Tony remained seated with his eyes closed even after the jet landed, taking slow, deep breaths that belied the rapid flutter of his heart.
"Are you all right?" T'Challa was already standing and looked down at him with an expression that almost might be called concern.
"Always. Just tired," Tony said, quickly unbuckling his harness and getting to his feet with more energy than he felt. He switched his briefcase from his left hand to his right and surreptitiously shook out his left arm; it was feeling numb again, and the stab of pain in his chest felt almost like an anxiety attack. "Come on, they'll be glad to see you."
Tony led the way onto the grounds of the Avengers compound, giving a thumbs-up to his helicopter as it landed itself a short distance away. It was good to be back after three days in New York negotiating with the U.N. subcommittee responsible for amendments to the Sokovia Accords, though being at the compound required its own sort of negotiation.
The squeals of children playing had him shading his eyes with his hand as he pinpointed their whereabouts. When he found them--west of the compound, by the tree line--Laura Barton waved and he raised a hand in response. Lang's daughter must be visiting; there were too many kids for it just to be the Bartons. The secured area extended a mile into the trees so no harm would come to them there.
Habit had him scanning the rest of what he could see of the compound while Friday scanned everything else. The rest of the Avengers were in the training room, and he was mentally accounting for all of the vehicles in his line of sight when Friday broke in. "Boss, Secretary Ross is here. Agent Hill has him secured in the visitor's conference room."
Tony swore under his breath. For months Ross had been trying to send him on missions, starting with the Raft breakout. Active duty non-combatant (it had a much nicer ring than 'consultant') and the Avengers don't answer to you, Tony reminded him every time, but still Ross seemed to think he should have some say over their activities despite what was explicitly stated in the Accords. Then the plot thickened.
To say Ross had been displeased with the U.N. decision to allow the 'renegades' to be kept under house arrest at the Avengers compound would be putting it mildly. In the month since that agreement had been reached and the fugitives had returned, Ross had not ceased to make a nuisance of himself, insisting that it was not legal for Stark to harbor them on U.S. soil no matter what the U.N. said. Tony had even met with President Ellis about the issue, only to be politely rebuffed. Apparently changes to cabinet positions weren't worth the effort when the president was months away from leaving office.
So Ross remained a particularly annoying thorn in his side. The issue was being discussed by the U.N., which might produce results in five to ten years, and Tony was seriously considering his options for moving their entire base out of the country. To some island, preferably; it would be far easier to secure that way. He certainly had enough money to make it work (why didn't he already own an island? That was a serious oversight on his part), and 'Avengers Island' had a nice ring to it.
Tony intended to go to the training room first; the revelation of Ross' presence only reinforced that intention. The team (well, not quite a team again just yet, but they were working on it) was sparring when Tony burst through the doors. "Focus up, everyone. Look who I found wandering the U.N."
T'Challa nodded in response to their greetings and Tony turned toward him. "I have a problem to deal with. If I'm not back for dinner, send someone to rescue me." He was only half joking. "You know your way around."
"Yes. Thank you for your hospitality."
"Anytime," he said dismissively. T'Challa was already descending the stairs into the large room to join the others.
Tony's eyes lingered on Rhodey for a moment, working in a corner where the others wouldn't accidentally stumble into him, but his friend seemed to be doing fine with the latest iteration of the leg braces as Sam carefully helped him through his exercises.
Tony steeled himself and left to see what Ross wanted this time.
The meeting was just as hostile as he'd expected and by the time he left his jaw ached from keeping his teeth gritted around the things he dearly wanted to say but knew would only make things worse. Like where he thought Ross should shove his requests for Tony's "cooperation." Dealing with Ross made his skin crawl and his heart race and yet again Tony wondered how on earth he'd become an ally to the odious man. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.
Agent Hill and Rhodey were waiting in the hall for him, Hill to take charge of escorting their visitor off the premises and Rhodey apparently to keep Tony company. When Rhodey started to ask him something, Tony held up a finger in warning until Ross was out of sight and Friday said, "File sent, boss."
"Good girl." Tony put his phone to his ear and gestured with a nod of his head for Rhodey to walk with him. "Bill, my man. I just had a visit from our favorite person."
Rhodey couldn't quite hear Bill's side of the conversation, but he could guess at it by Tony's responses.
"Of course I have a recording, who do you think I am? My AI has already sent it to you. Now, I know you've assured me that he can't do what he's threatening, but do me a favor and give it a good listen. I want to be absolutely certain that he's not going to get anywhere with this."
Tony stopped in his tracks while Bill responded, then said heatedly, "I've said it before and I'll say it again: I will personally take the fall before I see Pepper or Stark Industries dragged into this shit show. Do whatever you need to do to keep them safely out of this. That's why I pay you that big fat retainer." He ended the call and shrugged at Rhodey. "Lawyers. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em."
They resumed slowly walking down the hall; Rhodey was much faster than he had been but he still wasn't quite up to normal strolling speed. "What's Ross trying to do now?"
"He is falling back on the tool everyone wants to use on rich businessmen: he's threatening a lawsuit."
"On what basis?"
"I don't think he's figured that out yet."
"How did the U.N. meetings go?"
"Same as usual. We made about two sentences' worth of progress. At this rate, we'll be done by the time Barton's great-grandchildren die."
"They sent a draft with me. Paper. Again. I swear, the U.N. is single-handedly responsible for killing the rainforest."
"It's great for paper airplanes, though."
"Yeah, the kids'll love it."
They fell into a comfortable silence as they waited for the elevator to take them up to the communal area. Once inside, Rhodey said casually, "You feeling all right? You look pale."
"Next to you, I'm always pale," Tony said dismissively. "Nah, I'm fine, just tired of this bullshit."
"You should let someone else deal with some of it. You're trying to pull the lone gunslinger act again and it's still not necessary."
Tony scoffed. "I started this, I should see it through. But if you're that eager, just say the word when you're ready, sugarbear, and I'll have you take over in a heartbeat."
"Who said I was volunteering?" Rhodey grinned.
A smile flitted across Tony's face but didn't stay long. "I trust you to get it as close to right as I could," he said seriously.
The elevator doors opened and Rhodey had no chance to respond before Tony was being interrogated by some of the others about his time away and what Ross wanted this time. He watched, though, as Tony practically collapsed into a sofa and rubbed at his left shoulder while animatedly telling a story Rhodey couldn't quite hear.
Dinner was ready a short time later and everyone gathered at the table. The original eating table was not large enough for all of the newcomers and the families, so the children were using a round table nearby while the adults pulled another round table up to the end of the usual table, extending its reach.
Tony could not help but notice that the adults were still sitting according to their faction--Tony and his people on one side of the table, Steve and his people on the other. There were some that were more willing to sit with others on the opposite side (Clint and Natasha, Wanda and Vision), and there were some grudges that still had not died (Clint sat as far from Tony a physically possible while still remaining at the adult table).
Wanda was trying to teach Vision how to cook, so the meal that evening was his attempt to correctly prepare the paprikash he'd tried to make for her before. Tony wasn't particularly hungry, and after a few bites he could tell it wasn't sitting well. He gulped some water but could feel his chest tightening in protest.
"What's the matter, Stark? Don't like the food?" Clint teased from his end of the table.
Suddenly all eyes were on him. "It's . . . it's fine. It's just a little too much right now," he mumbled, feeling sweat bead on his skin.
"Can't handle some paprika? You've got a weak tongue, Stark."
"There are many lovely ladies who would beg to differ," he shot back.
Clint laughed. "And some men, too, perhaps?"
"That's enough," Steve interjected. "There are children present."
Slowly the interrupted conversations resumed, and attention largely turned away from Tony. Rhodey, however, was concerned. He leaned closer and said, "Are you sure you're okay? You don't look good."
"I'll be fine," Tony insisted as the pain from his arm and shoulder intensified and spread into his chest. It was hard to breathe against the clenching pain and his heart rate increased sharply as he started to panic. He tried to rise from the table, tried to flee the room to escape the embarrassment of whatever was about to happen, but his limbs did not obey his wishes. He stumbled as he tried to stand, his knees buckling, and he nearly ended up in Rhodey's lap. It would have been more comfortable than where he did end up, wedged between his chair and Rhodey's, but he had no say in the matter.
Suddenly all of the sounds he could hear were urgent, panicked. Hands were on him, pulling him out onto the unobstructed floor, and he was being shouted at to breathe. Faces swam in and out of his swiftly narrowing vision, and with a jolt he realized he was going to die. "Pepper," he murmured wistfully, then knew no more.