“…still no official statement about the whereabouts of the Avenger and billionaire Tony Stark. Iron Man was last seen…”
“Friday, please…” Pepper wasn’t surprised by how tired she sounded. Not surprised but no less displeased. She didn’t have the time to be tired. Or weak.
At least she didn’t have to worry about that news report anymore, Friday immediately changed the channel and Pepper’s office was filled with jazz music. It did nothing to lighten her mood, the knowledge that probably every other station was debating the same question.
Where was Tony Stark?
Pepper refused to let any of this get to her, she needed to concentrate. Today was way too important to get distracted or to commit a mistake, because of sentimentality. Everything had to go smoothly, for Tony.
As much as Pepper wished to get out of here, for this to work she needed to stay where she was and wait until the end of an average workday. Today was everything but.
Shifting in her chair Pepper folded her hands on the desk, staring at the blank numbers on the computer screen. They could be the key for eternal life and joy and at the moment Pepper would not care.
It had been five days. Five days and six hours that Friday had lost contact to Tony. Five hours and six hours ago the Iron Man suit had shut down and Friday had interrupted Pepper’s meeting at that time.
“Miss, I am no longer able to detect a signal from Iron Man. I lost boss.”
The meeting had instantly ended and everything had gone to hell. Avengers fighting other Avengers at a German airport, using brutal force and destroying most of the place while doing so. Most of them getting arrested while Captain America and Iron Man had disappeared.
And there was Rhodey…
Pepper could feel her hands starting to tremble and she tried to fight it. Straightening her back Pepper counted to five in her head and closed her eyes to make sure no tears were rising. Not today. She couldn’t afford to lose focus and it angered her that they had ended up in this place. When something so terrible had happened to a close friend and she couldn’t take the time she thought necessary to process this. To feel crushed and overwhelmed by sadness.
If there was one reason good enough for postponing all of this, just one reason – it would be Tony.
Rhodey understood, he felt the same way and yet Pepper could feel that numb and seething anger inside of her. Such a day shouldn’t exist, where she had to do this. But here she was, because somebody else had forced this upon them in an act of pure selfishness.
No. Not today. It was so much more important than whatever she felt at the moment. Also there would be a lot of time to deal with what had happened five days ago. Probably the rest of their lives.
Glancing at her watch Pepper only wanted to know how much longer until she could leave, but she didn’t even register the time it indicated. The watch had been a gift. From Tony. That was all Tony was about. Making gifts and not thinking twice about it. Giving so much and not excepting anything in return and people thought that was okay, because why would need to pay back a billionaire?
Pushing the rising bitterness down Pepper blinked and it was 3:46.
Good, at least it would be over soon…
A knock at the door almost made her jump and Pepper told herself to get a grip. She was perfectly able to handle every kind of pretentious and brutal business man who wanted to treat her like a fragile, little girl and that was what she had been doing all her life. Today wasn’t the time to fall apart. After taking a second to regain her composure Pepper uttered a clear audible “Yes?”
Her assistant walked in, several files in her hand. “Miss Potts, the report for…”
“Thank you, Anna. That would be all.”
A nod and a smile and the door was closed again. Even Pepper’s own assistant was craving answers, it was written all over her face, but she knew better than to ask. Another thing Pepper couldn’t be bothered with at the moment.
Absently Pepper scanned through the report, a lot of numbers and charts would have told her so much any other day. There was no use in trying to understand any of it today, so Pepper put it away.
“Friday, I’d like to speak to Happy.”
“Gladly, Miss, but I must add that Mr. Hogan hasn’t arrived at the hospital yet.”
“I know… I just want to make sure that everything is working out. I am nervous…”
Friday wasn’t Jarvis and therefore Pepper didn’t feel quite as at ease with her, but she was still one of Tony’s creations. He had given her charm, a caring voice and Pepper still felt like she was talking to a friend. They were so hard to find these days.
A soft click and the music was replaced by Happy’s voice. “Pepper, hey. I’m not there yet.”
“I know… I just… I’m going crazy here. We need this to work out. Tony needs…”
She was stumbling over her words and Happy instantly spoke up to calm her down. “It’ll be okay. I just had another call from the administration and everything’s perfectly coordinated. You organised it, remember?”
Right, that was what Pepper did. Organising things and she hated it when things went wrong. Yet it had never been this important. The press were sharks and Tony Stark always made for great headlines.
“Yes, I remember… Just call me the second you think something is going wrong. If there’s only one camera…”
“There will be more than one camera, but as long as they don’t get a glimpse of Tony that won’t matter. Nobody will get to see him. I promise.” After so many lies these obviously honest words threatened to choke Pepper. “Thank you… I gotta make sure now that the airport car is on its way. Yes, I know… I might be too controlling, but I am not leaving anything to chance.”
“Right there with you, Pepper. I’ll let you know when we’re on our way back. It’s going to be fine.”
Pepper released a sigh. “I know…”
Happy instantly caught the slight tremor in his voice. “Is there something else?”
“I just think… I should be there. I haven’t seen him in… and now I won’t be there when he…”
“Don’t even start. You were right when you planned this. These fuckers are still waiting in front of the headquarters for you to get out. If you’re seen anywhere near a hospital we won’t get them off our backs anytime soon. It’s okay, Tony will understand.”
The very same thing that Pepper had been telling herself the whole time and she knew that it was true. At least the part about the press. Pepper wasn’t so sure about Tony. He had been let down way too many times.
“Thank you, Happy.” A phrase she had said so many times and suddenly it meant so much more. At a time when you had to find out that there was barely anybody you could rely on.
“See you tonight. It’s going to be fine.”
Pepper definitely hoped so. She needed today to be a success, otherwise they would have their hands full with new things to deal with when she was about to need all of her resources for something else entirely.
“Friday, the airport vehicle?”
“Already on its way, Miss Potts. Shall I put you through?”
Another click. “Miss Potts?”
“Yes, I wanted an update on the situation.”
A soft laugh was the response and Pepper gritted her teeth. She didn’t like it that somebody was taking this lightly. “Everything’s just fine. The second we left the tower we had them on our tail.”
Good, at least the press continued to stay predictable. “Take your time.”
After two other calls Pepper was relieved to learn that everything was working according to plan. 35 minutes ago a vehicle of Stark Industries with tinted windows had left the soon to be former Avengers Tower and was heading towards JFK airport. Another one would arrive at Newark Airport in about 20 minutes. The last call had confirmed that a car had left the Avengers compound when Pepper had called Happy.
So at the moment the reporters were chasing three cars around the city, hoping that Tony Stark was sitting inside of one of them. The second they realised that two of them were moving towards an airport even more press would move there.
This way nobody would even notice some average Jeep stopping at the backdoor of a hospital.
It was going to be alright. Not a single camera would get a picture of Tony, nobody would fire questions at him. Pepper was going to see him tonight, she just had to get through the rest of the day.
If she had any idea how to do that…
There was work enough for several lifetimes. Messages were flooding her mailbox, the phone hadn’t stopped ringing until Friday had taken care of it and Pepper hadn’t even glanced at the everyday business yet. Something she wouldn’t do.
Seconds were passing, turning into minutes and they all felt the same. A nightmare that had been lasting for almost a week. Not knowing, then knowing, but not able to see or make sure. Depending on what others were telling her. It wasn’t enough.
Pepper flinched when Friday spoke up, despite the AI’s careful tone. “Miss Potts, Mr. Hogan wants me to let you know that they are leaving the hospital now. There haven’t been any disturbances. Mr. Hogan also wants to emphasize that boss is doing fine.”
Again Pepper was shaking and her only wish was to tell Friday to make another call, so she could talk to Tony.
No, now was her turn. She would see him tonight. In person.
Standing up Pepper began gathering her files and reports, things that she hadn’t even looked at and carelessly put them into her bag. Brushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear Pepper granted herself a moment to get ready. It wouldn’t be different from any other day of this week. Except… this time she knew that Tony was on his way home. So her main duty was to keep every emotion off her face, to not attract any attention. To give Tony the time to heal.
“Friday, please call my driver.”
“Of course, Miss Potts.” A short pause. “Everything is going to work out just fine.”
Pepper wasn’t a pious person, but now she was tempted to pray that Friday was right. Leaving her office Pepper told her assistant to go home. She did it with a smile, already practicing her pokerface. The ride in the elevator was way too short and Pepper tried to ready herself. It was ridiculous. For years she has been dealing with reporters and the scum of the earth, they always tried to gain reactions from her by provoking her, but that had never worked out. Pepper knew how to deal with them. Today wasn’t going to be any different. Except that Tony would have to pay the price if Pepper made a mistake.
Walking down the huge entrance hall Pepper took a look at her phone and at the incoming message.
Car’s at the door
Showtime. She could do this and tonight she would talk to Tony.
The security guard was waiting for her at the door and Pepper nodded at him. The door was opened for her and Pepper stepped outside.
“Miss Potts! Miss Potts!”
“Have you talked to Mr. Stark?”
“Is he in New York?”
“Have you seen him since Leipzig?”
Thanks to the blockades none of them could actually approach her, but that didn’t stop them from shouting their questions and flashing their cameras. Three days ago the security had closed off the area around the main entrance which of course didn’t keep the press away. At least there was now enough distance between them so they couldn’t thrust their microphones into Pepper’s face. That didn’t stop them from firing their questions like projectiles. Pepper was counting in her head, having something to think about, to keep her busy, so she wouldn’t make out what they were yelling. The guard didn’t leave her side until she had reached the car and once again he opened the door for her.
“Is he on the run?”
“Has Mr. Stark also been arrested?”
Pepper’s face was a mask and she slipped into the car, closing the door behind her.
“Like discussed, Miss Potts?”
Pepper nodded and the driver started the engine. She didn’t allow herself to release the breath she was holding until they had left Stark Industries behind them. Almost done. Leaning back Pepper took her phone into her hand, just holding it, waiting for a message, a ringing, anything.
The city was passing by behind the windows and Pepper thought she was going to feel dizzy. No, her body wasn’t going to let her down now. She wasn’t the one in hospital, Pepper was fine and she needed to be fine to make all of this work. A bit of sneaking around, that was all, Pepper had no right to complain or to collapse under the pressure.
The display of her phone lit up and Pepper’s heart skipped a beat.
Boss is on his way home
Releasing a long breath Pepper let her eyes fall closed for a moment. So it had worked. With a bit of luck Tony would get to the compound without any reporters following him. Same for Pepper.
Her car’s destination was a smaller facility of Stark Industries. When Pepper got there, she used that time to do some work and to keep up appearances. She let the chief of administration show her around, took a look at the newest numbers and charts. In the back of her mind Pepper was feeling terror. Everybody would look right through her, she was merely going through the motions. At the moment she was in no way able to call anyone out on their mistakes or to even correct them. Luckily there wasn’t much to do, everything was perfectly fine and after an hour Pepper left again. This time in another car. To be completely sure two other vehicles were leaving at the same time, in different directions.
Pepper had her eyes closed, already thinking about being at the compound. 20 minutes ago she had received another message.
Boss at home
They had managed to get Tony home. Safely. Keeping him guarded from curious, penetrating eyes and Pepper, for the first time in days, felt gratitude and actual relief. She would be able to talk to Tony, to see him. Talk about what had happened and clean this mess up. Tony would be safe.
When the car finally stopped they were right next to the entrance of the compound and Pepper couldn’t get out. There was nothing that she wanted more and yet she was suddenly afraid what might be waiting for her. Of what she might not be unable to unsee.
The driver was looking at her and Pepper quickly unbuckled. “Thank you.” Being afraid was ridiculous. She wasn’t going through any trouble, she was safe. No reason and no right to be afraid. Getting out of the car Pepper didn’t hesitate and walked with fast steps towards the doors. As soon as she stepped inside Pepper felt disappointed, because nobody was there. Had she imagined Tony standing there, only waiting for her?
Walking towards the stairs Pepper passed the wardrobe, covering with several of Wanda’s jackets. These would need to go.
Upstairs Pepper found Vision waiting for her, softly nodding his head. “Miss Potts, it is good to see you again.”
A small smile made its way on Pepper’s face. “Hello Vision. Is Happy still here?”
“Where would I go?”
Turning around Pepper faced the source of the voice and the deep lines of worry on Happy’s face caused a knot to form in her stomach. Still she was able to keep the smile and greeted Happy with a hug. “Everything went fine?”
“Yes, nobody noticed.”
Nodding Pepper let go of him, trying to keep her composure. “I’m going to look after Tony…”
Making a step towards the elevator Pepper got held back by Happy. “Where are you going?”
“To the lab. What…”
“Tony didn’t go to the lab. He wanted to… sleep.” The lines on Happy’s face got a bit deeper and the knot in Pepper’s stomach hardened, started to hurt. They didn’t need to exchange any more words. It was such a harsh hit from reality. No matter what had happened, no matter which mission… Obadiah, Vanko, Loki, Killian, Hydra, Ultron… Tony had always come home, sometimes from the hospital and he had gone straight to his lab. As therapy, to show that he was okay, to prove himself that he was okay, to make better suits, because he needed that.
Tony had gone to bed…
Taking a breath Pepper nodded softly and headed for the stairs instead. It was going to be fine. He wouldn’t be out of the hospital if he wasn’t okay. Her steps were slow and when Pepper was standing in front of the door to Tony’s bedroom and her hand on the doorknob, she couldn’t move.
Furious at herself for being weak when Tony needed her Pepper opened the door. The room lay in almost complete darkness, except for the light that entered with Pepper. It was easy to make out a silhouette lying on the bed. Careful not to make a sound Pepper moved closer, she just wanted to get a glimpse of Tony. To actually see him after so much time. Taking a step closer Pepper’s eyes slowly got used to the darkness and she could see Tony’s face.
A hand shot up to cover her mouth, to smother the shocked sound that wanted to escape her lips. This couldn’t be true. Tony had been in hospital, Pepper had known that he was hurt, but seeing was different than knowing. Tony was lying on his back which offered Pepper a perfect view of his face. A large bruise which had only started to fade away was covering his eye, a small patch was hiding his split lip and a cut across his eyebrow had been stitched up. As if that display of violence hadn’t been enough, the features of Tony’s face were contorted and tensed. Caught in a nightmare.
Pepper’s hand was shaking when she trusted herself enough to bring it down. A decision she had taken too fast, because only now she dared to look at the rest of Tony. He hadn’t bothered to slide beneath the blanket, so Pepper could take in his fully clothed body. One of his arms was in a sling and when Pepper spotted his other hand she choked back a sob.
Tony’s fingers were clawing his t-shirt even in his sleep. His hand was placed in the middle of his chest, trying to clutch it. The exact spot where the arc-reactor had been. Tony’s heart.
Pepper bit her lip as hard as she could to keep her focus, that this wasn’t about her or her feelings. She was here to make sure that Tony was alright and she wasn’t going to break down only to wake him up from the rest he needed. But how was she supposed to keep quiet? When the strongest, most enduring and most relentless person she had ever met was lying on this bed, seemingly broken. Tony had never backed up, never giving up and no matter what had happened, nobody had managed to make that constant cheeky grin disappear.
Much to her distress Tony had proven again and again that nothing could keep him down, nothing could penetrate the armour he had built around himself. Now he was lying here and Pepper could tell by his features that he was in pain and the one causing it hadn’t been a terrorist or some monster. This was the work of one of Tony’s friends, the ones who were supposed to fight by his side, to protect him… like Tony had been protecting them.
That was what had got Tony here. He had been the one trying to protect people and how had they repaid him? With violence and betrayal.
With every second she was looking at the abused face Pepper felt her pain turning into anger. No, this wasn’t the time. It was about Tony. Now it was Pepper’s turn to take care of everything, to make sure that Tony would be alright, that nobody would dare to lay a hand on him again.
Making an effort to keep her breathing calm and steady Pepper slowly reached out, a whisper passing her lips. “It’s okay, Tony. You’ve done enough. Nobody will hurt you anymore…”
The mere tips of her fingers were brushing over Tony’s temple and Pepper instantly jerked her hand back as if she had burned herself. Or it had been her who had burned Tony.
With a disturbing whimper Tony turned his face away, his hand clutching to his chest and Pepper watched helplessly as Tony’s features contorted in panic.
Quickly Pepper took a step back before the shock could paralyse her limbs. Tony’s fingers tightened around the fabric of his shirt, knuckles turning white and Pepper felt herself thrown back a couple of years. She saw Tony trashing around in bed, gasping for air, working through a panic attack. Tony had proven once again how strong he was by overcoming it. They had thrust him right back in. The people who should have protected him. The ones Tony had sacrificed so much for.
So this was how they showed their gratitude. With violence and blood.
Forcing herself to stay calm Pepper stayed exactly where she was and watched how Tony’s features were easing up again, but not enough to give the impression that his dreams weren’t haunted.
Pepper felt the need to pull the blanket over him, to at least have the illusion to keep him safe and yet she didn’t dare to do anything that might wake him up. The only thing she could do was standing there and looking at him. After several minutes of watching Tony’s regular breathing Pepper felt strong enough to leave.
Slowly she left Tony’s bedroom and pulled the door shut behind her. Closing her eyes Pepper took a moment to gather herself. What had she expected? Friday had called her. Had told her that she had lost contact with Tony for about 5 hours before Vision had found him. She had told her that Tony was in a hospital and then Pepper had done everything to keep that a secret.
Lost contact for about 5 hours and then hospital. What had she been thinking?
That had been the one thought in her head. The thought that had kept her upright and functioning. She almost felt as betrayed as Tony and Pepper instantly hated herself for the mere comparison. Straightening back up Pepper told herself to hold her head up high and headed towards the stairs. Her steps were slow and Pepper felt like walking through a dream, unable to cast the image of Tony’s face away.
Recognizing that voice Pepper looked up, surprised that she had already reached the end of the stairs. Rhodey was there. Right next to Vision and Happy and Pepper felt her skin crawling at the sight of the wheelchair.
There was no strength left to force a smile on her face, so Pepper merely walked up to him and bent down to hug him. It felt wrong, everything about it.
Pulling back Pepper couldn’t wait, she needed to know. So much time had already been lost and nobody had been there to protect Tony. While he had been protecting everyone else…
“What happened? What did they do to him?”
A shadow crept onto Rhodey’s face and his eyes told her that he didn’t want to tell her. “Pepper, let’s just…”
“No. I’ve spent five days making sure that nobody would get close to him and I was worried sick, but at the same time I thought that he would be safe, because… It was Steve! How could he end up being seriously hurt when it was Steve!”
“Pepper, please sit down and we will talk…”
“No. I want the medical reports, I want…” Stopping herself Pepper realised she had forgotten about the most essential part. “Friday, pull up the footage from Siberia, recorded by the Iron Man suit.”
This time it wasn’t Rhodey, but Vision. “Miss Potter, I do not think that seeing what happened in Siberia would help you. I will try to answer your questions by telling you…”
“Did you see it? I know somebody must have checked the footage, so did you see it?”
Slowly Vision lowered his eyes and nodded. “Yes, I saw it.”
All these years talking to Jarvis, sometimes simple exchanges, sometimes debating how to get Tony out of his lab, expressing their frustration and fondness of the same man. Vision wasn’t Jarvis and yet Pepper could only hear the AI now. So worried for its creator.
“I need to see it, because none of this makes sense. He went there, because of his friend. Because of Steve and now… I need to understand why Tony is… Friday, play the footage.”
This time there wasn’t protest, but a general sense of unease could be felt. Friday started the footage on the screen closest to them and Pepper balled her hands to fist. Whatever she was going to see, she needed to know.
It was like seeing the events through Tony’s eyes, how he entered that dark, old facility and Pepper couldn’t fight off the feeling of dread. Seeing this she knew that Tony would end up hurt, she suspected someone lying in wait around every corner. That didn’t happen. Tony found Steve and Barnes, they talked, Tony apologized. What for? Tony had been right, Tony had been following the law, Tony had been trying to apprehend a fugitive and it hadn’t been Tony who had started a fight that had destroyed a German airport.
The video went on and Pepper got a glimpse of the man responsible for the Vienna bombing, but she had no time to give him much thought, not when the following event let her blood run cold.
Tony had been staring at the video showing the death… no, the murder of his parents. Pepper was seeing it with him and a wave of dizziness was washing over her. Barnes had killed them. The desperate need to look away filled Pepper when Barnes cracked the skull of Tony’s father and strangled his mother to death. But Tony hadn’t looked away, so Pepper didn’t either.
When Tony finally took his eyes off the video, he was staring at Steve.
Did you know?
Everything after that was a blur. Tony went after the man who had brutally murdered his parents. The man who had been standing right next to him while Tony had been forced to witness said murder. With Steve. Steve who had known all along and who was now fighting with the murderer of Tony’s parents against his friend.
Pepper’s fists were shaking when she heard Tony’s voice, the rage and the pain. So that’s what Steve had been doing? Telling the United Nations, the entire world to go fuck themselves, so he could protect a single man?
A sound of dread escaped Pepper’s throat when Tony’s gaze darted between those two, fighting both of them off at the same time. They were tossing the shield back and forth between them, using it to hit Tony with it. The shield Tony’s father had made…
Pepper was ready to scream when Steve had Tony against the wall and kept hitting him, how he wouldn’t stop until Tony freed himself and then…
Tony was lying on the floor, Steve on top of him, his hands on Tony’s helmet and… the screen went black. The footage had died which meant that Steve must have ripped the face-plate off.
“What happened then? What did he do, Friday?” Pepper didn’t recognize her own voice and Rhodey tried once more to protect her. “Perhaps you should sit…”
“Captain Rogers rammed his shield into the arc-reactor powering Boss’ suit, disabling it completely. After that he left with Sergeant Barnes.”
She wasn’t able to breathe, her head was swimming and somebody was grabbing her arm, giving her the support she needed to keep standing. “His heart… It had been keeping Tony alive! Steve knew that! It was his heart!”
“Miss Potts, you are in distress…”
“He didn’t need it to survive anymore, but he still felt vulnerable about it! Steve knew that! Tony was lying on the ground! He was defenceless, he had just seen his parents die and… that was his father’s shield! They beat him with it! They kept hitting him… when he was the one who…” Choking up Pepper felt arms closing around her and for a moment she allowed the tears to fill her eyes.
All she could see was Tony’s bruised face and how his hand was still trying to hold on to the reactor…
His father’s shield…
He had to watch them die and Steve had known…
Tony had tried reached out to them, after Romania, at the airport, he had walked into this base as a friend and all Steve had done was ramming the knife into his back again and again.
Now Tony was lying up there in his room… while Steve was on the run with the murderer of his parents. The anger inside her began rising even faster when the next pieces fell into place. Steve had left him there. In Siberia, stuck in a disabled suit without anybody knowing where he was. Vision had only got there thanks to Friday, five hours later. Captain America had left him there to help Barnes escape and flee justice after Romania and Leipzig.
Freeing herself from Happy’s arms Pepper shook her head. “I thought Tony was going to be fine because… It was Steve! Steve! No… It’s enough. He broke the law, because he thought he knew better than everybody else! Because the government would abuse their power? And what does he do?! Violating countless laws, destroying public property, hurting and killing innocent people and beating up his friend who only tried to help him… He is not going to get away with that.”
Silence filled the room and Pepper’s mind was racing. Who she would have to call, who to give her support… The United Nations, the US government, she was already in talks with German government, because Stark Industries had offered to pay for the damages caused to the airport… She needed to get in contact with some Romanian delegates… so many people… so many who got hurt. Tony was just one of them and Pepper was going to make sure that he was the last one to get hurt by them. No more.
“They won’t. They won’t get away with it.” Rhodey’s words were calm and sure, Vision and Happy nodding in agreement.
Finally a single tear made its way down Pepper’s cheek and she was torn between burning desperation and gratefulness. No, she wasn’t alone. Tony wasn’t alone.
Steve was and he probably hadn’t even realised that yet. Wherever he was hiding.