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A Widow's Toast

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After he signs the check, Tony gives the real estate agent that smile that Henry used to practice for hours at a time in his dressing room and never quite got right.

“Mr. Hellrung and I would like to do a little exploring, if you don’t mind,” Tony says, with a gesture that encompasses the entirety of the massive estate he’s just purchased without so much as a price quote.

The agent smiles back. “Oh, wonderful! If you’ll come through this door, you’ll see the main ballroom of the former hotel, designed by—“

Tony lifts a hand, silencing her, and wraps his other arm around Henry’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. We’d like to explore alone.” And he winks.

Her smile falters, but she recovers quickly, with the skill of an aspiring actress who came to L.A. at eighteen and switched to real estate when her first ten auditions went belly-up. “Of course!” She waves Tony’s check in the air. “The Demeter is your property now, after all! Just make sure you lock up before you leave – wouldn’t want any stray zobos to get in!” Henry can visualize the exclamation points at the ends of each of her sentences.

And then she’s gone.

Henry shrugs out from under Tony’s arm. “Do you have to do that?”

“I make it a point not to do anything I don’t have to do.” Tony leans one hip against a cracked old fountain and purses his lips.

“You’re infuriating,” Henry says, and he rubs quickly at his temple. “And you’re the one who’s so invested in your secrets. What if that woman goes to the tabloids?”

“Well, then, it’ll be a good thing that you found us the best P.R. hack this town’s ever seen.” Tony looks dangerously close to rolling his eyes.

“Kate isn’t a miracle worker. And you know I don’t like lying.” Henry doesn’t even like keeping secrets anymore, but he understands that they’re sometimes necessary. Lies should never be necessary.

This time Tony does roll his eyes. “Christ, Henry! It was an arm and a bit of innuendo, not a dirty photograph. That woman will take it as a joke, just like they all took it as a joke seven years ago.”

Henry crosses his arms. “I still don’t like this place.”

“You need a new headquarters. This is a big, beautiful building. What is not to like?”

“I’ve already listed my reasons.”

“And I told you I’d build you a cell tower. Hell, I’ll even buy out the homes of everyone within a ten-mile radius, if you’re that concerned about the damn civilians.”

“You can’t just buy the whole world, Tony.” Henry sets his jaw. The lobby they’re standing in is cavernous and dusty, and he doesn’t know how the Order will ever get any work done when they’re too busy lounging in Stark-furnished luxury bungalows.

“Of course I can,” Tony says, and his eyes cloud with frustration. “God, you’re just like…” He trails off, his face dark. “Why won’t anyone ever let me buy anything for them?”

Henry has no idea who else Tony is talking about. None of the women he’s dated have seemed averse to diamond earrings and exotic vacations. But Henry shakes his head all the same, knowing he’s lost the argument.

“You’re not buying this for me,” he corrects, with what little conviction he’s retained. “You’re buying this for my team.”

“Mmmhmm,” Tony says, obviously sensing his victory, and he grabs Henry by the wrist and leans in to breathe hot against his neck. “I am most definitely buying this purely for your team.” He lets his tongue skim the edge of Henry’s jaw. “Now why don’t we go do that exploring?”

Henry sighs and gives in to the kisses, resigning himself to a suit jacket full of dust mites.

~*~

When Henry checks in with Pepper later that night, she’s still wearing her Stark-engineered telepresence enhancements.

“Pepper?” Henry says, rapping at the doorframe of her chamber. “Is something up?”

She twists in her chair, facing his direction. “Veda, Mulholland, and Calamity had some kind of fight tonight. We’re not going to know the details until the morning, but I want to keep track of them until they get home.”

“A fight? I thought they were going to find…” he rummages for a name and comes up empty, “that solar-powered guy?”

“Carlos. And they were. Someone else intervened.”

Henry rubs at his temples, stepping further into the room and glancing at the myriad screens that surround it. Footage of the Order, both live and archival, plays along the main screens, while other screens show secondary surveillance spots and TV news channels. On CNN, an anchor is reporting on the dedication of the Captain America Memorial Library. “Anything else I should know?”

“Holly and Milo say they rescued someone from what the victim described as a giant lizard, a claim which could be completely ridiculous or entirely reasonable, depending on your point of view. And we managed to suppress Becky’s sex tape at the expense of her father’s reputation.”

“Oh. Is that all.” Henry is struck with the sudden desire to apply the electricity in his fingers directly to his own head.

Pepper shrugs. “We’ve had worse days.” Her attention flickers briefly to the screen directly in front of her, which shows Henry’s three bedraggled teammates climbing into a car. Pepper lets the screens go dark and begins to peel the Stark Tech off of her face. “They’re on their way.”

“Ok,” Henry says. “Well, then, I guess I’ll…” He turns to go. He’d promised, while he and Tony were lying half-dressed on a moth-eaten mattress in one of the bungalows, that he'd spend tonight in Tony's L.A. penthouse. Not that Henry particularly wants to do that – he’d much rather be here with his team tonight – but it’s hard to say no to a guy who buys you a mansion (even one you don’t want) and follows it up with some of the best head you’ve ever had.

“Wait,” Pepper says, standing up. “I, um. Do you want to go for a cup of coffee? I’ve been in this building all day, and I’d like to reassure myself that the outside world does, in fact, still exist beyond these screens.”

Henry takes in her stressed appearance, her hair sticking to her cheeks where the tech made her skin sweaty. They could both use a break.

“Sure.”

~*~

Ten minutes later, Pepper and Henry are sitting in the Starbucks in the Gas Company Tower a few blocks away. The tower is a sweeping skyscraper – sweeping by L.A. standards, at any rate – and its shape is meant to resemble the Southern California Gas Company’s blue flame logo. “Dusk,” a block-long mural that covers the side of the adjacent building, can be seen from the tower’s windows. But most people outside of L.A. – Henry’s own mother included, on her last visit three years before – only find the tower notable for its presence in the opening scene of the movie Speed.

And that’s L.A, Henry muses, as he sits down at a small round table with his tall skim green tea latte – a place defined by its photographs. A convenient, forgettable backdrop for everyone else’s melodrama, destined forever to command less respect than its eastern cousins no matter how often it dresses itself up and poses for the flashing lights.

“What’s on your mind?” Pepper asks, settling into the opposite seat with the grande caramel macchiato poured by yet another failed actress.

Henry doesn’t think she’ll follow if he says “Los Angeles architecture,” so he lies. “Becky. She’s close to her father, isn’t she?”

Pepper looks down into her coffee cup. “She was… distraught about the situation. But she’s young; she’ll bounce back.” She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself as much as she’s trying to convince Henry. “And trust me, her father will talk to her again,” she adds, with more conviction. “Even in a jail cell, he’ll recognize that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And Becky’s about to get a lot of publicity, if the gossip machine can be trusted to do its job. It just won’t be publicity for her underage bedroom activities, which is the best scenario for all of us.”

In the back of Henry’s mind, Tony’s statements about Kate’s PR prowess and “dirty photographs” echo. He wonders if Tony knew about Becky’s problems. He wonders if Tony knows more about the team than he does. In the long run, the mountain of stress Henry deals with every day is little more than a drop in Tony’s multitasking bucket. Tony probably knows a thousand things important to the Order that he’ll never tell Henry.

Henry tries to shake the thought. “I’ll talk to her tomorrow. See if there’s anything I can do.” Henry’s not sure how well that will go, but he knows he has to try. He wants to help his team. He needs to help his team.

“She’ll appreciate that.” Pepper nods and sips her coffee. “But come on, Henry. I know you don’t want to talk about work when we’ve been doing it all day long.”

“So what do you want to talk about?” Henry takes a gulp of his tea. He’s never been good at small talk. He can memorize lines in minutes, conduct himself with poise on a late night talk show interview, deliver a prepared speech to a roomful of people with passion and conviction. But basic conversation – spontaneous, frivolous conversation about minutiae – has never been his strongest suit. At least while he’s been sober.

But Pepper apparently doesn’t have much use for small talk, either, because her reply is coy, pointed, and immediate.

“Well, we could talk about your potential… bedroom activities.”

Henry chokes on his drink. She couldn’t know about him and Tony, could she? Pepper and Tony are close, Henry knows, but Tony had been very explicit about keeping things under wraps, and Henry had thought that applied to both of them, and of course Tony has never had compunctions about breaking his own rules, but still—

And then Henry lets that train of thought end, because Pepper is looking hopeful and her hand is hovering over Henry’s and it’s obvious she isn’t talking about Tony at all.

Not that what she is talking about is any better. Henry has no idea what to say. Pepper is clever and beautiful and terrifically competent, and Henry would sleep with her in a second if she were at all his type. But somehow, he doesn’t think, “I haven’t been with a woman in six years and I’m not really looking to break that streak” would come out very well, and he fishes helplessly for a better response.

“Pepper, I… you’re a lovely woman,” he says, finally, “but I’m, um… actually seeing someone right now.” Which isn’t, Henry thinks, a complete lie, even if he’s fairly certain that he and Tony aren’t exclusive.

Pepper sets her mouth in a thin line. "Of course you are," she says. And before Henry can blink, she's grabbed her coffee and stormed out of the shop.

"Pepper, wait!" Henry calls, bewildered, grabbing his own cup and following her out the door. She's already around the corner, heading toward the nearby parking garage where they'd left her car, and Henry jogs to catch up. "I'm sorry, I - did I say something wrong?" he asks, when he finally reaches her at the mouth of the garage. Across the street, police lights blink in the darkening dusk, surrounding two crumpled hulks of metal that might once have been SUVs.

Pepper keeps walking until she reaches her car, then whirls around. "No, of course you didn't do anything wrong," she says, her voice rising. "Men always have an excuse. They're 'seeing someone' or they're 'not interested' or they're 'on their way to meet you at the theater, really, they're just going to be a little late, a few hours tops, they just have to have a run-in with the Spymaster first..." And suddenly her coffee is crashing to the cement floor and she's crying, her face in her hands, slumped against the side of her car.

Henry has never seen Pepper like this. She’s always been so in-control, from the moment he met her, in the middle of the superhero civil war. If he hadn’t heard about her husband’s death on the news, he never would have known she was grieving; her behavior before and after had been shockingly, unnervingly consistent. She’d been so composed, always working, always professional. Until this moment.

Henry steps forward, placing a hand on Pepper's shoulder and squeezing, trying to be soothing but completely at a loss for words. Pepper looks up from her hands and, focusing on Henry's face, shakes her head and stands up straighter. Her eyes are still red and watery, but she wipes them off furiously with the back of her hand. Henry reaches into his pocket and pulls out a brown Starbucks napkin, handing it to her. She accepts it, cringing a little.

“God, I’m sorry. Look at me, throwing myself at you like some kind of sorority floozy and then turning into a mess on top of it.” She dabs at her eyes with the napkin. “It's just that, since Happy, I haven’t really tried… and you were… God, I’m sorry.” She shakes her head again.

Henry shakes his own head in return. “Please, don’t apologize. There’s nothing to apologize for."

Pepper finishes wiping her eyes and pushes her red hair back behind her ears, composing herself almost as quickly as she’d fallen apart. “Crying in public,” she mutters, clenching her teeth. “Don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Pepper…” Henry says, tentative. “I don’t mean to pry, but… have you tried talking to anyone? A… grief counselor, or…”

“I don’t need a counselor,” Pepper snaps. “I’m not some neurotic weakling.”

“There’s no shame in seeking help when you need it.” Henry’s voice is quiet, but he meets Pepper’s eyes as he speaks and doesn’t look away.

She cringes again. “I didn’t mean… God, I’m batting a thousand tonight.”

Henry shrugs, and smiles with his shadow of Tony’s smile. “I’ve done worse. Trust me.” He raises his hands at his sides, palms up. “Look, if one-on-one counseling isn’t your thing, what about a bereavement group? I have some names and numbers I could give you.”

Pepper still looks pained at the idea, but she nods. “Ok, yeah. I’ll… think about it, at least.”

Henry smiles again, this time with his own, gentle, non-Tony smile. “Then come on," he says, reaching for the driver's side door. "Let’s get you back to the Bradbury.”

~*~

“You’re awfully late.”

Tony is sitting on his bed in boxers and an open shirt, typing something on the laptop in front of him, when Henry enters the room an hour later. He doesn’t look up.

“Sorry,” Henry says, taking off his shoes. “I got tied up. Order business.” He’d waited until he was sure Pepper was going to be ok before leaving the Bradbury, and even then, he’d done so reluctantly. Now, he tugs his tie loose, throws his jacket over an armchair, and crosses the room to sit on the other side of the bed. He wants to talk about Pepper; wants to get Tony’s opinion, see if they can’t work together to help her out.

But Tony still doesn’t look up from his laptop. “Whatever,” he says. And that’s when Henry knows it’s going to be one of those nights.

Since they started this thing again, renewing however tentatively the relationship they'd had seven years before, there have been two kinds of nights. Some nights are the nights like this afternoon – nights when Tony is full of grand plans and excitement, nights when he’s plotting out the next PR campaign for the Order or the next great Initiative initiative, and Henry can barely follow the lightspeed train of thought. But he nods along all the same, and Tony’s smile gets wide and he says, “See, you get it, you get it, you know why the country needs this,” and then the sex is great and Tony does things like buy a luxury hotel that Henry can’t possibly use.

And then there are the other nights, when Tony is distant, and sarcastic, and sometimes even morose, nights when he stares out into space or works on his laptop in bed and throws pillows at the wall from unarticulated frustrations. Nights when Henry falls asleep with the knowledge that Tony won’t be following suit anytime soon. On those nights, Henry wonders why he’s there at all, because every time he offers help or comfort Tony shuts him out, refusing to admit a thing about his problems, despite the fact that half their history together revolves around Henry helping Tony through his problems. But every time Henry tries to go, on those nights, Tony grabs him and clings to him like he’s going to disappear forever, and kisses down his body without looking at his face.

However happy Tony might have been earlier in the day, tonight is definitely that second kind.

“Did something happen?” Henry asks, because maybe this time Tony will actually tell him. In a fair world, playing someone on TV for three seasons should give you a window into their brain, but telepathy isn’t one of the powers Henry has been granted.

“SHIELD business,” Tony says, shortly, and his fist is balled in the red silk of his sheets. Henry steals a glance at the screen of his laptop and sees what looks like incomplete specs for a bionic arm. He doesn’t ask anything more. It isn’t his business.

He wishes he was back at the Bradbury, checking on Pepper, checking on his teammates. Checking on the things, and the people, that really are his business.

Instead, he puts one hand on Tony’s knee and moves his other hand up to Tony’s shoulder, pushing back the fabric of his shirt. Tony finally looks up and closes the laptop, raising an eyebrow at Henry. “Why are you still wearing clothing?”

Henry shrugs, and reaches for his belt.

~*~

When they’re finished, Tony curls up on the side facing away from Henry and gazes off into the distance. Henry spoons his naked body around him, bringing an arm across Tony’s waist.

“You know,” he begins, hesitant and careful, speaking quietly to the curve of Tony’s neck, hoping that the sex has improved Tony’s mood enough for him to bring up the subject, “I think maybe – that is, I think it might be a good idea, a… philanthropic… idea – if you gave Pepper some time off. She’s still a new widow, and I – I’m really not sure the workload is giving her the time to grieve that she needs. Not," he adds, quickly, "that she isn’t a strong woman completely capable of holding herself together, of course, but she really shouldn’t have to be that strong, and if she just had some time…”

He waits for a reaction, but gets none – not even a shrug or a murmur. Tony is still staring off the side of the bed, over the low dresser against the far wall.

“Or you could just not listen to me at all,” Henry mutters, more to himself than to Tony.

Tony turns over. “What? Sorry, Hank, I’m a million miles away over here.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Henry tries not to sound resentful, even though the nickname grates. Tony’s an important man. He has a lot to deal with, a lot to contemplate, even on his best days. He doesn’t have time to listen to some upstart newbie giving him advice on how to treat a woman he’s know for years. Even if he’s known that newbie for years, too. “Don’t worry about it.”

Tony stares blankly for a moment, then shrugs and rolls away again.

Henry is tempted to roll away as well, get some sleep and forget about today so he can concentrate on tomorrow – tomorrow, when he’ll have to find out what disaster happened to Holly and Maggie and James, when he’ll have to try to comfort Becky and probably fail at that as badly as he failed at truly comforting Pepper. But Henry can’t help his curiosity, and he finds himself glancing over Tony’s shoulder, following his line of sight to the cherry wood dresser, searching for a clue to his mood and distraction.

The dresser’s surface is cluttered with half-created gadgets, bits of scrap paper, a discarded tie, a bottle of expensive cologne. But at the very center – of the dresser, and of Tony’s gaze – is a photograph in a frame. Tony’s standing there, in civilian clothing, with his arm thrown around the shoulders of a bigger, light-haired man. Both of them are grinning broadly, not at the camera, but at each other – like they’ve just shared some private joke, some loving intimacy. Henry squints, wishing he hadn’t taken out his contacts already, and tries to make out who the other man is. He looks so familiar, and there’s some kind of pattern peeking out from under his half-zipped leather jacket. A blue field, something white with points…

And then the pieces fall together, and he knows.

A lesser man would cringe. A lesser man would let the words “perfect rebound guy” float through his mind for the second time in less than four hours. A lesser man would feel hurt. Used. Devalued. As second-rate as he’d always known himself to be. A lesser man might even laugh at the absurdity of it all.

But Henry Hellrung has spent every day for the past six years trying not to be a lesser man.

He takes his arm from Tony’s waist, pulling his body back and away, and lets his eyes wander to the L.A. city lights filtering through the blinds behind the bed. They’re shining even in the heavy smog, lighting the way for the highway travelers still trying to get home to their own loved ones, their own stories.

“Maybe,” Henry says, softly, placing a tentative hand on Tony’s shoulder and resolutely refusing to sigh, “you should give yourself some time off, too.”

Then he rolls over, pulls Tony’s blankets up to his chest, and waits for sleep to come. He needs the rest, after all.

Tomorrow, they expect him to be a superhero.