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Observer Effect

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Natasha waits until the jet comes to a full stop, engines whining, wing flaps turned down and the little seatbelt light flicks off before she gets to her feet. Stark sits a few seats away, legs crossed as he leans his head back, hands folded across his abdomen. She can tell when he opens his eyes because the orange light appears behinds his shades.

Natasha gives him a little smile as she straightens he jacket on her shoulders. She picks up the slim black case that had been resting in the seat next to her and tucks it under her arm. It tucks easily against her side, no more than an inch and a half thick and about five inches long and a few inches wide. At first glance, it looks like a cigar box, except that it’s solid black and made of plastic, not wood.

Stark doesn’t smile back, only looks at her somberly. “Be careful, Natasha. It won’t immobilize him so you’ll need to get out of there quick.”

“I know,” Natasha murmured. “Don’t worry about me. I will see you in New York in a few days, hm?” She lets the smile fade from her face too. Whenever Stark is serious, she can’t help but reflect it back at him. The things he regards without humor usually deserve that regard.

Stark nods. Natasha heads to the exit of the plane. The stewardess standing there offers her a bag, her bag, that had been stowed away for her during the flight. Natasha takes it, slides the black case into it, and shoulders the bag.

She steps out of the jet and down the stairs quickly, falling into the mindset of accomplishing a mission with incredible ease. Within a few steps of the stairs, Natasha’s mind is running through her mission objectives and the parameters she must obey. She enters the vehicle left near the hangar for her and puts her bag on the seat beside her. A quick look into it tells her it has everything she will need, a change of clothes, weapons and the gear she’ll need to break into the jail.

She turns on the car and drives, knowing about where the prison is, even if she hasn’t got it exact. She’ll look it up once she’s closer to the destination, but for now, she just drives and thinks.

 

 

Natasha waits until it’s three in the morning before she slips through the shadows and towards the walled-off building. Honestly, it looms in the dark like a fortress, the walls high and topped with barbed wire and the only visible windows small and narrow, looking almost like a balistraria than a window.

She has her hair pinned back and covered with a dark hood, as well as her face with a mask, not risking being remembered if she is seen by anyone in the flesh. She’s less worried about any cameras, knowing that Stark promised to prevent her from being seen. As she approaches her point of entry, the lowest wall of all of them and right beside the front gate, she does notice the glint in the dark from the hidden cameras but she has to trust Stark.

Natasha scales the wall, flips herself up and over it with ease and lands on the other side with only a little disturbance in the dust. She immediately returns to the deepest shadows around, stepping silently as she makes her way inside. There’s a single guard on duty, she can see him through the glass of his observation room, though he has his chin in his hand and he’s watching the television displays on the wall next to him, not what is in front of him.

Natasha lingers near the doorway to the room, listening for a while, waiting.

Then she hears it.

“Guard One, this is Patrol Six. Come in Guard One,” The voice comes over a radio that the man in the booth picks up without looking.

“This is Guard One. Whatcha got, Patrol Six?” The guard in the booth sits up slightly, turning his attention to one of the screens over the others. Natasha shifts by the door, inching along the wall until she can see the screen he’s looking at.

“We’re getting what looks like an electrical malfunction in the lighting here in the western part of the yard. Is that coming across on your cameras, Guard One?” The first voice said, sounding a little uncertain.

A third voice, also from the radio, speaks, “Pete, it looks like a goddamn rave out here. Are you getting this anywhere else?”

Pete, presumably, sighed. Natasha arched an eyebrow as she saw the crazy blinking lights in one of the screens. She could just make out the shape of the two men on patrol, silhouetted against the lights going off wildly in front of the camera. “Yeah I see it. Hold on, I’ll flip the lights for that section. It’s going to go dark for a few seconds,” He turned, putting his back towards the front gate and rolled his chair across the floor.

Only because Natasha had been quiet and listening for any sound- in this case for the radio conversation- she heard the faint click of metal slotting against metal. For a second, it made no sense, and then she ducked to the other side of the door and looked around the corner of the booth to the first locked gate.

There were two little lights on the gate, one red and one green. When she’d arrived, the red one was lit up. Now, the green one was.

Moving on instinct, Natasha dashed forward. She eased open the gate just enough for her to slip through and ushered it closed gently. She heard it click back into place and, for a long second, she worried about how the fuck she was going to get out. Then she shook herself of that fear and took off down the hallway.

She’d spent plenty of time looking at the layout of the prison from the blueprints provided to her by Stark, of course, and had looked even harder at the images of the inside he’d somehow gotten his hands on. (Those reminded her of the pictures from Russia, the angles and images clearly coming from security cameras within the jail. And Natasha was almost certain Stark hadn’t asked for those images, or had asked for permission to acquire them.)

With this knowledge in her mind, she walks confidently down the hallways, feet silent, keeping to the shadows that are fewer and farther between in these administrative halls, and listening intently for the sound of other patrols. She has to pull herself up to the ceiling at one point, to hide from a security officer hustling by, hand on his radio, as someone reports “more strange light activity” in another area.

Natasha knows for sure that she’s being watched- and not by the guards- when she approaches another locked door and before she can even consider what tool she’ll use to get past it, the damn thing unlocks with a click right in front of her. It locks again when she shuts it behind herself, this time she’s not afraid of getting locked in.

Several more doors open for her this way, unlocking as she approaches, locking when she closes the door, never louder than the metallic click of the electrically controlled lock slipping out and back into place. Soon, she’s in the cell block she needs to be in, where the lights have been darkened down to nearly nothing so the prisoners can sleep better.

It’s only a matter of finding the right stairway and the right hallway and then she’s there.

Natasha stands silently, nearly invisible in the darkness, in front of Obadiah Stane’s prison cell.

She breathes evenly, looking into the room, looking for him. He’s on his back on one of the bunks and his breathing is deep and even.

Natasha stops outside the door and reaches for the slim black case that Stark gave her. Inside of it is one vial and one hypodermic needle. She remembers Stark’s warning very clearly. She wasn’t to get any of this on her skin, on her clothing, in her mouth, in her eyes or in her lungs. One full syringe was supposed to pump directly into Stane’s artery, and if she could manage it, a second dose could be given.

There was only enough for two full doses.

The vial had a rubber stopper at the top, the kind that kept the contents sealed inside but could be pierced with a hypodermic needle. The contents of the vial were dark purple. In the shadows of the hallway, it looked like the vial was filled with black smoke.

Natasha took out the needle, pierced the stopper and filled the syringe with ease. Closing the case, she tucked it back into a makeshift holster inside her top, between the outer layer of her catsuit and the inner layer of her lightweight kevlar vest. As she approaches Stane’s door, the lock clicks and she uses one hand to pull the door open.

On silent feet, she approaches the bed. She sweeps the room with her eyes, but Stane is alone in his cell, probably a factor of his wealth, even if Stark has cut him off from his money.

She stands near the head of the bed, out of immediate reach if he were to roll over, grasping for who was causing him pain. With a steady hand, she slides the needle home and pushes the plunger with her thumb. Stane makes a sort of pained snuffling sound and begins to turn his head. Natasha does her best to move with him, pumping the fluid home into his veins before drawing back from Stane, needle still in hand.

Natasha holds her breath, stepping back and into the darkness that forms at the head of Stane’s bed, shadows cast there by the empty bunk above him. He makes a sort of hacking noise that usually accompanies throwing up, and Natasha winces. If he does vomit, she’ll probably need to high-tail it out of there.

But Stane just rolls over onto his side and pulls the thin blanket higher on his shoulders.

For only a moment, Natasha hesitated. Two shots of the vial that was what Stark wanted most of all. And, if only to herself, she had to admit she was curious about what the hell was in the vial. He hadn’t said he wanted Stane dead physically or even just in a coma. He wanted his reputation ruined. His life as it was, destroyed. Had said that this would take care of Stane permanently.

Natasha loaded up the second dose. She waited until Stane began to snore again. Then she crept close and sank the needle into his neck again, this time in a different point. She pushed hard with her thumb, pumping the contents of the needle into his body, and pulled out the needle with a quick yank. A second later, his big hand came down where her hand and the needle had been and slapped weakly at the skin as if shoving off the bite of a bug. He grumbled and turned in his bed again while Natasha put the needle back in the case and put the case back in her shirt.

She waited, crouched now behind the bed, hearing heavy footsteps of a patrol passing by, seeing the edge of a flashlight beam as it grew closer and closer. With one wary eye on Stane, Natasha waited in the darkness for the patrol to pass.

Stane didn’t wake. He just fell back asleep, snoring again in less than a minute.

 

 

By the time Natasha was headed back out of the cell, her leg had begun to ache from keeping crouched for so long. She ignored that, knowing the muscle would work itself out as she escaped. She headed back the way she came, smiling slightly when the doors unlocked before her and locked again behind her.

The final guard was the last problem and again, all Natasha had to do was be patient and wait. Soon enough, the man was distracted, the door lock popped and she was walking through the door and towards the gate.

She climbed the fence, vaulted over the top and landed easily, breaking into a trot now that she was on the last leg of her escape. She had parked a few miles away, the car hidden in some trees and bushes off the side of the road, and while she jogged back to her escape, she considered what she would say to Stark when she called to check in with him. She’d thought he was too busy to watch her break into the jail, but clearly, he was anxious to see it done and to make sure it was done right.

Of course, she could’ve done it without the gates unlocking so easily, but Natasha was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

She made it back to the car without incident and quickly removed her hood and mask, took off her jacket and the kevlar vest and threw on the loose sweater that made her look as harmless as could be. She stowed her gear in her bag, along with the case with the empty vial and used needle, and put the whole thing in the trunk.

Natasha slid into the driver’s seat, pulled her phone from where she’d stashed it under the seat and turned it on. She didn’t have any new messages, of course, but she didn’t expect any. With the doors locked and the key in the ignition, Natasha called Stark.

The phone rang a couple of times before there was an audible click. She expected a greeting, but when there was only a long, empty silence, Natasha rolled her eyes and spoke.

“Stark?” Natasha asked.

“Father is currently unavailable,” came the voice of a woman- not a child, not a little girl like Kletka, or even Jarvis with his smooth British tones. Natasha would have sworn it was someone like Pepper, or some other assistant (maybe he’d picked one up in New York?) if not for the name she used for Stark.

“Who is this?” Natasha asked, keeping her voice calm.

“Nobody,” there was a little hint of amusement, “I apologize for hijacking the call but Father is currently busy finally getting some rest and Jarvis was tending to other business. Kletka is not yet uploaded or she would have taken your call.”

“Nobody,” Natasha repeated. It had to be an AI, one of Stark’s AI. She knew Kletka and Jarvis and called Stark "Father"- if she wasn’t an AI, Natasha would eat her own shoes. “All right. Well, I was calling to inform Mr. Stark that I’ve completed the job for him.”

“I saw,” Nobody said, “You did very well, Ms. Romanoff. I even lost track of you once or twice on the cameras. You are very good at your job.”

A shiver ran down Natasha’s spine. She had been sure that she was being watched in the jail, but also sure that it was Stark who had watched her. She didn’t even know he had a third AI. She wondered if Shield knew about this Nobody. Hell, she wondered if Pepper knew about Nobody. Pepper had been surprised to hear about Kletka, after all. Even Pepper hadn't thought Tony would ever make another AI while he still had JARVIS with him.

“Thank you,” Natasha murmured, accepting the compliment. “Will you tell Mr. Stark that I completed the task as requested?”

“There were two applications of the formula?” Nobody asked.

“Yes,” Natasha said.

“Wonderful,” Nobody said. Her voice was warm, delighted. She sounded far more human than Kletka had, the last time Natasha spoke to her. Without knowing for sure, Natasha had to guess that Nobody was older than Kletka- not as old as Jarvis, no, but definitely more than a few weeks or months old. “I will inform Father at once, well, once he’s had a few hours of rest. Please return to Father’s side as quickly as you are able. Is there anything else that you require, Ms. Romanoff?”

Natasha hesitated. There was a long drive ahead of her and she wasn’t really looking forward to it. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel for a minute and then huffed out a sharp breath. What the hell? In for a penny, in for a pound, right? What would be the worst that could happen?

“Is there some way I can contact Kletka? I know she was based out of the Montana facility,” Natasha refused to call it the Menagerie, especially since neither Vanko nor Stark had admitted to calling it that, “but if I could speak with her, I would appreciate it.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, a quiet explanation, “It’s a long way to New York.”

Nobody laughed and that, too, sounded disturbingly human. Natasha wondered why that was the case. Did Nobody have more experience with laughter? Did she just have more data than Kletka? Was she coded in a different way? “I’ll see what I can do,” Nobody said, “I suggest that you turn to your car’s satellite radio. Any channel without a current station playing will work. Thank you again for your work. Have a safe trip.”

“Thanks,” Natasha said and almost immediately after, the line went dead.

She sat for a long time, staring down at her phone and then out the windshield at the darkness outside. Natasha ran her hand through her hair. Had she done the right thing, taking care of Stane for Stark? Her instincts had told her to do it, that siding with Stark in this moment, right now, would end up better for her. Knowing that he had hidden AI, skilled enough AI to help her infiltrate a secure prison without being detected or caught, only made her more secure that her instinct was right.

Stark was dangerous. That meant that the safest place when she was with him was somewhere where he trusted her. He had no history in betraying anyone- only weaseling out of things in front of the press with smiles and glibness- except for the way he turned his back on the weapons industry as a whole. But even that wasn’t so much of a betrayal as an awakening.

Natasha understood that. She understood waking up from a life where everything made sense and everything you did was normal, only to discover the hard truth of your actions. She had gone to Shield because that way she could use the skills she’d been given to make up for the things she’d done while ‘asleep’ to her actions.

Now Stark was building and creating and running towards the future without any hesitation. He had a goal, something he was reaching for, with both hands. That much was obvious from the way he systematically moved and reacted to what was going on around him. And he had morals that he refused to back down on.

Natasha… admired that. Admired the intense focus he gave his problems, admired the way he dealt with things personally, admired the way he gave people an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of his trust, even if they came to him under false pretenses. He felt guilty for what he’d done, but instead of wallowing in it, he focused on reparations.

Slowly, Natasha turned the keys and the engine turned over. She pulled off the side of the road, her head filled with her thoughts, racing around, chasing each other, debating all the points down to their barest of bones. Her fingers reached for the radio and flicked it on, looking for anything to listen to. Remembering what Nobody had said to her, Natasha turned to the satellite radio and found a station with static.

After a few seconds, the static died down and a familiar girl’s voice came from the speakers. “Natasha?”

Even though she knew that Kletka shouldn’t be able to hear her, it wasn’t like the car had speakers or anything, Natasha couldn’t help but reply, “I’m here, Kletka darling.”

“You sound muffled,” Kletka said, “Could you pull your phone out so the microphone has better access?”

Well then. Natasha really shouldn’t feel surprised that her phone was bugged with Stark’s AI. She pulled it from her pocket and tucked it under the cross strap of her seat belt so it was close to her head but not in her hands. “Better?”

“Much,” Kletka said cheerfully. “Would you like to get right to the reading or do you need directions to get to Mr. Stark?”

“I’ve got directions already,” Natasha said. It was mostly just ‘get on the highway and head North’ for now anyway. “Where did we leave off?”

“We were just about to begin the short story A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” Kletka said. “I can read it in the original English or translate it for you?”

Natasha smiled, “English is fine, Kletka. Thank you.”

“Of course!” Kletka replied.

Natasha turned up the stereo a little louder and settled in for the drive with a little smile on her face. By the time Fury realized that his grip on her had slipped, Natasha knew she’d be out of his grasp entirely.

The only thing she had to figure out now was how to get Clint to follow her out of Shield and over to Stark Industries. For as well as she knew him, she didn’t think it would be that hard. Clint wasn’t exactly the government agency type and, with a little luck, she could convince Stark to help her. With Kletka and Clint both a part of Stark Industries, Natasha didn’t think she’d want for much while working for Tony Stark.

 

 


 

 

Pepper stepped out of the Stark Tower elevator and into the common area that Tony had designed and built out over the last month while he’d been off in Montana tinkering with only God knew what. She had seen the basic layout of the place but then had gotten too busy with the fine tuning of the Expo plans that she’d never seen the final design or decor choices that he made. Knowing him, however, she was confident on what she would find as she walked into the room, looking for Tony where JARVIS had said he’d be.

That is until she made it into the room and looked around and saw the place.

It was-

Warm.

That was the best word that Pepper could think of to describe it. Unlike the sleek black and silver metal and polished white of Tony’s Malibu mansion, with its huge open windows that looked out over a tumultuous dark ocean, this room- this whole area was softened and comforting. The floor was a dark hardwood with several large carpets placed strategically along main traffic areas like the doorways, near the bar, around the couches and along the far wall where there were closer, more intimate sitting arrangements. The walls were a soft cream colored, something that allowed all the attention to settle on the infrequent paintings- masterpieces all, but less notable, less valuable ones. That didn’t make them any less interesting, though, and it didn’t take long for Pepper to pick up the theme of the paintings- they were all done in the same sort of style, more color than rigid shape, like a Monet with brighter colors. Each one was a landscape of some sort, ocean with frothing waves, mountains with snowy crests, windswept fields of golden wheat, dense canopies of evergreens and the red-orange sands of desert dunes beneath a sapphire blue sky.

There was just the perfect amount of lighting, too, recessed lighting by the seats and near the bar that, as she stepped slowly towards it, taking it all in, she realized had been fully equipped as a kitchen, including a stove, a fridge tucked behind wood paneled doors, a sink with gold handles and, presumably a dishwasher, though she couldn’t see it now. While the room didn’t have a dining table in it, the bar itself was of a considerable length and offered a range of seats, from stools to chairs with backs, and it was this touch of similar-but-not-of-a-set that Pepper thought made the room feel more like a place people lived and less like a place where people visited.

The rest of the furniture was much like that, pieces that matched but were not part of a set. The coffee table was wrought iron and dark wood, something that looked sturdy enough to be the prop in a castle, not a penthouse, but next to the dark red leather couch with a woven blanket on it, it seemed to match well. Pepper wanted to go look at the more private seating, isolated with a clever use of bookshelves and large potted plants, but that was on the other side of the bar, where the people- and it wasn’t just Tony- were sitting and talking.

Pepper came to a stop a few steps away, blinking and slowly turning to the group. She had also been aware that part of the renovation to the floor included temporary rooms, quite a few, in fact, with spares in the floor above, so she wasn’t surprised to see that Tony had already filled them up with guests. In fact, she’d approved most of the expenses for their flights, allowing Tony to fly in all his collected scientist friends to stay at the Tower during the Expo.

However, it had been months since she’d seen some of them and others she’d never met at all. It was a strange feeling, looking at the group sitting at the bar, a couple open bottles of wine and opened take-out dinner containers from that Italian place Tony so loved, with Tony at the center, chatting amiably and without a hint of the man who put on a show for the public or a cocky attitude for the press.

It was Tony. The Tony she knew well, the one she didn’t think others ever really saw or knew about, the Tony who wore band shirts from the 80s and got grease in his hair and scolded his robots fondly and always called her Ms. Potts whenever she chided him and called him Mr. Stark-

It was the Tony that Pepper thought would’ve existed a long time ago if he’d not gone to MIT so young, or lost his parents so young, or been pushed into the world of business so young. It was Tony with friends.

Pepper had been acutely aware of the fact that only she and Rhodes, and to an extent Happy as well, had been Tony’s only friends, the only people who had missed him for him when he’d gone missing in Afghanistan. She worried and fretted over him like a sister would, not like a mother or a lover would, because she loved him but she couldn’t stop him from making his own choices- not really. She could scold and she could chide and she could guilt but Tony only backed down because he chose to. Tony only ducked his head and listened to her because he chose to.

Something inside of Pepper’s chest relaxed at the sight of Tony, even with the strange orange eyes, even with the way Afghanistan had made him colder and more serious, laughed so hard at something someone said he started to choke on his drink. The man next to him, whom Pepper only recognized because of surveillance images Rushman-Romanoff (she still wasn’t sure what exactly happened there) had sent of Tony from Montana, grinned at Tony.

That was Vanko, the man who’d stabbed Tony, who now thumped his back to help him, looking more amused than anything.

Then someone on the other side of the bar made a motion and Tony, still coughing, but breathing now, turned to look, along with several others.

“Pepper!” Tony cried. Pepper blinked, hard. Her vision began to swim suddenly, blurring abruptly as a lump lodged itself in her throat. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

She turned her head and blinked furiously, startled at the swell of emotion that overtook her. Pepper jumped when she felt hands on her shoulders, but one glance told her it was Tony, looking at her with concern on his face and a gentle voice, “Pepper, hey, are you okay?”

Pepper nodded wordlessly. She felt like a fool and an idiot for crying about nothing- what a terrible first impression she was making! But then Tony pulled her into a hug and he squeezed her tightly.

She felt the press of the arc reactor against her own chest, the hard edge of it at once familiar and foreign, and that was enough to make her bring her arms up and hug Tony back. “It’s so good to see you,” she said gently, and, saying that, she realized she hadn’t seen him in weeks. The last time had been a few days before he took off to Colorado for something and then to Monaco. After Monaco he had been in Montana, working with Vanko, working on his new space project or whatever it was, and she’d seen him in video a few times but not in person and-

Tony pulled back and Pepper was glad her vision was back under control. “You look fantastic as always, Pep,” Tony said, “But I bet you could use a drink, yeah? And some dinner? We saved some for you, well, I told them to save some for you so there is some but it's a little bit of everything, you see? I ordered lots of things because no one could make up their mind and then when it got here everyone wanted to try everything- but don’t worry about that, come on over, take a seat, we’ll pour you a drink,” he half turned towards the bar and said, “Leonard, would you-”

“Already on it, Tony,” the man said with an amused look. He was the one who stood on the other side of the bar, presumably in charge of the pouring of the wine, and he filled a glass halfway for Pepper.

For her part, Pepper let herself be led over. Tony guided her to the seat next to his, the one Vanko vacated without a word. She looked to him but he didn’t look upset- though that could’ve been because his face was nearly impassive and difficult to read. He moved around the bar and began to dish food onto a plate, as Tony had said, there was a little bit of everything left.

At her side, Tony slid over the wine with one hand and gestured to the group with his other hand, “Everyone, as you all are aware, this is the illustrious Ms. Pepper Potts; CFO of Stark Industries and the incredible light of my life. Pepper, darling, you’ve met Bruce and Betty, of course, and Leonard here, but let me introduce you to Erik Selvig, he’s the one out in New Mexico working with Jane Foster,  you remember her? She couldn’t make it, unfortunately, but I don’t hold it against her. And over here is Maya Hansen, a biochemist, yes another chemist and no I’m not getting rid of her, she’s brilliant and of course, Ivan Vanko.”

He ended his introduction with a flourish of his hand towards Vanko who, at the same time, slid a plate towards Pepper that had a sampling of the available dishes on it.

“Hello,” Vanko said, “Eat before you drink, hm? Give the body some time to digest the wine.”

Pepper blinked at the food, then at the man, then glanced at Tony. He smiled at her, easy and unwavering and trusting. Pepper sighed. She picked up a fork, stuck it into a noodle and met Vanko’s dark eyes with her own sharp gaze, “If you stab Tony again, you will regret it for a very, very long time.”

Vanko did not look afraid in the least. No, he grinned instead, gesturing towards Pepper and saying to Tony, “Her? I like her.”

“So do I,” Tony said with a smile. “So do I.”

 

 


 

 

The friendly chatter and the party lasted longer than the bottles of wine and containers of delicious Italian food.

Pepper sat at the far end of the bar, her elbow resting on the polished surface, her chin in her palm as she listened to Tony and Leonard debate the merits of their favorite bands. She already knew how Tony felt about music- they’d had their own joking debates and conversations about playlists and mixtapes and what constituted productive music. Just by the look of him, one would assume Leonard to be the classical type, or perhaps some other kind of instrumental, especially since he was a psychologist. But beneath the charming brown sweater that Leonard wore, there beat the heart of a former punk-rocker.

Though, if his argument was to be believed, once you went punk, you never really went back.

She joined in the laughter as Leonard regaled them with a story of a concert he went to. The two men were both animated talkers, though it had taken a bit of alcohol to get Leonard to be the same sort of gestical nightmare that Tony could be when he got excited about whatever he was talking about.

It was so good to see Tony talking and laughing and enjoying himself, and not just about science things. These people were so good for him, not just the company. Pepper didn’t know how to thank them, yet, but she would.

 

 

At another point, Pepper found herself holding a mug with ice cream in it, over on the other side of the room in one of the more isolated two seat couches with Betty.

It had been several months since Tony had swept into Betty and Bruce’s life, changing everything for them in the space of one evening. Betty didn’t look too different, though she’d cut her hair and had been getting more sun if the light tan to her skin suggested anything. Bruce, from what Pepper had seen, looked much better. The thinness to his features, the wariness in his eyes and the tight lines of stress had faded and he seemed comfortable even, engaged in some conversation with Maya near the bar, the two of them eating ice cream as well.

Betty is one of the few that Pepper met, one of the few that Tony brought her along to meet, and Pepper appreciates a familiar face when she’s a little drunk and indulging in sweets.

Betty, from their easy conversation, legs crossed, knees almost touching, leaning in and talking quietly like two close friends, seemed to be on the same page.

Pepper wondered if Tony had any idea that the people he cultivated as his friends were so well suited to be her own, as well.

 

 

The end of the evening settled comfortably around Pepper as she sat, legs tucked up under herself on the end of the couch. Someone- Tony? Betty?- had draped a blanket over her and she had pulled it closer, even though she wasn’t trying to fall asleep.

She thought it was rude to do that, even if Erik had settled into one of the loveseats at one point and nodded off, his chin on his chest. Erik was older than most of them and he’d probably only sat down and closed his eyes for a moment.

Pepper had sat down to check her phone or something, she couldn’t quite remember. She had a glass of water on the coffee table nearby, half full now, and that plus all the food and the ice cream had kept her from sobering up with too much of a headache. Not that she was sober fully, no, but she was more sober than she had been when she’d gotten in a heated debate over a television show with Maya.

She hoped Maya wouldn’t remember most of that, or if she did, that she wouldn’t hold it against Pepper. Though, from how delighted she looked just being able to talk to someone about it, Pepper thought she would probably be forgiven.

A hand touching Pepper’s shoulder rouses her from her drowsing and she looks up, automatically pulling both blanket and phone closer to herself. She expects Tony, or maybe Leonard who seemed kind and sensible, but it’s Vanko who gives her a stern look. “Time to rest,” he said, voice low but not mean, “Party is done.”

Pepper looks around and realizes that others are dispersing or have already. Betty hides a yawn behind a hand as Bruce guides her from the room, down the hallway Pepper knows is there, to the rooms that Tony had built there, for the people that he has brought into their lives. She nods and sheds the blanket, shivering at the sudden cold. Her shoes have vanished somewhere, but she’ll find them in the morning.

Vanko moves to Erik next, rousing the older man and talking to him in that same low, firm tone. There was no questioning it, no arguing against it, though Erik didn’t seem the type. He looked somewhat sheepish, apologetic, and murmured something back to Vanko before getting to his feet. He gave Pepper a quiet goodnight and left as well.

Pepper looked around again, searching for Tony, knowing he wouldn’t leave until everyone else was gone.

She found him obscured by a plant, near one of the only two windows into the area. It was a large window, the same floor to ceiling plate glass that he typically had installed in his tower. There was something that obscured part of the top and bottom, like vertical panels of something that looked like wood, but probably weren’t.

Pepper took her time getting to her feet, stretching out her toes and legs from their stiff position. This gave Vanko the time to cross the room and go to Tony’s side. He touched Tony’s shoulder, ducking his head down slightly and saying something into Tony’s ear. Tony, who was turned towards the window, half turned towards him and looked over his shoulder.

Pepper can’t help it. She stops cold.

The dim lighting of the room and the black night sky behind Tony make his eyes so much brighter than she remembered them looking.

Without the shades to cover them, they burn like tiny rings of lava, brighter and more clear than they had any right to be, especially so late at night, especially from so far away. Pepper is reminded of Everhart’s article on Tony from Monaco, not the words he’d said to Hammer, but the brief mention she made of the eyes.

Intense and compelling, looking not just at someone but into them, as if he could see someone’s soul when he met their eyes. Everhart had said that his eyes held the weight of judgment in them, heavy and unrelenting, and that he’d pinned them on Hammer without mercy. It had seemed as though nothing would pass before Tony without his notice, not when he had those eyes.

For Pepper, though, she didn’t feel that same weight.

She felt cold. So cold that it burned. She didn’t immediately respond that way, but the longer she looked, the longer he held her gaze, the colder she felt. It was like frost gathered on her skin, like ice prickled across her lips and cooled her breath. Pepper felt winter open up around her, crystal-white snow that was blinding in the sunlight, the biting wind that cut through everything but the heaviest of coats, and the chill that was drawn into the body with each breath.

But it didn’t hurt, either, because as her skin and breath and blood felt that chill, her heart burned inside of her chest. It burned hot and relentlessly, aching beneath her breastbone with the desire to be there with him, the need to protect him from harm, and the yearning to bring down those who dare betray him.

Pepper pressed her hand over her chest, fingers curling on the soft fabric of her blouse as she held Tony’s gaze from across the room. His eyes burned into her soul. She could feel it, like a thumbprint on soft plastic, pressing in ridges and whorls in the shapes unique to Tony. She felt a flush crawl up her neck because it was such an intimate thing and yet she didn’t think there was anything romantic or sexual behind it. It was something other than that. Like Tony had chosen Pepper to be a pillar of his whole existence and, in that look he gave her, she could feel the weight of such a choice.

Maybe she should’ve been upset. After all, she didn’t think she should be responsible for holding up Tony’s life any more than she does as CFO and former assistant and best friend, but then…

Then he smiles and the light in his eyes, eerie and constant, is joined by the glint of his adoration and love for her- a platonic but intimate love. So he had built his world with her as one of the supports, but he didn’t demand anything from her because of that choice.

Pepper chose to follow and help and love him all on her own.

Pepper smiled back. Her hand relaxed over her heart.

Tony ducked away from Vanko, who doesn’t seem surprised, and crossed the room to Pepper. He holds out her hand, she takes it immediately. His grip is warm, hot almost, to Pepper’s freezing skin. He leans in, kisses her cheek, high on the cheekbone, a gesture he doesn’t do very often, or in front of others because of the gossip, the rumor, the easy way to misinterpret their comfort with each other as something more.

“I know you know where your room is,” he said quietly, “But allow me to escort you anyway?”

“Please,” Pepper said.

He leads her to the elevator, hand in hand, and she leans her head against his shoulder as they ride up to the penthouse, where Tony has always set aside a room for her and for Rhodes.

Pepper chews on the inside of her cheek, trying to figure out how to tell Tony she approves of all his gathered scientists. She even approves of Vanko, despite the stabbing. She keeps wondering about it all the way through the penthouse- which is that more familiar modern style of black and chrome and sharp, hard lines- to the door to her room.

This time, Pepper kisses Tony’s cheek and he crinkles his nose as he smiles.

“They’re good people, Tony,” Pepper said in the near darkness of the hallway. His eyes are the brightest thing and Pepper doesn’t mind the way they focus on her. Her heart is warm even if there is a frosty chill on her lips. “They’re good for the company. They’re good for what you’ve chosen them to do. And they’re good for you.”

Tony cupped Pepper’s cheek in one hand and she holds her breath for a long moment. He looks at her, that gaze that peers into the soul if Everhart is to be believed, and said quietly, “They’re going to help me protect the world and everyone on it. And not just once or haphazardly. We’re going to protect the world and we’re going to steer it into a new and bright future. Everything will be better, Pepper, for everyone.”

Pepper nodded.

Tony slowly moved back from her, smiling fiercely, “Goodnight, Pepper. Sleep well.”

Pepper smiled back. “Goodnight Tony, see  you tomorrow.” Then she turned and stepped into her room.

 

 


 

 

Tony stood just inside his bedroom door for a long, long time, wondering why he could feel Siberia’s frost clinging to his cheek where Pepper had kissed him.

He didn’t doubt that that was what he felt.

He remembered that chill. He remembered that ice.

He thought of that nightmare, in Monaco, months ago.

He thought of the Cradle, and how it looked from the inside.

He stared at nothing, his brain working hard to pull apart the information and figure out the finest detail of each moment, of each action, of each feeling. The ice. The touch. The Cradle. The nightmare.

But the answers seemed to slip through his fingers, intangible.

Frowning at himself, Tony shook his head and began to get ready for bed.

He’d contact Helen after the Expo when he had time to maneuver again. For now, he’d deal with what he had on his plate because there was plenty to work with already.

Tony fell asleep smiling.