Chapter Nineteen: Complications
Several hours later the team and Pepper found themselves huddled in Stark Manor's main hall eating bad take out that Pepper had wrangled one of her minions into getting and trying to remember that today just hadn't happened at least for a little while. They were all quiet, lost in their own thoughts but the silence was far from oppressive it was oddly comfortable although Tony would have rather chewed off his own foot than admit it.
Tony cuddled closer to Pepper blocking out all thoughts that weren't centred around his girlfriend and just revelled in the warmth she seemed to permanently radiate. In response the red head just rolled her eyes in an affectionate manner, earning her a few quiet amused chuckles. Pepper couldn't help but smile at that, that these people after having what could only be described as the bad day to end all bad days could still find the humour in Tony's octopus antics.
Her eyes flitted around the room taking in everyone with that discerning gaze she usually saved for shareholders. Natasha and Clint were sprawled across one of the love seats with the silvery take-out containers balanced rather precariously on their laps while Steve and Thor had taken residence on the other end of the large L-shaped couch happily scoffing their way through the food. Bruce had joined the group just after everything had been delivered and had settled on the floor in the corner of the L, he admittedly hadn't lasted long and after eating his fill had promptly fallen asleep again. It had literally taken all her skills as Tony's handler to stop the billionaire from harassing the poor man in his sleep but there truly wasn't anything a little bit of bribery couldn't solve.
Pepper gave a sigh as she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket and shifted her clingy boyfriend to retrieve it. Tony pouted and grumbled slightly but was honestly too tired to even think about moving but Pepper didn't seem to mind too much.
She pulled out the Stark-Phone and frowned at the rather excessive amount of missed calls admittedly they had all been from Happy but the sheer volume was alarming. He'd finally resorted to texting and it was that single message that had caught her attention.
Where are you? Are you with the Boss? Have you seen the news? HH
The red head rolled her eyes assuming that he was talking about the attack on the tower, everyone in New York State had probably heard about that by now. She replied quickly telling him that yes she was with Tony, they were safe and that she had already heard about the tower. Setting down the phone she ran her hand through the billionaire's hair and made herself more comfortable not expecting Happy to reply to the message that was why when the phone buzzed mere seconds later Pepper looked genuinely confused. Warily she picked it up eyes scanning the message.
That wasn't the news I was talking about. I'm worried about both of you. HH
Dread settled in Pepper's gut, a cold soul numbing dread that she had only been afflicted with once before; the day of the Chitauri attack and she knew that she needed to see what had Happy so concerned. Without even hesitating she practically threw Tony off her and ran from the room toward the bedroom that they'd prepared while waiting for the food completely ignoring the concerned stares following her back. Once in the room she dove for her bag and the tablet that went everywhere with her, hands shaking slightly as she picked up the sleek piece of tech.
She took a deep breath and calmed her nerves, telling herself over and over that it was just Happy being his usual overprotective self and blowing things out of proportions but it still didn't stop her hesitating from switching the damn thing on. She wanted to preserve her time with Tony and this little bubble of tranquillity just a little while longer.
The tablet lit up beneath her fingers and within seconds was displaying the collective news media of the US; strangely enough they were all displaying the same thing and Pepper's heart clenched in her chest as tears pricked at her eyes.
This was bad, very very bad.
There was a knock at the door and Pepper looked up to find Tony standing in the doorway an unusually serious look on his face, he'd known something had been wrong the second Pepper had fled the room all that was left was to find out how big a mess they were in.
"What's happened?" He asked slowly, carefully as if Pepper was a piece of spun glass that would shatter if he used his usual pace and tone.
It didn't seem to matter, tears leaked from the corners of the blue eyes anyway and the red head half choked a frustrated sob as she held out the tablet to him. Tony blinked at the sleek piece of metal and frowned; what could possibly be so awful after everything that had happened? He tentatively took the tablet ignoring the slight shudder in the back of his mind at being handed something and glanced at the brightly lit screen face instantly dropping.
The billionaire felt his grip around the tablet tighten dramatically so much so that he was surprised the device didn't shatter from the force as the pure anger erupted in his chest. They'd been played, expertly played by the WSC and Tony had walked straight into it like a blind fool. He should have known that the fuckers at the council wouldn't let it lie with just taking back Howard; they'd said they were going to make an example of him and if this wasn't a power play then he didn't know what was.
The headline 'Enemy of the Stark: Billionaire wanted on treason charges!' glared up at him, mocking him and Tony threw the tablet on the bed before sinking down next to Pepper dropping his head into hands.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry Pep's I never meant for things to get this bad... I just..."
Pepper wrapped an arm around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder trying to offer what comfort she could as she nuzzled into Tony's neck. The red head couldn't begin to imagine what was flitting through her boyfriend's mind but she could assume that he was hurting and that made his next words all the harder to stomach.
"You should leave."
"No." Pepper answered instantly causing Tony to sigh.
"I can't have you caught up in this Pep... I just can't. This is only the tip of the iceberg and those fuckers are not going to give up or stop until I'm rotting in some prison or dead; they are serious about this. I need you to take care of Stark Industries, not that you aren't already but it's where you can do the most good and I'll know that you're safe... Out of their reach."
Pepper hated Tony in that moment, hated that he'd both logically and emotionally managed to back her into a corner. Normally it was the other way around and it wasn't a feeling that she particularly relished, she knew Tony was right, was trying to be the sensible one in this but it still didn't make it feel less like a rejection.
"Tony..." She started to protest determined to at least put her point across but the stubborn man sat behind her was having none of it.
"No, please don't fight me on this... It's hard enough as it is."
Pepper didn't say anything just buried her face deeper into his neck and tried to block out the pain that was wrapping itself around her heart. She hadn't felt this vulnerable in a while, hadn't seen Tony this vulnerable in a while and it was going to take every inch of her resolve to do as the man requested. With a soft sigh and hiccup she whispered in his ear.
That one word caused Tony to go limp with relief knowing that the wonderful woman curled up against him just understood; understood that he had to do this and that he had to do it without her. He drew her into a kiss, soft but passionate and expressing every word he was terrified to actually say to Pepper and she returned in kind with the words that she knew that he'd never be able to accept. They stayed intertwined for a few moments longer before the billionaire pulled away slightly flushed but his eyes were filled with a steely determination that the red head recognized instantly, it was no longer Tony Stark sat next to her but Iron-Man.
"I'll head back to the tower and get in contact with the lawyers; try and sort through all this bullshit." She put on her best CEO voice even though it quivered slightly.
Tony offered her a weak smile and nodded stiffly. "Thanks Pep, you're the best."
Pepper rolled her eyes as if to say 'well of course' but there was none of the usual good humour in the gesture. She extracted herself from Tony and stood up, brushing the non-existent dust from her clothing as an excuse to linger seconds longer before she turned to the door and walked toward it. The red head reached the door and hesitated for a second before walking through it muttering something under her breath.
"Be safe Tony, come back to me."
The billionaire felt his heart twist painfully at the implications of those words; he knew that trouble just seemed to follow his and there had been far too many close calls for his or Pepper's liking. But he'd pulled through every single one of those situations, not always unscathed admittedly but pretty much whole. It seemed that for all the trouble that followed him Lady Luck was never far behind giving him that one in a million opportunity to make it home alive but he knew he'd been pushing it recently and even Tony was beginning to wonder when his luck would finally run out.
He was living on borrowed time and with that sobering and disturbing thought circling his mind he went back to join the others.
Tony looked up to the source of the voice still slightly dazed and lost and in his own thoughts.
"Tony?" A second voice piped up still slightly disjointed in his mind.
A hand landed on his shoulder and Bruce's fuzzy outline swam in front of him drawing his mind away from his thoughts and back into reality. He blinked a few times bringing the other man into focus and immediately shrugged Bruce's hand off offering him a weak smile; in the background he could see the rest of the team with concerned looks on their faces. It took a few moments but Tony finally realised they were all waiting for a response and he snapped fully out of the daze, mentally compartmentalising the conversation with Pepper to analyse later.
"Uh Yeah... Had work stuff... Y'know woman's work is never done and all that."
Nobody looked particularly convinced by his explanation but they let the matter drop for the time being and backed off going back to whatever they had been doing before he'd wandered back in. Not really feeling up for much conversation he crashed back on the couch tablet in hand and began playing one of the mindless games Pepper had installed on it. He allowed himself to get lost in the simple algorithms and bright colours of the games and before long he found himself alone in the room save for one other soul. The couch dipped beside him and for a moment he saw a flash of red out of the corner of his eyes; Natasha, he should have known she'd be the one to approach.
"So Stark are you going to tell me what happened or am I going to have to take that off you." She raised an eyebrow in a silent challenge.
Tony ignored her, admittedly not his greatest idea and continued tapping on the clear screen of the tablet not actually believing that the assassin would actually take the device off him. Natasha seemed to wait a second before moving with a grace and speed that no human should be allowed to have, waving the tablet in front of Tony teasingly. The billionaire pouted slightly and moved to grab the tablet back, completely missing as Natasha danced out of the way a teasing smirk on her face.
"Ah, ah, ah you didn't say the magic word Stark."
Tony glared at Natasha's taunt and once again went to snatch the tech back causing the red head to laugh lightly even though her eyes were serious.
"Really I know you can do better than this..."
The billionaire ground his teeth together and forced to keep his face impassive, he did not have time for this cat and mouse bullshit. There were far more important things for him to be dealing with right now and this certainly wasn't one if them; feeling chaffed and raw he stood up quickly catching the assassin by surprise and that momentary advantage gave him the opportunity to swipe the tablet back. Although he strongly thought that Natasha had let him take it back on purpose. Without a second thought he strode toward the door not looking back, his head swimming with the sudden change in altitude.
Tiny hesitated; Natasha had called him by his first name, Natasha never called him by his first name not even in 'Oh holy fuck we're all about to die' situations. The significance of the gesture was not lost on him and he turned back to the woman who was perched on the couch eyes watching his speculatively.
It pained him to admit it but he really did like Romanoff; there was only so much badassery you could watch a woman do before you gained a healthy liking and respect for them. Oh and the fear, can't forget the fear, he'd be stupid not to at the very least be wary of the woman; he seen her do things with her little finger (and to be fair her enemies fingers) that just beggared belief. But in the whole time he'd known her she had never called him just Tony, not even when she'd been working undercover.
It was a strangely intimate gesture that spoke of camaraderie forged in the heat of battle and for once Tony wasn't going to be Tony Stark he was going to be just Tony.
"What Tasha?" And fuck it; in for a penny in for a pound.
Natasha wasn't outwardly shocked by the use that name but a hint of a wry smile very briefly curled at the corner of her lips before disappearing under the solemn look.
"Why did Pepper go?"
For the briefest of moments he honestly considered spinning her that bullshit 'Work-Stuff' line but he knew she'd see straight through it. She had always had the uncanny knack to see straight through his crap even when she'd been playing the role of Natalie Rushman and she'd barely known him then. He guessed it was what made her so good at her job and also made her, at times, incredibly annoying. With a sigh he ran his free hand through his hair absent-mindedly noting that it could do with a trim and settled on telling the truth.
"Because I asked her to."
It wasn't an easy admission not by any stretch of the imagination and Natasha could clearly see that; it didn't however stop her next question.
The billionaire wasn't used to feeling uncomfortable and boy was he feeling it now. There were many answers to the assassin's question; none of them pretty but he knew that the woman sat in front of him would take that as an excuse. Simplicity, this was what he needed now.
"Because I needed her safe." His voice was low.
The red head looked confused; as if to say a house full of superheroes isn't safe enough and he got that, he could understand the confusion and the beautiful, cruel and bitter irony in the statement that Natasha saw.
"Safe from what Tony?" There was a bitter amusement lacing her tone.
And here they were; right down to the brass tax of things.
This time Natasha genuinely did look shocked at his answer her eyes slightly bugging out of their sockets.
"What the hell are you talking about Stark?"
Back to last names, yup she was definitely pissed. Tony sighed and pulled up the article on the tablet walking back toward where the assassin was sitting and held it out to her. She snatched it with a little more force than neccessary due to her irritation and Tony watched with a detatched gaze as she absorbed the information. He could see the emotions flitting across her face; shock, sadness before she settled on a look of fury that would have even gods thinking twice before approaching her.
"This is serious, we need to tell the others now." The intent in her voice was obvious, she wanted to make the world burn for this.
Natasha flipped herself off the couch with the intention of rousing the rest of the team and in a rather bold move Tony grabbed hold of her bicep halting her in her tracks. Green eyes flashed pure venom but the Widow didn't strike.
"No." Tony said flatly, eyes glistening like tempered steel.
"You can't be serious! They have a right to know."
"And they will..." The billionaire replied "... First thing in the morning, there is no immediate danger so let them get their rest."
The assassin looked as if she wanted to argue some more but she could see the logic in having well rested allies. She pulled her arm free of Tony's grasp, glaring at the offensive appendage before quickly composing herself.
"Fine, but if you don't then I will and it will not be pleasant for you."
Tony barked a dry laugh that held absolutely no humour and his resulting quip lacked the warmth and enthusiasm they usually did.
"Whatever you say Natalie. Geez with friends like you who needs enemies."
The Widow smiled in that mysterious way of hers that left the billionaire unsure as to whether she was about to seduce or kill him, killing him being the more likely option.
"Friends Tony, exactly."
With that she handed him the tablet back and brushed past him heading toward the room she had claimed for herself leaving a bewildered looking Tony in her wake clutching the tablet to his chest like a soft toy. He sat back down on the couch and settled down for the night already convinced that he wasn't going to sleep and waited for the morning to dawn.
Because as the good book said 'Joy cometh in the morning.'
Yeah, he thought sarcastically. Joy.