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Into Trembling Air

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After the dust settles and things get back into a regular routine again, Tony finds a letter that Pepper had left in the shop at some point during his kamikaze-I’m-going-to-die-soon-anyway-so-who-cares-downward-spiral. As soon as he’s worked out what it’s about he wishes he’d found it earlier, although to be fair to him it was hidden underneath a pile of very boring reports that needed his signature.

It takes him about five seconds to work out what it’s about, and as soon as he does he folds it back up again to save for later. He knows that it’s a valid excuse to abandon the Boring Reports for another week or so, but he’s nervous about what the letter might actually say, so instead he uses the reports as an excuse not to read it.

Later, when he’s finished the paperwork, and he can’t think of any crazy schemes to pull off, or new toys to build, Tony finds himself pacing - actually pacing! - back and forth across the living room in an attempt to work himself up to reading the damn thing. He still hasn’t succeeded by the time Pepper gets home.

Dear Pepper, who looks as though her day’s been just as long as his, though no doubt twice as productive. It takes her one glance to know something’s up, so she kisses his cheek and asks Jarvis to order in pizzas for them before she goes to their bedroom to change into more comfortable clothing. Tony follows her, partly so he can watch her get changed, but mostly because he’s been around robots all day and, for once, he really wants human company.

“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong, or am I going to have to get you drunk first?” Pepper asks as she unzips her skirt and hangs it up carefully with the matching jacket so that neither will crease.

“I got a letter today,” Tony says, by way of answer. “Well, quite a while ago, actually, but I didn’t notice it until today.”

Pepper murmurs encouragingly for him to continue, when he stops and stares for a while when she takes off her blouse and bra. He still can’t believe that she’s his now. She’s something he’s dreamed about for a long time, but hasn’t dared to touch because she is so much better than him in so many ways.

“I was doing paperwork - I know, actual paperwork! Because you just keep piling stuff up on my desk, and I do actually need that space for important things, and you keep bugging me about it, so I thought ‘what the hell?’ and was going through all the shit you left there and, God, Pepper, if that’s just the absolutely-necessary-you-must-personally-sign-this stuff, I have no idea how you cope with all the other rubbish!”

“Paperwork’s my calling,” she interrupts him dryly, in a way that he knows means she’s amused, and not necessarily telling the truth, and could he please get to the point. She pulls one of his t-shirts on, as well the denim shorts that she knows Tony loves seeing her bend over in. He’s simultaneously disappointed that she’s no longer mostly naked, and pleased by what she chose to wear.

“It’s a letter from Emma Frost’s niece,” he says bluntly, and hopes that that will be enough of an explanation for Pepper to realise what kind of emotional frenzy he’s in.

“Oh,” Pepper says. She’s calm, because the only time she isn’t is when he might die, but there’s worried understanding there, too. And since when has he been able to tell so much about her from a word that isn’t really a word at all? “I’ll get some beers from the fridge,” she adds, which just goes to show exactly how well she understands, because Pepper doesn’t normally drink beer.

Stark Industries has quite a strong link to Frost International, and not just because they’re big businesses in relatively close quarters (although, technically, Frost International is a conglomeration now, rather than a single business). But also because they’d been in business together for almost eighteen years, and the contract had been set up so that it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to take apart. And the reason behind this had been two very stubborn, somewhat emotionally neglected teenagers taking an immediate liking to one another and plotting to dissolve the contract before it had even formed.

Kayla Frost had, in all actuality, probably been the first female who Tony had been capable of calling his friend. She was the eldest daughter of the Frost patriarch, and had seemed painfully young when they’d first been introduced. He’d been nineteen, with two degrees and several billion dollars and too much time on his hands. She’d been sixteen, still in high school, and desperately trying to be sister, mother and father all at once to her little sister.

So Tony, naturally, had taken her out and got her very, very drunk. And he’d found out more about her than was probably good for his emotional well-being. She was him, really. Except, she was a couple of years younger and female and didn’t have his technical genius (although he never doubted for a second that she wasn’t a different kind of genius) and she had two little siblings.

But the thing that probably sealed the deal on their friendships was the shared dislike of their fathers. They’d both spent their childhoods trying to impress them and, having failed in that, were now determined to hate them. Which is when they’d decided to try and spoil the Stark-Frost contract. Their first attempt, whilst still drunk and giggling happily over the fact that there was someone else like them, had not gone very well. They’d got steadily better and better at it over the course of a few months, before Howard and Maria Stark had died and Tony had taken over the company. Well. Obadiah had taken over. The point was, a truce was called and the contract left alone.

They hadn’t seen so much of each other after that, only talking maybe once a month, but when they did talk it was for hours on end about anything and everything. Kayla and Rhodey had been his best friends.

Until Kayla dropped off the map. She stopped returning his messages and his calls, didn’t even send him an email to explain what had happened. And as public as the Starks were, the Frosts were private. There was not a word to be breathed on the subject and Tony had convinced himself that Kayla had woken up to his antics and had decided to move on.

Which, in hindsight, made him feel like a terrible person. Because dropping someone and moving on was not in Kayla’s personality. The only person he’d ever known her to be the remotest bit mean about in anything more than a tease, was her father. And most of the time that had been in defence of her siblings, not herself.

Six and a half, almost seven years after Kayla disappeared, Emma Frost made herself known to the business world. Not just as heir apparent to the Frost empire, but as a business woman in her own right. She had taken the world by storm, and Tony had watched with trepidation and delight as she rose like a comet, all pale beauty and cold determination. She, too, was a genius, and in yet another way entirely. She also, inexplicably, liked Tony. He couldn’t stand her.

Emma was the polar opposite of her sister, in everything from temperament to looks, but there was enough that was hauntingly the same that it was difficult to look at her for any length of time. And her presence reminded him, inescapably, of his own faults.

Because he should have known that Kayla wouldn’t abandon him like that. He should have known that it was suspicious that both she and her sister had disappeared so suddenly and so totally. It was only when Emma returned, alone, and with a terrible story of kidnapping, blackmail and extortion that Tony realised how very badly he’d failed his friend. So he had watched Ms Frost, the business woman, with awe and excitement, but had been unable to look at Emma, Kayla’s little sister.

“It’s a letter from Emma’s niece, you said?” Pepper asks, passing him one of the beers she’d opened and sitting sideways on the couch. He slumps down next to her and takes a gulp.

“Yeah. Her niece. Well. Adopted niece.”

“I didn’t think Mr Frost was well enough to adopt anyone,” Pepper says, delicately side stepping the fact that ‘Mr Frost’, the only son, was a lifelong stoner who had since been committed to a loony bin where he apparently spent his days literally bashing his head against a wall.

“Mr Frost isn’t her new parent,” Tony confirms her suspicions. “I didn’t - I haven’t read it yet. But I think Kayla’s daughter has sent me a letter.” He feels more like a coward saying that out loud than he had the entire time he’d been trying to convince himself to read the damn thing.

Pepper doesn’t know the specifics about Kayla. The only person who does is Rhodey, and that’s only because he’d had to talk Tony down out of a panic that he wasn’t going to leave, too. Except now, maybe, Kayla’s alive. And might have told her adopted daughter about Tony-fucking-Stark.

“Were you in love with Kayla?” Pepper asks. Because, bless her, she knows better than anyone, probably better than Tony himself, what kind of track record he has. He has been in love twice before her, and both times he had his heart broken. It’s why he’d sleep with anyone who offered herself - even men, occasionally - and buried himself in the appearance of a heartless playboy. He belongs to Pepper now though, and she knows that, but she’s also very good at contingency plans.

“The idea of her,” is what Tony admits to. “I was never in love with her in a kind of marry-me-and-have-lot’s-of-my-babies way, but she was - is - was the best person I’ve ever known. She was the type of person I wanted to love, but I was never in love with her. She was my best friend.”

Pepper nods, and there’s a flicker of a smile on her face. It’s only brief, but it’s relieved and possessive and it causes Tony’s breath to catch. He knows that he will beat to death with a stick anyone who even looks at Pepper funny, and it took him ages to get over the ‘Happy and I were together for a while’ thing (although Happy being married now and possibly the best chauffeur-slash-bodybguard ever probably helped speed things up a bit). But Pepper being possessive of him is something new. He likes it.

“So you’re worried that she might have been alive all this time, and that you never did anything to help her?” Pepper questions.

“Pretty much,” he replies. Maybe he should be worried about how well Pepper knows him.

Pepper drinks some of the beer, holding the bottle as carefully as she might a champagne flute and winces at the taste. “From what I know of the Frosts, I suspect that Kayla has done fine on her own. They are worth a fortune themselves, you know.” She pauses for a moment, leaning forward and kissing him chastely. It catches him by surprise. Not because Pepper kissing him is a strange thing, just because it doesn’t normally happen so unannounced. Pepper likes to start by flirting a bit, and holding his hand or touching his arm, before she works up to a kiss.

Then again, they’ve only been dating for a month now, so what does Tony know?

“You should read the letter,” Pepper continues, although there’s a smile on her lips as though she knows perfectly well how much her kiss distracted him.

And, of course, if it is a cunning plan on her part to get Tony to get over himself and read it already, it works perfectly. He’s already halfway through the first paragraph when he realises how well he’s just been played. And Tony’s reading it aloud to her too, so he can’t even stop and glare at her for it.

“Dear Mr Stark,

“You don’t know me, but I hope that you’ll read this anyway, because it’s about something that’s very important to someone who’s become quite important to me. Plus, Auntie Emma’s the one passing this on and I know she can be very persuasive if she needs to be. It’s about my mother, Kayla Vadas - Kayla Frost as she used to be.

“I only met Kayla a year ago, but as well as adopting me she’s also become my best friend. She ended up telling me a bit about her childhood, and one thing that really struck me was how lonely she was. Apart from her brother and sister there didn’t seem to be anyone that she cared about. But then she told me about Tony Stark, about you. The person she described was exactly how the papers and society pages describe you too - and exactly not, as well. If I didn’t know her brother’s name, I would assume it was Tony.

“Anyway, she got kidnapped and blackmailed, and then she was on the run from the man who’d done that in the first place, and you know I don’t think she ever stopped running? Not until the beginning of this year anyway. But she said that you only ever stopped talking to each other because she got kidnapped. So I was hoping that, even if you don’t particularly care at all, you might send back a message? Just a quick hello would be fine.

“Kayla’s married now, in case you didn’t know. To a man called Logan Vadas. Although, Vadas isn’t his real surname either. And technically they never actually got married. But they were in a relationship and on the run and it was just easier, or something. I don’t rightly know. They are in love and very happy though. It’s sort of disgusting, actually, how much in love they still are considering they met almost twelve years ago now.

“I would like to give you our address, or exchange email addresses or something, but Logan was very specific about not giving out any information apart from our names. He thinks that the man who kidnapped Kayla and Auntie Emma is still after him, you see. And there was something about a brother or half-brother who might also want to kill both of them. They haven’t told me the whole story. Anyway, if you just want to give Auntie Emma  - Emma Frost, that is - a brief message for Kayla I’d really appreciate it. She has our email addresses, too, if you’re interested.

“Sincerely,

“Anna Marie ‘Rogue’ Vadas”

As soon as Tony finishes reading it out loud, he reads it twice more in the privacy of his own head. Kayla. Kayla’s alive and happy and not-married. He laughs over that. It makes him wonder what her father had to say about it, although if they’re on the run maybe the man thinks his eldest daughter is dead. Maybe he doesn’t care. He didn’t care when they first disappeared.

“Oh,” Pepper says, although this ‘oh’ says a lot of very different things to the last one.

“What?” he has to ask. Because if Pepper knows something, anything, then she needs to tell him.

Pepper moves away from where she’s been curled against his side, and flicks the StarkPad on the coffee table on, rapidly flitting through various webpages and news articles, before she reaches the link she wants. Then Pepper connects it to the main screen, and it flickers on to reveal what claims itself to be a ‘mutant fan blog’. She scrolls down through the various entries, before she find the one she’s looking for.

“It’s probably not the same person, but the fact that she calls herself ‘Rogue’ and her adopted father is called ‘Logan’ just rang a few bells,” she explains hastily. The majority of the screen is taken up by a grainy picture of two men holding a barely conscious young woman up between them. She has a shock of white hair amongst her brown, but that doesn’t compare to the three sharp blades one of the men has coming out of his fist, warning off any danger that might come near. There is something strange about the other man, too, but the picture is of too poor quality for Tony to be able to tell what, exactly.

Beneath the picture is an article about the recent occurrences at a world summit. Apparently someone called Magneto had tried to turn all of the world leaders into mutants with some sort of machine. ‘The Rogue’ (centre, picture) had apparently saved the day, with the help of ‘Wolverine’ (left, picture) and the rest of the X-Men. Although no one knew what The Rogue’s name was, she was apparently Wolverine aka Logan’s daughter.

“Well,” Tony says, after considering this for a little while. “That’s definitely Wolverine.” Howard Stark had been too much a fan of Captain America to not tell his son about every adventure he’d ever had. And one of them had involved a man called Wolverine, or Logan (or James, but only to his brother) fighting by his side before disappearing again.

Tony glances at the letter again. Not that he doesn’t already have it memorised, but that was besides the point. “And there was something about a brother or half-brother who might also want to kill both of them,” Anna Marie had written. That certainly fit well enough with what little Tony had been told about the Wolverine’s brother. Even then, the pair of them had had a relationship that was as much built on mutual hatred as it was on love.

“Jarvis?” he asks the air, knowing his AI will respond.

“Yes, sir,” the cool English tones reply.

“How long ago did this letter arrive on my desk?”

There’s a beat of silence, before sure enough; “The letter was placed on your desk approximately nine months ago, sir. I’m afraid I can’t be any more specific than that without knowing which pile of reports it came in.”

Pepper looks as though the only thing stopping her from glaring at him about leaving the paperwork untouched for so long is the fact that the amount of time lost already hurts him more than her.

“Nine months,” Tony echoes blankly. Nine months ago must have been… after he’d got back from being kidnapped. About the same time he found out about Obie then. He wonders if Rogue wrote the letter some time before she sent it, having heard that he’d been kidnapped, only passing it to her ‘Auntie Emma’ when she knew he was back. He wonders if she still wants him to get in touch with Kayla, or whether she’s given up hope.

He looks up at the screen, at the tired, battered face of the young woman who is probably the one who wrote to him. As exhausted as she looks, she’s still smiling. He doesn’t think she’d give up hope that easily. He hopes not, anyway.

“What do you say, Pep,” he asks, “to a field trip tomorrow? I’m thinking Westchester? Then maybe somewhere further afield.”

Pepper leans over and gives him another one of those unexpected kisses again. She better be careful, or he’ll start to expect them, and then he’ll start taking them for himself.

“Sounds lovely,” she says. “Do you want to put on a movie?” she asks, just as Jarvis announces the arrival of their pizzas. One day, Tony will work out how she does that. For now, he dithers over whether he should put on a chick flick, for her, or an action film, for himself, and ponders whether she remembered not to get mushrooms.

(she doesn’t forget)