“Set up a meeting for next week. Tell them they better have a working prototype or I’m pulling their funding.”
“Yes, Ms. Potts.”
“Be sure to confirm me for the – “ A crash outside her office door broke Pepper’s line of thought. A crash and what sounded like – a horse whinnying? “What was that?”
“I’ll check.” Lori put her pad down and moved toward the door.
Before she could reach it, the door opened and Tony walked in. Staggered in, more accurately. Staggered in leading a pony. The pony was clearly unhappy to be there and planted its hooves firmly in the carpet, tearing large grooves into the nap.
“Come on, Thunder!” Tony tugged on the rope connected to the pony’s halter until it finally moved forward. “Pepper! Happy birthday!”
Oh, my God. “My birthday was last week, Tony.” She leaned back in her chair. “Lori, call Happy and have him come up here and collect Mr. Stark, please.”
“Yes, Ms. Potts.” Lori shook her head as she maneuvered around Tony and the reluctant pony. She’d been Pepper’s assistant for years and she thought she’d seen it all. Apparently, she was mistaken.
“Rascal! It’s so good to see you!” Tony swung his arms open to offer her a hug, but he missed as she sidestepped.
“It’s Ms. Raczka to you, Mr. Stark.” She’d always thought it was cute that he’d taken her email, email@example.com, and turned it into ‘Rascal’, but today she was less than amused. She left the office and closed the door a little more firmly than was necessary.
“Tony, what are you doing?” It came out more as a plea than question.
“I brought you a present!” He pulled on the rope and brought the pony to her desk. “Tada! This is Thunder, he’s a miniature horse.”
Pepper ignored the rope when he tried to hand it to her. “Why would you get me a pony?”
“He’s not a pony, he’s a horse. And girls love horses. And I forgot your birthday.” He leaned over Pepper and tried to kiss her. “I’m sorry. I tried not to forget this year. I really did. I’m sorry, say you’ll forgive me.”
“God – no – “ She pushed him away. He smelled of scotch and cigarettes and something else she assumed had to do with the pony.
“He’s a miniature horse.” Tony repeated. “I couldn’t fit a real one in my car.”
“You brought him in your car? On the freeway?” Getting up, she looked out the window. No CHP cars were down there, thank God. This was LA, but still, you’d think a pony in a car would get some attention.
“How else would he get here? He doesn’t have exact change for the bus.” He chuckled at his own joke. “You want a drink? I want a drink. Thunder wants a drink.”
“No, and you don’t need one.” Before she could stop him, he was at the bar, pulling a bottle out. “Tony, put it back. You’ve had enough for one day.” Pepper grabbed the bottle and tired to pull it out of his hands, he wouldn’t give it up, stumbling into her.
“I’m still awake, right?” He pushed his nose against hers and stared cross eyed at her. “Then I haven’t had enough.”
“Please, Tony – “ The door opened and she sighed with relief when she saw it was Happy. “Get Thunder out of here.”
“What do I do with him?” Happy eyed the pony warily. It eyed him back the same way, baring its large teeth.
“I don’t care. Sell him to a dog food company – just get him out of my office!”
“Uh oh…” Tony giggled behind her.
Turning, Pepper saw Thunder dropping clods of shit onto her carpet. “I knew it was a mistake to wonder what else could go wrong today.”
Happy grabbed the rope and pulled the pony out of the office. “I’ll be back for Tony as soon as I figure out what to do with this thing.”
From the doorway, Lori met her gaze. “I’ll send up someone from janitorial.”
“Send up new carpet while you’re at it.” Pepper grabbed Tony’s arm and shoved him toward the sofa. “Sit.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He plopped down on the sofa and wriggled his ass. “I get so horny when you boss me around. I don’t know why people bitch about sexual harassment. It’s great.”
“I am not sexually harassing you.” Sitting beside him, she noticed for the first time that his lip and cheek were swollen. “What happened to your face?”
“Thunder’s a backseat driver.” He giggled.
“Did you have an accident?” Hit and run was probably easier to deal with than DUI, but it’d still hit the papers. “Tony, what am I going to do with you?”
“I wish you’d fuck me. Or at least kiss me.” He giggled and then his face turned sad. “But I screwed that up, didn’t I?”
“This has to stop. Stay there.” She got up from the sofa and returned to her desk. “Yesterday you urinated in the fountains at the Bellagio, last week you went skinny dipping in the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, stole a messenger’s bicycle and rode through Planet Hollywood – you’re lucky Arnold wasn’t there, and you owe him an apology for what you said about him. Then you reported your car stolen – only it wasn’t, you were so drunk you forgot where you parked it.”
“Hey, they found it, didn’t they? I pay taxes – they’re public servants – “ He waved a hand. “They should serve.”
“Oh, they did. A warrant for your arrest. Luckily, we were able to have the charges of insurance fraud dropped.” Pepper sifted through the list on her desk. “Oh, and here’s my personal favorite – thrown out of a strip club for taking your clothes off.”
“It was a strip club! They didn’t want me to take my clothes off! Sue ‘em for false advertisement!” Tony giggled at the memory. “I’m too sexy for my shirt! Too sexy for my shirt! I made fifty bucks before they threw me out.”
“Tony, you have to stop this.” Going back to the sofa, she sat down beside him again. “I’ve lost track of the lawsuits, the arrests – and you’re killing our stock prices.”
“I’m the public face – “ Thumping his chest, he grimaced. He’d forgotten about the bottle in his hand. “Damn, this is still full.”
She didn’t stop him when he opened the bottle and tipped it back, taking a huge drink. Tony had spent the last month in an alcoholic haze. He’d been lucky so far in that he hadn’t hurt anyone, including himself, and hadn’t tried to take the suit out when he was drunk – though she was afraid it was only a matter of time even with the security protocols he’d put in place after his birthday party.
“I’m gonna be – “ Tony leaned over and retched onto her lap.
“I’m going to kill you.” Pepper covered her face with her hands. “I’m going to kill you.”
Pepper paused inside the door of her condo. The light in the kitchen was on and she could hear the television; she knew she’d turned both off when she’d left that morning. “You’re being paranoid, Pepper. Nobody breaks in and turns on the lights and the TV.”
For the first time, she wished that she’d agreed to let Tony set up sensors for Jarvis to monitor her condo. She’d always argued against it, enjoying the privacy and solitude away from Tony’s constant monitoring of the world around him. Now, however, she wished she had given in to his suggestion that she at least have voice activated sensors to contact Jarvis.
“Who’s there?” Pepper cringed as she heard herself say the same stupid thing people always said in scary movies. The same people she mocked for thinking the axe murderer hiding behind the door would answer them.
Pulling her phone out of her purse, she pressed the icon for Jarvis as she stepped cautiously into the kitchen. The AI answered at the same time she spotted the man in the leather coat sitting at her breakfast bar eating a bowl of cereal. “What are you doing here, Mr. Fury?”
“Miss Potts?” Jarvis asked.
“We need to talk.” Fury pushed the bowl away. “And you really need a better selection of cereal, it took a ton of sugar to make this crap edible.”
“It’s nothing, Jarvis. False alarm.” Pepper jabbed her thumb on the end call icon. “Get out of my house. If you want to talk to me, make an appointment.”
“Oh, you don’t want me to make an appointment, this is not a meeting you want your stockholders to know about. I’m here to tell you that you need to get Stark under control.”
“Stark. He is out of control. You need to rein him in before he does something stupid. Or more stupid than the shit he’s already done.”
She tossed her purse onto the counter. “You need to get out of my house. Out!”
“I’m not joking, here, Pepper.” Fury leaned back against the counter. “Rein him in, get him under control – “
“Miss Potts. We’re not friends.”
“Miss Potts. You’re absolutely right, we’re not friends.” He conceded. “Despite that, you can consider this a friendly warning. The people above me – “ Fury cocked his head as if listening to voices from on high. “ – they’re getting nervous. And when they get nervous – well, let me just say you don’t want that to happen. Get him dried out and under control.”
Get. Out.” She moved until they were practically nose to nose. “You break into my house – tell me to get my boss under control – and eat my cereal – “
He didn’t blink. Bigger threats than Pepper Potts had been in his face before.
“He’s hurting and he’s making a spectacle of himself, but it’s hardly the first time.” That was true, but Tony was doing it in spades this time. Pepper wasn’t defending him, and she was nearly to the end of her rope trying to get him corralled, but she wasn’t about to let Fury know. “It’s none of your business. It’s none of SHIELD’s business. It’s damned sure not the business of the people above you.”
“On the contrary, Miss Potts. I’ve needed to bring Stark in to consult on an important issue and so far I haven’t been able to catch him during a sober moment. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t had any lately.”
“He isn’t drinking all the time.” That was a lie but, as she’d said, none of Fury’s business.
“The hell he isn’t.” He shot back. “He dived in the bottle a month and a half ago and hasn’t come up for air since. How long do you think it’ll be before he’s out in the suit, drunk as a skunk, and tearing up Los Angeles? I can’t let that happen.”
“It won’t happen.”
“Oh, really?” Fury crossed his arms over his chest. “And I suppose you can guarantee that?”
“I can. Jarvis has instructions not to allow any of the suits to be taken out if Tony isn’t completely sober.”
“Jarvis? Who? Jarvis?” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Oh, you mean the computer that runs Stark’s house? The one that Stark designed? The one he programmed? The one he can give orders to? The one he can fucking reprogram? That Jarvis?”
“There’s a safety protocol in place that Tony can’t override, he set it up himself.” Pepper had made sure that was something in place since his birthday party.
“He set it up himself? Let me think…. what could possibly go wrong with that, hmm?”
“Tony doesn’t have the code to override Jarvis on this.” Pepper ignored the snark. Compared to Tony, Fury was an amateur. “He can’t.”
“The champion computer genius of the world – the guy who makes Bill Gates look like he’s building pocket calculators – this guy – he can’t get the code?” He raised his eyebrows skeptically. “The guy who built an iron suit? In a cave? From a box of scraps? And made it fly? He can’t get the code?”
“Jarvis won’t – Tony wouldn’t – “ Pepper sighed “He’ll get over her. What Bain did to him –she hurt him badly but he’ll get over it, he just needs some time.”
“He needs time? Well, of course.” He nodded in agreement. “You have forty-eight hours. If he’s not sober and out of the public eye by then, I’ll have him brought in and confined for as long as it takes for him to dry out.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” Pepper jabbed her finger into his chest as he stood up. “You don’t have the authority to arrest him.”
“Arrest him?” Fury gave a bark of laughter. “Who said anything about arresting him? I’m not a traffic cop, Miss Potts. In case you haven’t figured it out, SHIELD isn’t your local cops on the corner. We don’t need a warrant to come and pick him up.”
“No, you’re all Men In Black – and don’t think I care, either. You can’t touch Tony.”
“I can do far more than touch him, Miss Potts. I can and I will.” He stepped past her. “Forty-eight hours. After that he’ll be in a very small room with a blanket and nothing else until he dries out.”
“Get out!” She growled at him. “Out!”
Pepper kept her back stiff and her composure until the front door closed behind Fury. Then she collapsed onto one of the stools next to the breakfast bar. “Oh, my, God.”
She had no doubt that Fury would do exactly what he threatened. Tony had told her how he’d been confined to the house after his – disastrous – birthday party. SHIELD agents had held him hostage in his workshop while he worked on finding a replacement for the palladium in the RT before it killed him. Phil had even threatened to Taser him if he tried to leave.
“Phil!” Reaching for her purse, Pepper pulled her phone out and scrolled through her contacts. There was one SHIELD agent she trusted, the one who’d helped when Stane was running berserk in his mongrel version of Tony’s suit. He’d been there afterwards to help cover for the damage done in the battle and to explain Stane’s death.
Tapping the icon for Phil’s number, she waited impatiently for him to answer. They’d built a friendship after the battle, after the press conference where Tony had ignored the agent’s carefully crafted story, and the disaster of the Stark Expo droid attacks had strengthened it even more. Phil would help her if he could.
“Pepper, it’s good to hear from you.”
Just hearing Phil’s calm voice helped soothe her nerves. “Phil, I need your help. I really, really need your help.”
“I’d be happy to help you any way I can, Pepper. I assume this is about Stark?” Phil opened a new tab on his browser and Googled Tony Stark. He frowned at the top three links. It’d only been eighteen hours since the last incident, Stark was definitely on a roll.
“He’s not handling this break up well. At all.”
“I’m sure the paternity suit was quite a surprise.” He agreed.
“How do you know – ” She rubbed her forehead. “Stupid question, never mind.”
“I’m not sure what I can do, my own love life hasn’t been marked with a lot of successes.” He ignored the piece of popcorn thrown his way from the other end of the sofa. “But you can count on me to do whatever I can, Pepper. Stark’s a pain in the ass, but he doesn’t deserve this.”
“Fury was here and he said that he’s going to lock Tony up if I don’t have him sobered up in forty-eight hours. I’ve been trying to sober him up for years, why does he think I can do it in two days? I need your help, but I don’t want you to get in any trouble. If it’s a conflict – ”
“Director Fury was there – when?” Coulson frowned. He hadn’t been aware that his boss had left the base. Someone had dropped the ball and that someone would find themselves guarding a listening post in Siberia tomorrow.
“He just left. I came home to find him in my kitchen. God, I wish I had a Taser.”
Phil motioned Clint to come closer and hit the mute icon on his phone. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Anything.” The other man winked.
Clint straightened. That tone meant business. “What’s up, boss?”
“Find Stark, make contact, and stay close. We need to get him sobered up and out of Fury’s crosshairs before he ends up in K-Block.”
The other man’s eyebrows went up. K-Block was not a good place. “I’m on it.” He leaned in to steal a kiss before Phil could unmute his phone.
“Pepper, it’s going to be okay.” Phil said reassuringly as he watched Clint shoulder into his leather jacket and leave their apartment. “I’ve got my best agent on it.”
Pepper sagged with relief. “Thank you, Phil. I knew I could count on you.”
“Of course you can. After all, what are friends for?”
Thirty-six hours later, Pepper was writing yet another large check to clean up one of Tony’s messes, this one to the Reno police department. Phil stood beside her, calm as always; a faint, pleasant expression on his face as they waited. She could feel him nearly vibrating with tension, he was just as mad as she was, but was hiding it with a skill she envied.
The sergeant unlocked the handcuffs holding the two men to the iron pipe embedded in the cement floor. “It’s your lucky day, Mommy came and bailed you out.”
“Thank you, kind sir.” Tony gave the man a sloppy salute.
“Let’s go, sunshine.” Clint grabbed Tony’s arm and hustled him through the doorway between the holding area and the front lobby. “Pepper, good to see you. Phil… yeah, I know. Let’s go.”
“And don’t come back. I see either of you two in town again – “ The uniformed officer in the lobby let the threat hang in the air.
“They won’t be back.” Pepper assured him as she followed them outside.
Phil took a deep breath. “Thank you, Chief Lucas, I appreciate this.”
“If they weren’t friends of yours, Coulson, I’d have thrown them in with the bikers just for the fun of it.”
“That wouldn’t have ended well.” Phil grimaced at the thought.
“I mean what I said about them not coming back. Nobody comes into my town and gets away with this kind of thing.” He shook his head. “Damn disrespectful.”
“I understand, Chief.” Phil nodded in agreement. “They won’t be back.”
They shook hands and Phil walked outside. He took a deep calming breath before getting into the rented limo. Stark was lying passed out across one seat, his head pillowed on Pepper’s lap.
Barton was lounging on the other seat, one leg stretched out along the leather cushions and Phil swept his leg off so he could sit down. Reaching behind him, he pressed the button to put up the glass partition between themselves and Hogan.
Clint looked at Pepper and then back at Phil. “Boss?”
“I doubt there’s anything Miss Potts hasn’t heard before when it comes to Stark.” Phil laced his fingers together to keep from reaching out and strangling Stark in his sleep. “Report.”
“Okay. Well, we were okay at the casinos.” Clint clearly remembered not being thrown out of either casino they had gambled at. Though they were asked politely – or at least civilly – to leave Circus Circus after he’d told Tony that the juggler was using stickum on his hands. Which was clearly unprofessional. He might have told a few other people besides Tony, he knew he did tend to get loud when he was pissed off. But the manager had said to come back when they were sober so that counted as okay as far as Clint was concerned.
“Then we picked up some hook – um – ladies – “ He hesitated, these weren’t details Miss Potts needed to hear, in his opinion. “Ladies. Nice, really nice ladies.”
“Please, if I had a nickel for every prostitute Tony’s picked up, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be retired and on a beach somewhere.” Pepper told him.
“So we got a room and we drank and played some cards and somewhere in there I passed out.”
There was silence. He looked from Phil to Pepper and back. Clearly, neither of him were satisfied with his story. Shrugging, he rested his head against the window and closed his eyes.
“Chief Lucas was upset about the goat’s involvement.” Phil said.
“Okay, first of all – “ Clint turned and held up a hand. “Nobody had sex with the goat! Are we clear on that?” Satisfied that they believed him on that point, he rubbed at his aching temples
“Barton.” Phil said firmly. “You were supposed to keep Stark out of trouble. That didn’t happen.”
Clint wished a giant sized bottle of aspirin would magically appear and say it loved him. “I’ve got a good explanation.”
“Great, I’d love to hear it.” Pepper said.
It was close to the same tone he’d heard Phil use on people who weren’t cooperating with him. Clint risked at glance at Pepper. Her eyes were locked on him and promised a slow filleting at the first opportunity. He shivered. Worst fucking assignment ever!
“I did my best but – I screwed up – I’m sorry.” He admitted. “I’ve never met anybody who could drink me under the table – well, except for Natasha and she’s Russian so…” Shrugging, he continued. “So I thought I’d just get him shitfaced and make sure he was somewhere safe to sleep it off.”
“You tried to match Tony drink for drink?” A smile lifted the corner of Pepper’s lips. She looked down at Tony sleeping peacefully on her lap and slid a hand through the tousled hair. “Again, wishing I had a nickel for everyone who’s tried that and failed.”
“No joke. I figured his reputation was just that – reputation. But holy Jesus, he can put the booze away.” Barton grinned, clearly impressed. “It was okay at first, we were playing poker and – Phil, I have never been in a game that fucking big, you wouldn’t believe how much money was on the table. In another life… ah, man.”
Phil sighed. “Barton.”
“Anyway, we left when the house said they couldn’t cover any more of Tony’s bets and they wouldn’t put the title to the casino in the pot. Circus Circus was a mistake, okay, I admit – “ He grinned and ducked his head like a five year old getting caught swiping a cookie. “I knew better, but I couldn’t resist. And it’s not my fault – totally not my fault that their juggler was using stickum and the sword swallower had a fake sword. Who the fuck uses one of those collapsible swords? That’s cheating.”
“And you felt obligated to tell everyone?”
“I only told Tony.” The place was loud and he had to yell, again not his fault.
“They asked you to leave.”
“They didn’t bar us though.” Clint pointed a finger at Phil. “They didn’t say we couldn’t come back.”
“Just to come back sober?” Pepper knew the fine line between the two requests. “They mean don’t come back at all, they’re just being polite.”
The agent shrugged. “Not like I’ll be back anyway.”
“You haven’t explained the goat.” Phil reminded him.
“I’m getting there! Don’t rush me, and I need some aspirin. We hit a club – “
“A strip club.” Phil pulled a bottle of aspirin from his inside pocket and handed them to Barton.
“A strip club, yes.” He popped the bottle open and dry swallowed a couple or five. “Tony said we should take one home with us and do a threesome. I told him I’m gay, so not so interested in the girls.”
“Is that all you told him?”
Clint grinned at Phil, the other man’s pale blue eyes were hot and jealous in his otherwise impassive face. “I told him I was a married man. And he said that was too bad, ‘cos he’d like to fuck me. Which I took as a compliment. If I were single, I’d have been all over it, but, you know?” He winked at his husband.
Pepper stifled a laugh at the indignant look that flashed across Phil’s face before vanishing behind his usual calm. It dawned on her that this was more than just a joke from one agent to another – they were a couple. Phil had a boyfriend! No, a husband – and she’d need all the details on that once this mess was wrapped up.
“One of the uh… ladies, that we picked up does a Bo-Peep act and she has a goat. One of the little ones that will fall over if you freak them out. She uses a goat because it’s hard to work on stage with sheep, which I can understand. Not all animals are performers. Poodles are pros, but those little Pekinese are just too freaking nervous for – “
Phil cleared his throat and Clint decided to skip the circus trivia. “So Tony invited Bo-Peep and her goat and um… I can’t remember her name, the really limber chick, back to the hotel.” He shrugged. “I just went along to keep an eye on him.
“And nobody had sex with the goat.” Clint pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Here, I’ve got video. See, there’s the goat eating over in the corner – room service brought up stuff from the salad bar – and there’s Tony and the two girls on the bed.”
“You watched them have sex?” Phil looked away from the video, not bothered by the sex so much as the fact that his husband had both watched and videoed it.
“Free porn right in front of me? Hell, yeah, I watched! Stark’s like a machine.” He bit his lip and shot an apologetic glance at Pepper. “Sorry, Miss Potts. I’m still a little drunk.”
She waved away his apology. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard about Tony’s sexual prowess, and it wasn’t always from Tony.
“Erase that, please.” Phil reached for Clint’s phone, but the younger man pulled it out of reach.
“Whoa, no! It’s proof nobody fucked the goat, so I should probably hang onto it.” He put the phone back in his pocket. “Just in case.”
“I’m sorry, Pepper.” Phil told her. “I should have asked Natasha to keep an eye on Tony.”
“No, no, don’t apologize. You tried and I appreciate it.” Pepper reached across the gap between their seats and when Phil took her hand, she squeezed hard. “Tony’s corrupted people made of stronger stuff. I still remember the monk he managed to make break a twenty year vow of silence. He’s like kryptonite.”
“That’s an excellent description. He’s the only person I know besides Barton who’s been able to make Natasha angry.”
“She deserved it.” It was still a sore point for Pepper that Fury had put a SHIELD agent in the company and gotten her that close to Tony. “Fury said something about people above him and I get the feeling – “
“He said what?” Phil leaned forward in the seat. “What did he say about them?”
“That they were getting nervous. Why?” She frowned. “Is that something I should be concerned about? More concerned about, I should say, since I’m already well past concerned.”
“Yes.” While he couldn’t tell Pepper about the World Council, he could at least warn her of the danger. “Director Fury appears to act without answering to anyone, but that’s not exactly the case. There’s a group of people who can issue orders to him or override his orders if they deem it necessary. If they decide something should be done about Stark’s behavior, it’ll be completely out of his hands.”
“Which is a nice way of saying you don’t want that to happen.” Clint told her. “If I’d know they’re thinking of getting involved, I’d have just knocked him on the head or something and let him sleep it off after we left the poker game.”
“Clearly this calls for more drastic action.” Phil frowned. “We need to get him to a private clinic or rehab facility and force him to dry out.”
Pepper smiled and shook her head. “I’ve tried that. There’s always someone on the staff who’s willing to take a bribe, or he fools the counselors into thinking he’s seen the error of his ways and volunteers to help clean the garage where he hotwires a car and drives through a gate, or he uses a handheld video game to hack into the security system and unlock all the doors so he can sneak out.”
“How did he use a handheld video game to hack a security system?” Clint knew Stark was insanely smart but even genius had its limitations.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It didn’t even have the ability to connect to the internet or other systems.”
“What game was it?”
“Barton.” Phil said warningly.
They rode in silence for several minutes. Phil watched Pepper absently stroking Tony’s hair while Clint closed his eyes and waited for the aspirin to kick in.
An idea worked its way past the pounding in Clint’s head. “So he needs to be somewhere isolated without access to alcohol, technology, and vehicles; as well as having someone who can’t be bribed watching him, right?”
“Right.” She nodded. “Or have spare parts to build an escape vehicle.”
“Does he still own his parent’s house? That’s pretty isolated, isn’t it?” He asked.
“Yes, it’s way out on the end of the island. Tony never goes out there unless he has to. I’ve been out there a few times to make sure it’s being maintained, but it’s still the way it was when his parents died.”
“They died in 1992, so there’s probably no internet connected to the house?”
Pepper wasn’t sure where Clint was going with this. “The house has limited connectivity. There’s an old interface to Jarvis in his bedroom, that’s the only one. His father had an old computer with a dial-up connection in his office. The thing is ancient, I’m not even sure it would work.”
“Any cars out there? Motorcycles? Boats? Bikes? Anything?”
“Two cars, I think. His mother’s car and one of his father’s sports cars – “ She shook her head. “Why are you asking?”
“I think that’s where you should take him. It’s isolated. “ Clint began ticking the items off on his fingers. “You take out the computer and cut the phone lines to the house so there’s no internet connection or phone. If there’s walkie-talkies, radios, ham radios, Game Boys, whatever – box them up and get rid of them. Anything with wheels or a motor – get it out of there. And clean all the booze out of the house, of course. That kinda goes without saying.”
“There’s no one to interact with and no way to communicate with the outside world.” Phil smiled. “That’s brilliant.”
“Lock him up in his parent’s house?” Pepper wasn’t convinced that was the best idea. “Did you miss where I said he never goes out there unless he has to? I don’t think making him more depressed is going to help the situation.”
“At this point, what’d’ya got to lose? He’s scraping bottom now.” Hanging out with Tony Stark had been fun, but at the same time Clint had seen Tony’s deliberate drive for self-destruction. “He keeps going like he’s been doing and he’s going to drink himself to death, piss off the wrong person who’ll kill him, or get locked up somewhere even his money won’t get him out of.”
“The Director bringing him in wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, but it’d be short term.” Phil told her. “But the Council… he could disappear.”
A chill ran down her spine. “Are you saying they’d kill him? That’s – that’s crazy. He’s too valuable – half of the technology SHIELD uses is Stark tech. The helicarrier would never have gotten off the ground if it wasn’t for Tony.”
“That’s all true. However…” The frightened look in Pepper’s eyes made him hesitate. “That same genius creativity…”
“He’s dangerous. He’s a loaded gun in the hands of a child.” Clint finished for him. He knew his husband. Phil didn’t want to destroy the world Pepper thought she lived in. “You know that new element he created in his basement – stop and think about that for a second. He created a new element. In his basement. Which he now wants to put in a big arc reactor thing like the one in his chest only I dunno – “ He made a gesture indicating the science had gone over his head. “ – way, way bigger and more powerful. And then hook it up to the LA power grid and see if it’ll power the whole city.”
Pepper looked down at Tony. That sounded exactly like the kind of thing he’d come up with. “He wouldn’t actually – “
“If Tony were to do something like that, he’d run simulations and test it first to make sure it was safe.”
“Would he?” Clint shook his head. “I didn’t get the feeling he’s the kind of guy who runs a lot of simulations. You going to sit there and honestly say he’s never had something blow up in his face?” Never just tried something just to see what happens?
“No, but never with something that dangerous.” Even has she said it, she had a memory of him blasting himself backwards testing the so-called ‘flight stabilizer’.
“So not something like creating a new element in his basement with – what was that called? Cold fusion? I don’t know what that is, but it sounds pretty damn dangerous.”
It was rare that someone could box her into a corner like Barton was doing. “You missed your calling, Agent Barton. You should have been a lawyer.”
“Nah, I’d have to wear a suit all the time.” He shot a grin at Phil. “Listen, I’m not trying to bust your chops. I know normally Tony wouldn’t do something that freaking big without doing some tests, simulations, or whatever first. But he’s not normally drinking – at least not drinking like he is now. He put me under the table and I’m not a lightweight. What if he drinks himself past the point of just thinking about doing something dangerous – and actually does it?”
She wanted to defend Tony, say he’d never do anything to put people in danger, but she couldn’t. Clint was right, Tony had never been this drunk for this long, and had never been this self-destructive. “If we do this, isolate him at the house – we have to have someone with him he can’t bribe. Happy could do it, Tony trusts him.”
“Happy is an employee.” Phil reminded her. “A friend, yes, but he’s not used to being in a position of authority in their relationship.”
“There’s Rhodey, he’s known Tony since they were at MIT. He’s used to handling him.”
“That’s the same guy who suited up and got in a fight with him at his birthday party, right?” Clint asked. “Destroyed half the house? That guy?”
Pepper winced. Not Rhodey’s finest moment. What the hell was he thinking when he put on the spare suit and confronted Tony? “Who do you suggest? And don’t say Natalie.” She held up a hand. “Because he doesn’t like her and neither do I. How about you, Phil? You’re good at handling him.”
“I couldn’t keep him from announcing he was Iron Man, remember?” Phil shrugged. “I hate to admit it, but I didn’t see that coming.”
“It’s got to be you, Pep.” Clint added with a matching shrug.
“No. I have a company – make that two companies – to run. I don’t have time to babysit him. I’m not his assistant anymore.” She shook her head. “There has to be someone else.” When neither of them said anything, she shook her head again. “Absolutely not. No.”
“Let’s call Fury and have him toss him in K-Block.” The archer told Phil. “Solves everything.”
“What is K-Block?” Pepper asked.
“Complete isolation. No human contact allowed.” Phil took his phone out of his pocket. “It’s not the solution I’d recommend, however it appears we’re out of options.”
“You can’t be serious. Just lock him up and leave him alone?”
“I didn’t mind having nothing to read or do, I can kill time with the best of them – but the silence was just a bitch.” Clint gestured at his head. “You know that kind of silence where all you hear is that ringing in your ears? That kind of silence.”
“You can’t do that – you can’t – “ Pepper reached out and stopped Phil from hitting the call button. “Tony can’t handle silence. He can’t – his thoughts – his brain – Tony’s brain is on. It’s just on . All the time. When it’s too quiet, he can hear them – not like voices – “ She gestured helplessly, not knowing how to express what she barely understood. “Ideas. Things he’s been working on, things he’s thought about working on, random things – they pile on and won’t stop. He can’t stop thinking. His brain is just on – all – the – time.”
“Like Lucy in the chocolate factory?” Clint asked. “The candy is on that non-stop conveyor belt and she can’t keep up?”
“Yes! Like that, exactly like that! That’s why there’s always loud music or something playing – it’s why the ‘bots and equipment in the workshop make the sounds they do. Background noise helps him focus on one thing at a time.”
Phil thought back over the times he’d been in Stark’s workshop. The ‘bots had made a variety of sounds; whirring, chirping, and other strange mechanical noises he’d assumed couldn’t be quieted. “It’s not that he can’t make them be silent, you’re saying he doesn’t want to?”
“Even the suit makes sounds just to make sounds. And it’s one reason he drinks when he’s not working. It slows everything down – it makes things quieter – ” She glanced down at Tony sleeping peacefully, completely unaware of his fate being out of his hands, and felt uncharacteristic tears welling up. “Phil, you can’t do this to him. He’ll go crazy.”
“Pepper – “ Phil put his phone away and took her hands in his, giving her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I don’t want to do anything that’ll hurt him. I would never do that. But we’ve got to do something before Fury or the Council takes the decision out of our hands.”
“Hey, we’ll help. We will. I promise.” Clint recognized the desperate look in her eyes, he’d seen it too many times. He felt guilty for pushing her into a corner and he reached out to pat her arm. “I like Tony, okay, yeah, he got me thrown in jail – but he treated me like I’m an equal, not like I’m some moron ‘cos I didn’t even finish high school.”
"Despite what people think, Tony doesn't judge people, not like that.” Pepper started pulling herself back together. Later, when there was time, she’d take ten minutes and have a breakdown. “It’ll take some time to get the house ready. Everything has to be packed up and moved out.”
“Give me two hours.” Phil pulled his phone out again and tapped one of his contacts. “I need a cleaning team.” He said when it was answered.
“Two hours?” Pepper asked.
“I’m with you, Pepper, that’s way too much time. I think they can do it in an hour.” Clint ignored the dirty look Phil shot at him. “What? It’s not like there’s any bodies.”
“Phil, we can’t just have people go into the house without being there.” It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Phil or his people, but this was Tony’s parent’s house. It was practically a shrine in his eyes. “There’s family items – personal items.”
Phil had finished giving his team their orders and ended the call. “I understand, Pepper, I do. I wouldn’t want strangers coming into my parent’s house without being there to oversee everything.”
“However…” Clint added softly.
“However, this is my team. They’re handpicked people that I’ve worked with for years and that I trust my life with. They won’t touch anything, look at anything, or disturb anything – that isn’t absolutely necessary. No matter what they see, they’ll never tell anyone.”
“Trust me, this is nothing compared to some of the stuff they’ve had to do, it’s not like there’s any bodies.”
“Not helping, Clint.” Phil chided him. “I’ve sent the instructions, now we just need to get Tony out there.”
“And make him stay there.” Clint added.
“Again, not helping.”
“He’s right. If all it took was me telling him to stop, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” She frowned, trying to get ahead of Tony in the things he’d think of doing once he woke up somewhere he didn’t want to be. “This very, very crazy conversation.”
Tony jerked and mumbled something. Pepper rubbed her hand in soothing circles on his back until he quieted. “There’s nothing to stop him from walking into town and using a phone or getting a ride. Unless… “ She smiled. “Unless he doesn’t have any clothes.”
“You want to keep him naked?” Phil blinked. He hadn’t seen that one coming. Beside him, Clint was laughing and saying it was a kinky idea.
“No, not naked. Not completely.” There was no way she was going to be cooped up with a naked Tony Stark for days. He’d definitely get the wrong idea. “He’ll have boxers to wear.”
“You don’t think he’ll walk into town in his boxers?” There was a tiny town a few miles from the Stark house.
“It’s not just the house that’s special, Phil, it’s the neighbors and the town, too. He grew up there – when he wasn’t in one school or another – this is home. It’s the one place he doesn’t do embarrassing things. He cares what they think.”
“Makes sense. If I had a hometown, I’d want to be able walk down the street without people telling me to get out of town.” Clint nodded. “And for sure not in just my shorts.”
“Tony’s parent’s room is off limits. It’s exactly like it was the day they died. He won’t put on his father’s clothes, not even to walk into town and get a drink.”
Phil took out his phone and sent a message to his team leader to remove all of Stark’s clothing except for his underwear and to leave his parent’s room alone. “Everything’s in motion. All we have to do now is get sleeping beauty to his castle.”
Pepper sighed. “I just hope he doesn’t think I’m the wicked witch.”