes, and sees an unfamiliar number (rather than Clint’s, or even Tony’s), the disappointment is almost as acutely painful as his aggravated injuries. Phil debates not answering, taking a moment to gather himself and then returning the call later after some quick tracing work on the number and location. But maybe there’s something to that whole near-death-experiences making a person more optimistic thing, because he can’t stop himself from bringing the phone to his hear with a hopeful sort of grimace.
“Oh Phil, thank God.” The voice on the other end, though not one he expected, is instantly recognizable, except for the fact that Pepper Potts is endlessly steady and practically fearless, and right now she sounds neither.
“Pepper? What’s wrong?” He hears her take a few steadying breaths, hears the sniffling sound that suggests she’s been crying, and Phil is moving rapidly from concerned to alarmed. Pain in his chest nearly forgotten, he’s on his feet. “Pepper, I need you to talk to me. Are you hurt? Are you or Tony in imminent danger of any kind? Do I need to alert SHIELD?”
“N-no,” she stutters, “no SHIELD. He’d never forgive me.” As a CEO and, really, just as a person, Pepper is precise. Pepper is exact. And if she’s answering only the last of his questions, then the answers to the first two are not good. For a long moment, Phil considers calling in SHIELD reinforcements anyway. He’s hardly at his physical best, and with Pepper sounding so shaken and Tony likely still recovering from what happened in New York, they’re hardly going to make the most effective show of physical strength, even with Tony’s armour. As a mental compromise, he quickly locks up his office and begins moving in the direction of the parkade, hand hovering over the panic button in his pocket that Fury had insisted he carry during his recuperation.
“Pepper, listen to me. I’m going to help you, we’re going to get this sorted out, but I need to come into this as prepared as I can, alright? Are you or Tony in physical danger?”
“No. It’s not…not his body I’m worried about.” Her voice, he notes, is steadier now, and he decides to wait out that ominous pronouncement, confident that Pepper will offer more information when she’s able. “It’s, he hasn’t been okay since New York. Flying into that portal…he barely sleeps, almost never eats, and he’s building suit after suit. He accidentally called one into bed with us last night, I woke up with it looming over me like—like some ridiculously terrifying metal ghost. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Phil! I thought the whole point of the Avengers was that none of them were going to be on their own! Where the hell are they? Why am I fighting to keep all the broken pieces of him together by myself?”
She’s nearly screaming by the end of her explanation, but Phil’s senses feel dulled by the shock of how unendingly stupid they’ve all been. Stark had returned from Afghanistan and demanded Burger King, had flown through a portal and asked for shwarma, and in both cases, he’d gone immediately back to work right after. There’d been signs of Tony’s lingering trauma the first time, the disastrous press conference being only the most obvious one. And there had, Phil was sure, been signs this time too. True, he’d only seen Tony twice since returning from the ‘dead’; the first time, during a meeting with the full Avengers team, where Phil had still been a bit too star-struck by Captain America, and focused on attempting to convince Clint to even meet his eyes, to pay Tony much mind. The second, a meeting between Phil, Fury and Tony, had quickly degenerated into Tony and Nick’s usual bickering (this time over the status of Tony’s contract). Relegated to his usual role of referee, it had been all too easy not to see past Stark’s usual collection of barriers and assume he was back to his normal, egotistical self.
But he hadn’t been; Phil could see it even now as his mind raced back over the details of the scene. Already the signs of a lack of sleep and nutrition were present on Tony, his clothes hanging a bit looser, bruises forming under his eyes. And though he’d responded to Nick’s resistance toward officially naming him an Avenger rather than a consultant with his trademark snark, the way he’d left the room not with a saunter, but a defeated slouch to his shoulders, should have immediately reminded Coulson, yet again, that they weren’t dealing with the old Tony Stark. There might not even be any of that man left.
“Christ, Pepper, I’m sorry. I’ll be there in half an hour. You’re at the tower, right? The repairs are done?”
“Y-yeah, they’re done, but I’m not sure Tony will…things are still a bit off between you two, aren’t they?” For the hundredth time, Phil cursed himself for letting Fury talk him into the ridiculous death charade in the first place. Correctly interpreting his silence, Pepper continued. “Not only that, you’re still healing yourself. This isn’t supposed to be all on you either, Phil. Call his team back. The plan was for them to move in here eventually anyway, Tony’s already been preparing for it in between the million other things he does instead of sleeping. Get them back early.”
There’s a million reasons her plan won’t work. The bonds between the team are still fragile, for Tony perhaps especially. His lingering distrust and resentment toward Natasha, the fallout from his vicious fight with Steve on the helicarrier, his general unease with Clint who had fought against them for half the time Tony had known him, one wrong move on any of their parts and the whole damn thing would shatter. Yes, the plan was to eventually get them all living in the same space, and lord knew Tony had space to spare, but that was supposed to take months, maybe even years.
But if Pepper’s account is to be trusted (and it always is), Tony doesn’t have years. He might not even have months.
“I’ll put out the call to Assemble and then I’ll be at the tower. Even if Tony doesn’t want to see me, I think the company might do you some good.” Hell, his company is the very least he should be offering this woman, and the stuttered thanks she replies sends another wave of self-loathing over Phil. He’s failed Pepper, and Tony, more than he would have thought possible. But even if he has to go out and individually drag every last Avenger back here, he’s going to make this right.
By the time Phil arrives at Stark Tower, Pepper has coerced Tony into taking a heavy-duty sleeping pill. Phil looks in on him briefly, frowning as he takes in the tension Tony’s body carries even in sleep. Tony has assured Pepper that he’s set up restrictions that will ensure he doesn’t call for one of the suits while in the midst of a nightmare again, which is an admittedly small comfort, but Phil is taking whatever victories he can right now.
With Tony out of commission for at least a few hours, Pepper allows her body to betray her own exhaustion. She carries it differently than Tony, but for someone whose composure is legendary, it’s definitely noticeable; her hands shake slightly as she reaches for a carton of Chinese takeout, and her hair, typically perfect even when casually styled, has a slightly greasy sheen to it, suggesting she hasn’t had a full shower in at least a couple of days.
“I’m so sorry Pepper,” Phil repeats again, unable to help himself. How did they let it get this bad?
“Me too,” she sighs, stealing a spring roll from his plate with a shadow of her usual smile. “I know Tony can be—difficult, and I know things with the team are still at early stages. But I just can’t—I can run his company. I know how to do that, I’ve been doing it for years and I am damn good at it.” It’s a relief to hear the confident pride in Pepper’s voice; it means it isn’t too late, that she isn’t broken. “I can support him in nearly every possible way. I can soothe ruffled feathers at functions, I can convince journalists not to run the worst and most damaging stories when he blows off a little too much steam and does something he instantly regrets. I can…I can keep trying to learn how to wait at home when he’s off fighting God knows what. But I don’t know how to help him through this, Phil. He flew into actual outer space, expecting never to come back, and he very nearly didn’t. I’m not prepared to help him learn to deal with that, not in the ways he needs.” Phil hands her a beer, which she takes with a grateful nod as he considers his response.
“The Avengers, it wouldn’t work if they weren’t all broken in their own ways. No one who is perfectly sane or totally whole could do the things they have to do, see the things they’ve seen and will see, and keep showing up for the next call. But I think sometimes that means we lose sight of the distinction between what it has to have horrors in one’s past and what it is to be living a waking nightmare. And I think sometimes we—SHIELD, the public, the other Avengers—we’re even less inclined to remember that distinction when it comes to Tony. It’s partly because he’s gotten damned good at hiding the things he doesn’t want other people to see, but it’s not just that. We all need and want so much from him that to admit that he might not be okay is to admit that by continuing to take from him in that state, we might be actively contributing to the problem.”
The more Phil speaks, the more he knows what he’s saying to be true. They’ve needed Tony to be okay—they’ve needed his resources, financial, intellectual and otherwise, they’ve needed his near-constant energy and drive. They’ve actively drawn on his desperate desire for atonement and validation, using it to push him to create, to think, to work harder and faster and longer. Pepper is so ridiculously competent and effective at caring for Tony that it’s been easy for them all to keep pushing Tony and to trust that he won’t crack, that he’ll eat and sleep and relax just enough. But the effects of that short-sighted and dangerous plan are staring Phil in the face now. They’re in the lines that stress and grief have left behind on Pepper’s face and in her eyes, and they’re all over the broken man upstairs, so desperate for comfort that he calls deadly weapons to himself in his sleep.
“Alright,” Pepper’s voice brings him from his reflections and back to the present. “So what are we going to do about it now?”
There’s a reason Pepper reached out to Phil first, and it’s that they are so similar in a number of respects. They’re both endlessly practical and organized people, the types who need plans and back-up plans with specific steps and tasks and deliverables. Some might call it a troubling internalization of corporate and governmental ways of being. Phil just calls it awesome, because in only a few hours, they have a workable plan that’s already being set in motion.
With the team in its infancy, none of them would be likely to accept the true reason they’re being asked to return so soon after New York. Tony would almost certainly read it as an insulting kind of pity and withdraw entirely, and the rest of the Avengers (if they had enough loyalty to Tony to return just for the sake of his well-being at all which, Phil privately admits, is a question in and of itself) would likely be awkward and wholly transparent about being there primarily out of professional obligation.
This means that they can’t be entirely honest with the team about why they’re being called back. Uncomfortable with outright lying to the group, most of whom are still struggling to forgive him after his last rather large falsehood, Phil suggests a compromise. They’ll tell the Avengers that SHIELD is concerned about their cohesiveness as a unit and is requiring them to begin cohabitation sooner rather than later as part of a larger team-building strategy. It’s such a realistic plan that Phil begins to wonder why the organization hadn’t actually suggested it already.
“But if none of them have any idea what’s going on, and if Tony continues being his entirely charming self which is currently amplified by a combination of sleep deprivation and anxiety attacks, isn’t it possible that they’ll end up making things worse without knowing it?” Pepper had pointed out, all while tapping out notes on a StarkTab in her lap.
“I’ll talk to Cap,” Coulson says after a moment of consideration. “He’s the team leader, and he plays a big part in setting the tone for how the rest of them interact with Stark. And he’s a good man. Out of all of them, he’ll be the most likely to genuinely want to help Tony right from the get-go.”
“And Tony probably needs it from him the most anyway,” Pepper agrees. “I know Tony gave just as good as he got when they fought, but he still idolized the man growing up, even if Howard’s obsession also makes him a bit resentful. If things between he and Steve don’t keep improving then Tony’s never going to feel like he actually belongs on the team—and hey, is that sorted by the way? I couldn’t even get him to tell me how the meeting with Fury went, but judging from the fact that he didn’t come out of the shop for two solid days afterward, I’m betting not well.” Still deeply ashamed of his own role in that meeting Phil nods, promising,
“I’ll talk to Nick and have the contract drawn up within the next week. I’ll send it right to you so you can run it past his lawyers.” Pepper want to ask what happened, he can feel it, but she restrains her curiosity, and he’s unendingly grateful not to have to confess, even if that means she’s probably already inferred enough.
“Hey, what about Colonel Rhodes?” It’s a shot in the dark, and Phil already knows that if they go ahead with including him, getting the man temporary leave right as the media campaign surrounding the Iron Patriot is ramping up will involve calling in every favour he has banked and then some.
“It’s a good thought,” Pepper muses. “And Rhodey is…amazing with him. But, for right now at least, he isn’t an Avenger. And if he’s here right at the beginning of all this then chances are high that Tony will take the path of least resistance so to speak and rely on Rhodey for everything rather than letting any of the rest of the team is. And Rhodey just isn’t able to be around enough for that to work as a long term plan.”
They continue to work for several hours with brisk efficiency. At one point, Pepper groans, leaning forward to put her face in her hands.
“JARVIS.” Understanding comes to Phil before he has to ask her for an explanation. Tony’s AI monitors all of the comings and goings in the tower unless specifically instructed by Tony not to do so. There’s no way they’re going to be able to sneak this plan past Tony without him finding out. Particularly because a Tony who is sleep deprived and anxious is a Tony who tends to obsessively review security footage from around his home.
But then again, Phil’s noted that Pepper tends to avoid interacting with JARVIS whenever possible. He’s not sure if there’s a story there, if somehow the two had gotten off on the wrong foot during the early moments of her professional and then personal relationship with Tony, or if Pepper has simply never been interested in pursuing a relationship with her boyfriend’s electronic butler. In either case, though, he’s betting Pepper is severely underestimating the extent to which JARVIS seems to feel things, especially when it concerns Tony and his welfare.
“JARVIS, can we reach an agreement on this matter?” To his credit, the AI doesn’t pretend to be ignorant of what Phil means, even though he’s probably aware that it’ll make Pepper uncomfortable.
“My programming does not permit me to generate false information or otherwise deceive Sir. Moreover, such a violation would likely lead Sir to conceal vital data from me, which would greatly interfere with my primary functions.” For a man like Phil, who spends most of his time surrounded by politicians and spies and bureaucrats, what JARVIS doesn’t say is far more significant than what he does. He hasn’t refused to assist them, or indicated any kind of disapproval concerning their plans. Indeed, he sounds almost reluctant to be reminding them of the limits Tony has placed on his behaviour.
“But you could choose not to offer Tony any information about this unless strictly asked, correct? And you could steer him in other directions, offer him other information first if he wants to review the footage from tonight?” There’s a long, nerve-wracking pause, but since the AI hasn’t rejected the proposal outright, Phil decides to keep trying to make their case. “JARVIS, Tony is suffering. The portal, on top of everything else that’s happened to him in the last couple of years, it’s been too much. He needs more help than Pepper or myself can give him on our own, but he’s never going to accept it if we tell him that outright.”
“Sir is…regrettably stubborn when it comes to matters of his own self-preservation,” JARVIS agrees. The frustration seeping into his tone obviously resonates in its familiarity with Pepper, because she smiles for the first time since the conversation has started.
“So you’ll help us, JARVIS?” she asks, peering up at the ceiling.
“Yes, Ms. Potts. I will do everything I can within acceptable parameters to assist sir in his recovery.” Feeling that this conclusively settles the last major matter of concern for now, Phil manages to convince Pepper to get some much-needed rest herself. He goes as far as tucking her in under a pile of blankets on the couch, and he’s rooting around the coffee table, trying to locate his car keys amidst debris from take-out cartons, papers and numerous bits of Stark tech, when Pepper speaks again, though her voice is rather adorably muffled.
“Don’t go back to SHIELD. Stay here. Tony’s designed a floor for you too, and we might as well start getting him acquainted with the notion of company, and trusting you again, sooner rather than later.” Seconds after making this pronouncement, she’s asleep, snoring quietly into a pillow. Fighting back the warm feeling in his chest that has nothing to do with his lingering injuries, Phil heads to the elevator and asks Jarvis to take him to ‘his’ floor. He’s tired enough that much of Tony and Pepper’s impressive attention to detail in the decorating is probably lost on him, but as he kicks off his shoes and changes into a set of pyjamas he finds in the dresser, his eyes fall upon something on the nightstand.
It’s a set of Captain America collector’s cards, identical to the ones he’d owned as a child, and (unlike his old collection) not covered in blood. They’re pristine, individually placed in heavy plastic card protectors. Cards in this condition would have cost a fortune. Even Rogers himself had been somewhat embarrassed by (or maybe for) Phil and his lingering obsession with Captain America, but Tony, even while furious and hurt by Phil’s deception, still hadn’t hesitated to replace the objects that had meant so much to him, that had given him hope in some of the darkest moments in his life. Swallowing past a lump in his throat, Phil places a reverent hand on the cards for a long moment and makes a quiet promise to never again forget what Pepper had told him tonight: Tony Stark indeed has a heart.