Actions

Work Header

I Got You

Chapter Text

James rolls his eyes in mounting frustration as he listens to his advisers argue back and forth in front of his desk.  Takes off his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to stave off a steadily building headache.

 

“I honestly don’t understand the need for this,” he tries to interject, leaning back in his chair to level the increasingly rowdy group before him with an authoritative glare.  “We have plenty of good agents in my security detail, and even if Happy decides to retire, which I by no means begrudge him, by the way,” he nods to the man in question, who gives him a tight appreciative smile, “I feel like I’m pretty well covered.  I gotta agree with Obie, I don’t see the need for an outside hire.”

 

“With all due respect, Mr. President,” Coulson, his Chief of Staff, cuts in, meeting his raised eyebrow with a patently unperturbed look, “but given the recent events–”

 

“You mean the death threats, Phil, don’t you,” James interrupts him dryly, smirking when man’s cheek twitches slightly – the only outward sign of his discomfort.  “Let’s call it like it is, shall we.”

 

“As you wish, sir,” Coulson concedes, face once again carefully blank.  “Given the recent death threats and the sensitive nature of the information apparently available to the person behind these threats, it is my strong belief that it would be prudent to bring in a… fresh face.”   

 

James narrows his gaze at that, plops the glasses back on his nose.  “You think someone in my detail is tied to this.”  It isn’t a question, and James would be lying if he said he hadn’t considered the notion himself.  Some of the things mentioned in those messages were just personal enough to make him wonder.  To say nothing of the fact that the latest message somehow made it past said security and ended up on his personal desk for Happy to find.  Still, the idea that someone on his staff would be behind this…

 

“It’s preposterous!” Obadiah’s voice booms in protest, and he cringes at such a loud echo of his own thoughts.  “It is one thing to try and force an added and completely unnecessary expense on this office, but to imply that one of our highly decorated, thoroughly vetted individuals might be behind these despicable acts is simply–”

 

“Obie!” he raises a calming hand in his VP’s direction, cutting off what he knows, from Obadiah’s expression alone, will be a prelude to another nasty argument.

 

“I am not forcing anything on this office,” Coulson grits out, turning slightly toward the other man, his voice as professionally cold as always, but there’s a kind of snap-ready tension in his body now, fists clenched in barely concealed anger.  “I am merely trying to ensure that the president has the best protection available to him under the circumstances.” 

 

“And I’m assuming you have somebody in mind,” James interjects, as Obadiah once again opens his mouth to object.

 

“Mr. Hogan does,” Coulson confirms with a nod.  “And I stand by his recommendation.”

 

“Happy?” he turns to his bodyguard, who has remained suspiciously silent until now.  Raises an eyebrow in silent question.

 

Happy flicks a sideways gaze at Obadiah – and there’s hesitation there and hostility that has James frowning in confusion.  Happy speaks, however, before he has a chance to ponder this.

 

“Tony Stark, Sir.  A former colleague of mine.”

 

“Stark?” Obadiah scoffs, flapping his arms in a melodramatic show of frustration.  “You cannot be serious!”

 

“Why not?” James wants to know.  He’s heard the name before, he’s sure of it, but he can’t remember where or under what circumstances.

 

“The man’s a disgraced has-been,” Obadiah sneers, and James can see the way Happy bristles at the words.

 

“Tony’s the best there is,” Happy insists, his voice calm but his eyes blazing with silent fury.

 

 

“He’s a goddamn mall cop!” the VP exclaims, spittle flying from his lips.  “He got fired from his previous job for assaulting the very person he was supposed to be protecting!  Did you know that, Mr. President?” Obadiah turns his attention to James now.  “My good friend, Senator Hammer, was sent to the hospital with a concussion and a broken jaw thanks to that lunatic.”

 

Ah, now James remembers where he’s heard the name.  He smiles lightly, thinking back to those reports he’d seen on the news a few years ago.  He doesn’t know the particulars, was never privy to it.  He was only a senator himself back then, freshly elected, bright eyed with optimism and the desire to change Washington and the world.  And Justin Hammer was one of the Old Guard, just like Obie – the Washington elite who had been there for ages and knew just how to spin things in their favor.   Hammer has always given him the creeps, and he’s heard enough rumors about the way that man treated his staff, especially the women, to make him somehow certain that whatever reasons this Stark character had for punching out the senator, they must have been good ones.  One look at Happy’s face, at the way he’s shooting daggers at Obie, cheeks tinged red with fury, tells him he’s on the right track.

 

“Well,” he says, pulling all of their attention back onto his person.  “I suppose it can’t hurt to have a chat with Mr. Stark.”  It’s amazing, he thinks, the way his three visitors react to his words.  There’s a silent nod of approval from Coulson, an expression of relief and almost gratitude on Happy’s face, and a look of utter indignation on Obadiah’s.

 

“Mr. President, James, you can’t be serious!” he sputters.

 

“My Chief of Staff and my personal bodyguard are both vouching for this person’s character,” James responds coolly, rising to leave, conversation over as far as he’s concerned.  “The least I can do is meet the man.  Set it up, Phil, would ya?” he throws over his shoulder, a smirk pulling at his lips as he glimpses Obadiah’s reddening face on his way out the door.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

James isn’t sure what he was expecting Tony Stark to be like just from reading the reports prepared for him by his secretary, but the guy that saunters into the Oval Office 15 minutes after his scheduled appointment time, looking equal parts disdainfully reluctant and bafflingly self-assured, like he goddamn owns the place, is definitely not it.

 

He sweeps a quick and decidedly bored gaze around the room, seeming patently unconcerned about the two secret service agents that stand guard at the door behind him, their eyes boring holes into his back.  Directs a genuine smile at Happy, giving him a conspiratorial wink as he comes to stand beside him and seeming to take an almost childlike delight in the way the other man seems to shrink in on himself, visibly discombobulated by such an open show of familiarity and disregard of protocol.  And only then does he deign to direct his gaze to where James is sitting, acknowledging his presence with a cool nod.

 

“Mr. President.”

 

James leans back in his chair, narrows his gaze at the dark-haired suit-and-tied insolence before him.  “You’re late,” he points out, dry and just this shy of caustic.

 

The corner of Stark’s mouth upticks minutely.  “My apologies, Mr. President,” he says, sounding anything but contrite.  “I overslept.”

 

“You overslept,” he repeats, unimpressed, flicking a questioning glance at Happy, who looks like he’s ready to have the ground open up below him and swallow him up.  “Are you frequently in the habit of napping in the afternoon, Mr. Stark?” 

 

“Only on my days off, Sir,” the other deadpans, nonplussed, but there’s a hint of mirth in the honey brown eyes that stare calmly back at him.  “I have a stressful job, I try to relax when I can.”

 

James stares at him a moment longer, lips pinched with annoyance.  Wonders not for the first time if Obadiah was right, if this guy is nothing more than a washed-up asshole who has no business guarding anything more valuable than a bottle of cheap booze at a liquor store.  Has half a mind to call this joke of a meeting to a close and send this guy back to whatever hole he crawled out of.

 

An awkward cough brings his attention back to Happy, to the earnest, desperate plea in his faithful bodyguard’s eyes, and he relents.  Letting out a heavy sigh to forcefully release some of the tension, he shifts forward a bit, reaches for the folder on his desk.  Flips it open, making a show of scanning the contents.

 

“I have your file here, Mr. Stark.  There seems to be an inordinary number of complaints against your person at your current work.”  He looks back up at the man over the rim of his glasses.  “Care to explain?”

 

Stark shrugs, nonchalant.  “The only ones who complain are those that get caught breaking the law.  I’m fairly certain you won’t find any complaints there from shoppers that don’t indulge in illegal activities or otherwise threaten the safety of others.”

 

And that is just the opening James needs.  He relaxes back into his chair, steeples his hands underneath his chin, pinning the man before him with a steady, attentive stare, determined not to miss a single tell.  “Is that what Senator Hammer did?” he asks with feigned insouciance.  “Was he indulging in illegal activities or threatening the safety of others?”

 

The change that comes over Stark is immediate: his posture stiffens, brown eyes growing instantly, uncomfortably cold.  “I’m sure you already have all the information pertaining to that particular incident in front of you, Mr. President,” he responds, his voice carefully, carefully neutral.

 

There’s a warning there, James can hear it – a barely polite request to let it go.  He isn’t quite ready to do so, however.

 

He hums pensively, allows himself the tiniest of smiles.  “I’ve been doing this job long enough, Mr. Stark, to know that there is usually more to the story than what is allowed to leak onto the pages of any given report.  And this particular report, while it describes in great detail the injuries sustained by the senator, is suspiciously lacking in motive behind your assault.” 

 

Stark blinks and pulls his gaze away, choosing to stare at the oversized windows behind James’s back.  And James can see the telltale hardening of the man’s jaw, can virtually feel the tension in his body.

 

He pushes on.

 

“I also know that sometimes seemingly unrelated events have a much deeper underlying connection than may be readily apparent.  For instance….” He reaches for the folder again, pulls it toward him.  “There’s a resignation letter here from a Ms. May Parker, Senator Hammer’s secretary, filed on the same day that you had your altercation with her boss…”  He trails off, brows knitting in curiosity as he sees Stark flinch at his words.  Notes the way the man’s right hand clenches momentarily into a fist at his side before relaxing once again.  Notes the uncharacteristically worried, sympathetic expression on Happy’s face as he glances Stark’s way.

 

“Did you call me here to help you read some 10-year-old report, Mr. President?” Stark asks finally, his gaze still firmly fixed on some indeterminate point beyond. “Because I can find much better use of my time.”  He shifts his gaze finally, directs it back at James, and the latter has to fight an uncomfortable urge to squirm away from the undisguised cold fury he sees there.  “All due respect.”

 

James didn’t get to where he was in life by squirming away from uncomfortable situations, however.  And he isn’t about to start now.  Besides, he has to admit, the man intrigues him despite all of his reservations.  There’s a darkness to him, an undeniable edge of danger that should be enough of a reason to stay the hell away, and yet he finds himself being drawn closer instead. 

 

“I can read just fine, Mr. Stark,” he waves him off, putting just enough hardness into his tone to remind the man who he’s talking to.  “What I would like from you is a certain clarification.  Perhaps you could enlighten me as to the reason behind Ms. Parker’s abrupt departure.” 

 

He watches Stark intently as he speaks.  Doesn’t miss the subtle tightening of the skin around the man’s eyes, the stubborn jut of his chin.

 

“It’s not my story to tell,” Stark denies coldly, ignoring Happy’s hissed out warning of “Tony!”.  Raises an eyebrow in silent challenge – to James, to Happy, to the whole world.  “If that will be all, Sir…”

 

James shakes his head slightly, not sure whether to be offended by this man’s impudence or impressed by it.  He surprises himself by deciding on the latter. 

 

“Do you know why I called you here today, Mr. Stark?” he asks, dropping the obviously touchy subject for the time being. 

 

Stark shrugs again.  Shoves his hands in his pockets with feigned ease.  “I came as a favor to a friend.” He tilts his head in Happy’s direction, his eyes never leaving James’s face.

 

“Right.” James glances at his bodyguard, suppressing a smile at the man’s flustered expression.  “Would you mind telling me why you refused to do so when it was my Chief of Staff that called you to arrange this meeting?”

 

Stark doesn’t bat an eye.  “Mr. Coulson asked if it would be convenient for me to meet.  I didn’t find it convenient.  Frankly, I don’t understand why you felt the need to call on me in the first place.  …Respectfully.”

 

The audacity momentarily leaves James speechless.  He blinks, huffing out an incredulous breath.  He can absolutely see why a man like that wouldn’t last long on Justin Hammer’s security detail.  And he honestly doubts he’d be able to work with this guy without resorting to fisticuffs.  And how would that look – a president and his bodyguard going at it like a couple of schoolyard punks.

 

Still…

 

“Happy tells me you’re the best there is.”

 

Stark holds his questioning gaze, calm and unblinking.  “I am,” responds, and that’s not a boast, James realizes, the man simply states it like it is – a fact.

 

“Care to demonstrate?” he challenges, feeling a glee of anticipation deep in his belly.

 

Stark tilts his head slightly to the side, looking bored.  “I can neutralize Happy here and your two dress-up dolls there by the door in under three minutes with my hands cuffed behind my back,” he offers with a careless twitch of his shoulder.  “But I can’t be held responsible for potential damage to your fancy furniture here.”

 

“That’s alright,” James allows, motioning for one of his agents to come forward.  “I’d like to see what you can do.”

 

Stark doesn’t resist as the agent pulls his arms back, clasping the handcuffs around his wrists with perhaps a bit more force than necessary judging by the way Stark flinches minutely. 

 

“Touched a nerve there with the dress-up comment, Doll?” Stark quips, eyes glistening with dangerous amusement.

 

The agent snarls, tugging sharply at the chain around the cuffed wrists, and James winces in sympathy, because that had to hurt.  And in the next moment all he can do is gape in mute wonder as Stark moves with quick, catlike grace, dodging, weaving, striking – his movements beautiful, sharp and precise like notes in a perfect symphony, a deadly rhythm that crescendos with the crash of a broken lamp and the sound of three bodies thumping heavily onto the floor, and then stills, punctuated by the diminuendo of heavy breaths. 

 

Stark straightens out, casually fixing the tie that got twisted during his brief scuffle.  Walks up to the desk, demonstratively placing the apparently useless cuffs on the smooth surface.  “Good enough?” he asks, a smirk twisting his lips.

 

James can’t help but return it.  “Come work for me,” he offers.  And is only slightly surprised (and quite a bit disappointed) when Stark shakes his head in the negative.

 

“Sorry, Mr. President, but I like it where I am now just fine.” 

 

Stark turns, walks back over to where Happy is slowly collecting himself off the floor.  Helps the man up, steadying him with gentle hands and an apologetic look that Happy brushes off with a genuine if exasperated smile.  Claps the bodyguard lightly on the shoulder and walks out without so much as a backward glance.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

The next time he runs into Stark it’s at the hospital in an ICU cubicle – a fittingly surreal diminuendo to a harrowing nerve wreck of a day.

 

Happy.  Happy is in the hospital.  ICU.  Barely clinging to life after getting thrown halfway across the parking garage by a bomb that tore apart the presidential limo and damaged the nearby vehicles.  A bomb he’s pretty sure was meant for him.  And James can’t process it, hasn’t even begun to process it, what with being whisked away from the scene by overeager agents and all but hauled down into the bunker while the police, ambulance and security stormed the scene.  And it isn’t until much later, until after things calm down a bit, his own minor cuts have been tended to, the scene is secured and plans are being discussed (nay, shouted) all around him about increasing security and possibly putting the entire White House on lockdown for the time being until the perpetrator is identified and neutralized, that he announces loudly and unequivocally that he will agree to whatever security measures they deem necessary as long as he can get to check on his bodyguard. 

 

A cacophony of outraged worry meets his request, but he stands firm on that, he won’t budge.  Because it’s Happy’s crumpled, bloodied form he sees whenever he closes his eyes.  Because he can’t help thinking that if he hadn’t stopped to answer his mother’s text, leaving Happy to go on ahead of him, he would have been the one spilling blood all over the floor of the parking lot.

 

He has to go check on the man.  He owes him at least that much.

 

Surprisingly, it’s Obadiah that comes to his defense, bringing up the point that another attempt in such a short time span is unlikely, that the perpetrator has probably gone to ground, waiting for things to settle down, that nobody would be expecting the president to be out and about so soon after this incident.

 

It’s settled after that, and James spares but a cursory glance to his Chief of Staff, who shakes his head in disapproval before walking off to the side, phone glued to his ear, and then he’s off, huddled between two stone-faced agents in the back of a nondescript sedan on his way to the hospital.

 

It’s well past visiting hours, but his office carries a certain clout and he is led through to the ICU without much hassle and directed by a sleepily flustered nurse to the room that has two security agents posted outside the door.  He nods to them as he approaches, motions for his own detail to wait with them, and walks inside, allowing himself the barest of hesitations to prepare for what he’s about to find there.

 

The room is quiet save for the faint whirring of medical equipment, the comfortable semi-darkness broken only by the flickering of a muted TV screen on the wall opposite the bed.  It strikes him as odd –having the TV on when the person for whom it is intended lies there so completely unaware of the world around him.  He reaches for the remote, intent on turning the useless device off.

 

And whips around, nearly dropping the remote, when a slightly raspy and vaguely familiar voice calls on him to stop.

 

“Leave it on, please.”

 

The shadows behind the bed move, a human shape molding itself out of the blackness, stepping forth into the feeble light.

 

“Stark?” he blinks, trying to reconcile the rumple-clothed hollow-eyed man before him with the sharply dressed confidence exuding professional that had sauntered into his office a few days ago.  “What–?”

 

“Sunday nights.  PBS.  Downtown Abbey,” Stark continues as if James hasn’t spoken, arms crossed with an almost defensive awkwardness on his chest.  He looks tired, drawn, a suspicious glint in the dusk-hooded eyes.  “It’s his show.  He thinks it’s elegant.”  There’s a barely audible catch in his voice, and Stark covers it up with a cough, hitches his shoulders up in a shrug that seems a bit too forced to be nonchalant.

 

It unsettles James seeing him like this – so uncharacteristically vulnerable, so decidedly human.  He wants to say something, to reassure the man, to apologize for getting his friend hurt.  But something in the way Stark holds himself, in the tension James can feel emanating from his body, stops him short.

 

“How did you get in here?” he asks instead.  Because there are agents posted outside the door, and he can’t imagine them letting anyone in.

 

“I have ways,” Stark replies enigmatically.  Throws an almost derisively disapproving glance in the direction of the door.  “Your agents aren’t as good at their job as they believe themselves to be.  If they were, your bodyguard wouldn’t be lying here right now with a fucking tube down his throat.”

 

James flinches at the barely disguised venom in the man’s voice, bristles at the unprovoked affront.  “I’ve always been under the impression that secret service agents are the best of the best,” he counters coolly, hoping to rein the man in with his words.  Because, yes, Stark is upset, understandably so.  But that is no reason to take it out on his men. 

 

It was, apparently, the wrong thing to say.

 

Stark takes a step toward him, eyes flashing hot with fury.  Stabs a hand blindly in the direction of Happy’s bed.  “You just lost your best man, Mr. President!” he hisses, chest heaving as he sucks in a sharp breath, as if preparing to say more.

 

And then he stops, steps back, blinking as though coming awake after a trance.  Snaps his mouth shut, visibly forcing himself to relax.  A mask slides over his face – cold, calm, professional. 

 

“That’s why I’m here,” he says simply, and James gapes at him, brow furrowing in confusion.

 

“I’m sorry, I don’t–”

 

“I’m taking the job, Mr. President,” Stark cuts him off bluntly.  “I’ve changed my mind.”

 

James considers him silently for a long moment, trying to get a read on the man before him, to gauge what his motives might be.  He comes up blank.

 

“Why?” he wants to know.

 

Stark shrugs, looks over at the bed, seeming to study Happy’s slack face, half obscured by the breathing tube.  “Because that bomb was meant for you,” he responds, fury still thrumming a quiet beat through his words.  “Because this person, whoever they are, will try again, and if they succeed,” he points at Happy again, “then he went through all of this for nothing. And I can’t accept that.” He pauses, fists clenching at his sides.  Takes a deep breath.  “Whoever this person is, they made it personal now.”  He turns his gaze back to James, the dark, menacing intensity of it nearly causing him to recoil.  “And as far as I’m concerned, they’re already dead.”

 

James swallows tightly, finding himself completely at a loss as to what to say.  On the one hand he’s thrilled to have this guy finally come around, especially now that these death threats he heretofore considered a mere annoyance, a product of someone’s sick imagination, have suddenly become all too deadly and all too real.  But Stark seems to be wound up so tight that he wonders if the man is even gonna be up to the task. 

 

He is about to express his concerns when the door to Happy’s room opens and his Chief of Staff walks in, a small bag in hand. 

 

“Ah, the ever-unruffled Agent,” Stark enthuses before James can even wonder out loud what Phil is doing here.  “Just the man I wanted to see.  Did ya bring what I asked?”

 

Coulson nods, face unreadable as ever.  Opens up the bag to pull out a credit card, a flip phone and a set of car keys.  “Untraceable prepaid card,” he recites as if checking off items from some invisible list, “clean phone with new SIM card and no GPS tracker, and a car parked out back.”

 

“Good boy,” Stark praises with a smirk, pocketing the items.  Pulls out his own cell phone and drops it into the bag still held open by Coulson.  “Your turn, Mr. President.”

 

James shakes his head, puts up both hands like a shield.  “Would someone, please, explain to me what the hell is happening here?” he snaps.

 

Coulson cocks his head at him, throws a mildly disapproving gaze Stark’s way.  “You didn’t tell him?”

 

“You interrupted me before I could… Agent,” Stark defends, winking at the man, and grins at Coulson’s exasperated eye roll.

 

“I called Stark earlier, Sir.  Asked him to take over,” Coulson explains, and James thinks back to that moment in the bunker when he watched Phil walk away, phone pressed to his ear.  “He was already at the hospital, so it worked out.”

 

“Take over how… exactly,” he wonders, scowling at Coulson’s bag.

 

“I’m gonna take you to a safe house, Mr. President,” Stark cuts in, all business.  “This person that’s after you, they know your schedule, they know your itinerary, they have access to your office.  That leaves too many suspects that are in too close of proximity to your person.  Trying to protect you in Washington would be like trying to protect a bucket of chum in shark-infested waters.  I wanna increase your chances of survival.”

 

“By making me go on the run.”

 

“By making you disappear,” Stark corrects patiently, reaching his hand toward him. “Your phone, please, Mr. President.”

 

“I got everything under control, Mr. President,” his Chief of Staff intervenes once more.  “The media will have a cover story – you’re taking some personal time in the wake of the tragic incident.  Vice President Stane will temporarily take over your duties.  All you need to do is follow Mr. Stark’s direction and stay safe while we take care of things here.  The police and secret service will continue their investigation and we’ll hopefully have our guy behind bars or on a slab before you know it.”

 

James gapes at the two of them, his head spinning from the unexpectedness of it all.  It’s madness, he thinks.  Utter madness.   Woodenly he pulls his cell phone out of his pocket, placing it in Stark’s waiting palm.  “How do you even… how do you propose we disappear? There are agents all over this hospital, I-”

 

“The hallway and the stairway are clear,” Coulson interrupts, and Stark nods to him in approval as if he was expecting this exact response.  “The cameras will be down in exactly…,” he glances at his watch, “one minute thirty-two seconds.  The cameras at the parking structure will be down exactly 5 minutes after that.  You will have about 7 minutes altogether to get out unseen.”

 

“This is insane,” James huffs out, feeling a stab of irrational anger at such definitive loss of control.  “You two, you’ve got this whole… this thing plotted out behind my back and you never even bothered to…”

 

 “All due respect, Mr. President,” Stark steps closer, pushing far into his personal space, “you wanted to hire me because you heard that I’m the best at what I do.  Right now you’re the guy with a large bullseye on your back and I’m your only chance of surviving into your next term.  So it’s up to you, Mr. President.  If you want to live, you come with me, you do as I say and when I say it.  No questions, no arguments, no complaints. If not, you walk out of here with your man Phil and you take your chances in the shark pool.  Understood?”

 

James grits his teeth, struggling against a near-overwhelming urge to break Stark’s nose. 

 

“Twenty seconds, Mr. President,” Coulson calls out, and James closes his eyes briefly, forces himself to exhale, to relax.

 

“I don’t seem to have much choice at the moment,” he grinds out, admitting his temporary defeat.  Takes a deliberate, threatening step toward Stark, bringing the two of them virtually nose to nose.  “But let me make something clear, Mr. Stark: I don’t like your attitude and I don’t like you.  And if you overstep your bounds with me one more time, I will not hesitate to punch you in the face.  Understood?”

 

Stark flashes him a plastic-looking smile.  “I think we’re gonna get along great, Mr. President,” he asserts with enthusiasm that seems entirely out of place.  Heads to the door, pausing in front of Coulson.  “You take care of my boy Happy there, alright?” he tells him, and it sounds more like a warning than a request.

 

Coulson, for his part, doesn’t bat an eye.  “You take care of mine, I take care of yours,” he deadpans and Stark grins in response.

 

“It’s a deal.”  He grabs the door handle, motions to James over his shoulder.  “Mr. President, follow my lead.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

He comes awake abruptly to the sound of a car door being slammed shut, and he blinks in sleepy confusion as his surroundings slowly come into focus.  It takes his brain a few seconds to realize that he has not, in fact, dozed off on the leather couch in his office again, that what he is currently sprawled on is, in fact, the backseat of the car that Stark had so unceremoniously shoved him onto last night after their hurried dash across the hospital parking lot, and that the oddly concave light gray ceiling he’s looking up at is the roof interior of said car.  It’s already light out, and a brief check of his wrist watch informs him that it is already half past 8 in the morning.  He frowns at that, because, as best he can recall, it was close to 11 at night when they left DC, which would mean he got at least 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep – something that hasn’t happened to him once since he took the office.  The realization is both unexpected and guiltily welcome.

 

He sits up, wincing as his neck and back muscles protest the less than ideal sleeping arrangement.  Looks around. 

 

They are at a gas station of some sort, on the outskirts of town, judging by lack of traffic and the near bareness of their surroundings.  Stark is standing outside, punching in the selection on the gas pump.  He turns back toward the car, hose in hand.  Winks at James through the rolled down window.

 

“Sleep well, Your Chieftainship?”

 

James rolls his eyes at the ridiculous moniker, but chooses to ignore it in favor of the more important things.  Such as…

 

“Where are we?”

 

Stark looks out at the depressingly sleepy landscape, shrugs minutely.  “About an hour out from Terre Haute, Indiana,” he supplies and goes to finish up refueling the car, missing the incredulous look that James shoots his way.

 

“Indiana?” he sputters, his mind whirring because Indiana – that’s… that’s about 9 hours away.  “You mean you’ve been driving all this time?”

 

Stark turns away from him wordlessly, replaces the hose.  “The first objective was to get you to a safe house,” he says finally as he walks around the car to the passenger’s side door.  “The only way for me to meet that objective is to keep driving until we get there.”  He pulls the door open, reaches inside.  “The second objective was to make you disappear,” he adds, grabbing a large shopping bag that James only now notices is lying on the front seat.  Stark leans further into the car, tosses the bag at James through the gap between the seats.  “This should help with that a bit for when we’re out and about.”

 

James opens the bag, glares unhappily at the contents.  “What is all this?”

 

“A few clothes I picked up for you at one of those 24-hr strip malls we passed by while your Executiveness was drooling all over the backseat,” Stark explains, motioning at the blue and white “RESTROOMS” sign hanging off the side of the gas station building.  “You can change in there, but put that hat on before you leave the car – this place may not exactly be teaming with customers, but there’s still a camera above the front door.  No way to tell if it’s operational or not, but we don’t need the risk.”

 

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing now?” James grumbles, wincing at a genuinely petulant note that creeps into his voice. 

 

Stark raises an eyebrow at him, looking prohibitively amused. “Nothing at all, Sourpatch, if we were trying to schmooze a bunch of foreign dignitaries at some stuffy dinner function.  We’re going for less conspicuous here, remember?”

 

James doesn’t deign him with a response.  Pulls out the hat, slams it on his head and gets out of the car, grumbling unhappily under his breath.

 

He’s still grumbling ten minutes later when he returns to the car, the bag now holding his haphazardly folded suit.  Stark looks up when he approaches, tosses a Visitor’s Guide he’s been leafing through onto the back seat.

 

“What is it now?” he asks with a kind of confused exasperation, as James yanks open the back door to throw the bag inside with a bit more force than necessary.  “Did I not get your size right?”

 

James favors him with a glare from under the brim of his hat.  No, the size isn’t the issue.  The clothes Stark got him fit almost too well, enough so that it makes James uncomfortable to think that Stark has observed him so intimately as to be able to approximate his size and build with such precision.  Still…

 

“A blue polo and a fedora?  Really, Stark?” he gripes, as the man stares back at him, eyes wide with seemingly genuine confusion.  “I look like goddamn Perry the Platypus from that stupid cartoon my nephew likes to watch. Did you–”

 

He cuts himself off as Stark makes a strange choked noise at the back of his throat, doubling over with laughter a second later.  And James watches helplessly, lips pursed in annoyance, as Stark heaves and sputters through an uncontrollable fit of laughter, gasping ineffectually for breath. 

Eventually he gives up.  Waves his hand in resignation and walks around the still giggling man to demonstratively plop onto the passenger seat up front.  He’s had enough.

 

Stark slides into the driver’s seat moments later, brown eyes sparkling with mirth.  “Buckle up, Platypus,” he tells him with a wink, and James fights the urge to groan out loud for giving this headache of a man yet another way to irritate him.

 

“You’re a real ass, you know that,” he mutters, angrily clicking the seatbelt into place as the car begins to move.

 

Stark smirks brightly, slides on a pair of sunglasses.  “Jury’s still out.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

“You know, this is a pretty decent family restaurant,” James points out, watching with a mildly disapproving frown as Stark tears into a plain-looking cheeseburger, all but moaning with pleasure as though he were savoring a most exquisite gourmet meal.  “You could have ordered some real food.”

 

“What’s wrong with cheeseburgers?” Starks looks almost offended.

 

“Nothing,” James shrugs, shifting his attention back to his own plate with its piece of herb-roasted chicken seasoned to mouth-watering perfection. “I just figured that after getting our breakfast and lunch orders at drive-through windows you’d want something a bit more sophisticated than a meal that usually comes in a greasy paper bag with an optional toy for customers 12 and under.”

 

“I like cheeseburgers.” It’s Stark’s turn to shrug as he takes another hungry bite that drips grease and ketchup onto his chin. He reaches for a napkin, dabs it at his chin.  “S’comfort food,” he manages around a mouthful, winking at James over the remainder of his sandwich.

 

James shakes his head, goes back to cutting up his food.  “Wouldn’t have pegged you for a junk food kind of guy.  Given where you come from, I figured you’d have a more… sophisticated palate,” he says, snagging a piece of chicken with asparagus onto his fork and sending the combination into his mouth.

It’s good.  It’s so fucking good and so welcome after the questionable-quality fast food Stark had forced on him earlier that he simply closes his eyes for a moment and lets himself enjoy the flavor, the texture and the aroma of actual, human food. 

 

It’s why he doesn’t notice right away that something’s amiss.  Not until he opens his eyes again and finds Stark looking back at him, his expression guarded, tense.

 

“Where I come from?” There’s an unpleasantly cold challenge in Stark’s tone, and James wonders what particular can of worms he inadvertently opened with this conversation, but the words are out now and it’s too late to take them back. 

 

“You’re Howard Stark’s son, aren’t you?” he asks, trying for nonchalant as he goes to cut himself another piece of the chicken.  “Millionaire inventor?  One of the biggest names in weapon manufacturing? I didn’t make the connection right away, but I just haven’t seen any Stark tech around in years.  Our military contract had been picked up by Senator Hammer’s company after your father–”

 

“Passed out drunk while working on an arc reactor prototype and blew up the entire mansion?”

 

He frowns at the glacial callousness of Stark’s interruption, blinks uncertainly at the man.  “I’m sorry,” he tries. 

 

“Don’t be,” Stark waves him off with an ugly grimace of a smile.  “Blowing himself up was the best thing he could have done with his life.  Although,” he drops his unfinished cheeseburger onto the plate, leans back in the chair, dabbing the napkin at his lips, “I heard rumors that he may have had some help leaving this world.”

 

It’s so casual the way he says it, so matter-of-fact.   It makes James’ skin crawl.

 

“You’re saying someone had him murdered?”

 

Stark crumples up the napkin, tosses it onto the plate.  “Don’t know that for a fact,” he admits with a dispassionate shrug.

 

“But?” James prompts, intrigued despite himself.

 

Stark hums.  “Howard was many things – stupid wasn’t one of them.  Being drunk wasn’t new for him, but he knew his limits.  He wouldn’t have gone down to his workshop if he was that hammered.” He chuckles unkindly.  “Hammered.  Now that’s a thought.”

 

James feels a cold unpleasant shiver trickle down his spine.  “You’re not suggesting…”

 

“The good senator?” Stark’s smile is positively predatory now, and he seems pleased somehow by James’ deduction even if he shakes his head in the negative.  “I’ve had the displeasure of observing Senator Hammer quite closely for ten very long and sadly irretrievable months of my life.  He’s a vulgar little shit with no sense of morals or civility.  But he doesn’t have enough brains or balls to pull off something like this.”  He cocks his head, winks conspiratorially at James.  “Now if we assume that he was not acting alone, and we combine his financial means and his unbridled enthusiasm for fattening up his own pockets with, say, Vice President Stane’s formidable ruthlessness and an unhealthy craving for power–”

 

“Stop!” James hisses, putting up his hand to shut the man up even as he glances furtively to the sides to make sure their conversation has not attracted any unwarranted attention.  “Do you even realize what you’re saying?  Accusing a high-ranking senator and the goddamn VP of conspiracy to murder?”

 

Stark watches him calmly, seemingly unperturbed by his agitation.  “I’m not accusing them of anything, Sugar Plums,” he deflects easily, the sharp piercing gaze of his amber-brown eyes pinning James in place.  “Don’t have enough facts for that.  I’m merely pointing out that together those two individuals have both the appetite and the means for any sort of hostile takeover.” Stark’s eyes narrow ever so slightly.  “Such as, for instance, the removal of an undesirable president.”

 

For a brief moment James forgets how to breathe.  Just sits there, blinking owlishly at Stark, his heart stuttering like a scared animal inside his chest.  “You...,” he chokes out, fingers tightening convulsively around the handle of his knife.  “You’re insane.  Do you even hear yourself?”    

 

Stark snorts quietly, picks up his glass of water, leaving a ring of condensation on the wooden surface.  “Relax, Platypus,” he responds easily and takes a long drawn out sip before setting the glass back down onto the table.  “This is all purely hypothetical at this point.”  The mask of feigned impassivity slips for a moment, his eyes flashing steel like the metal of a drawn sword.  “Believe me,” he says, leaning forward into James’ space, and his voice, though quiet, has that same unmistakable edge of steel as well, “if I had any concrete proof that they had anything to do with that bomb that landed Happy in the hospital, they both would have been dead by now.”  He waits a beat, lets the words sink in.  Then pulls away, settling back in his chair, the already familiar plastic smile firmly in place.  “Now, what was it you were saying about my… palate?”

 

James blinks rapidly, thrown completely off balance first by the wild accusations bordering on seditious and now by the dizzying change of topics.  He needs time to think, to process everything that Stark just said.  Because it can’t be right what he’s implying.  It’s crazy.  It’s the words of a madman.  And yet… and yet…

 

“Um…,” he begins inarticulately, looking down at his poor unfinished chicken as though somehow hoping to find inspiration there for something meaningful to say when his mind is drawing a complete stunned blank.

 

“Hold that thought, Buttercup,” Stark interrupts him unexpectedly, and the subtle change in his tone, a slight but unmistakable strain of warning, draws James’ attention back to the man.

 

Stark’s whole demeanor has changed.  He still sits sprawled against the back of his chair, looking for all the world like he’s relaxing over a meal and a friendly chat, but James can see a kind of battle-ready tension in him now, a cold wariness of a professional on the job.

 

“What’s wrong?” he asks, knowing instinctively that he needs to whisper this part.

 

Stark flicks a lightning quick glance somewhere past James’ shoulder, reaches once again for his water glass.  “Seems like your secret admirer wasn’t quite happy with you leaving Washington so abruptly,” he murmurs into the glass. 

 

“He’s here?” James straightens out in his seat, fighting the urge to look around.  “Who is he?”

 

“It’s not the puppet master himself,” Stark shakes his head, setting the glass back down.  “But I will bet good money that the merry little group that just sat down at the table behind us is not overly interested in today’s specials.”   

 

James swallows tightly, rubs his suddenly sweaty palms.  “How many?”

 

“Five that I can see.  Probably more waiting outside.”  Stark shifts forward a bit, casually leaning his elbows on the table, bringing him that much closer to where James is sitting.   Smiles a wide artificial smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.  “Listen to me very carefully,” he says, his voice so low that James has to strain to hear him even at this short a distance. “You’re gonna excuse yourself now and get up to go to the restroom – it’s in the back of that hallway behind me.  The moment you step inside that hallway, you take the first door to your left – that’s the kitchen.  You’re gonna go in and you’re gonna keep walking until you reach the back door.  Don’t open it, just stay there and wait for me.  Understood?”

 

Stark’s gaze bores into his, intense, burning, demanding, and James wants to object, wants to know what exactly is it that Stark plans to do while he makes his escape to the kitchen, wants to insist that he stay and help, but there’s a grim urgency in Stark’s expression that makes him hold his tongue.  He nods once, mutely, and finds himself oddly comforted upon seeing something in Stark’s posture relax slightly at his assent.  Decided now, he puts both hands on the table, takes a deep, steadying breath and pushes up, plastering on a painfully artificial smile of his own.

 

“I’ll be right back,” he hears himself say, holding Stark’s gaze for a brief moment before gesturing widely in the direction Stark had indicated to him earlier.  “Just gotta use the little boys’ room.” 

 

And he walks off, silently repeating to himself that Stark is a professional, that he can handle himself, that it’s his job…. And tries very hard to stop himself from turning back around when he hears the first telltale crash of splintering wood behind him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

The group at the nearby table abandon their pretense of looking through the menus the moment Rhodes walks away, and Tony has been waiting for it, waiting for them to make a move, and the moment they do, the moment the first of them rises from the table, so does he.

 

He slams his elbow hard into the nose of the closest goon, causing the man to stumble backwards, eyes watering and hands clamping over the now bloodied face.  Delivers a vicious follow-up blow to the man’s temple, dropping him to the floor like a sack of potatoes. 

 

One, he thinks grimly and twists around to drive the heel of his boot into the side of another’s knee. 

 

Two, he adds, allowing himself the tiniest of smirks at the dull sound of bone breaking even as the second assailant hollers and drops, clutching the knee in obvious pain. 

 

He puts the guy out of his misery with a well-aimed kick to the head and turns just in time to duck out of the way of a chair swinging toward him.  He intercepts the object by its legs, twists it sharply to the side, forcing the other guy to let go.  Then lunges forward, smashing the back of the chair into the guy’s neck with everything he’s got.

 

Three.

 

He sees movement out of the corner of his eye and he spins around just in time to see one of the group slink away in the direction that Rhodes had disappeared to. 

 

Shit.

 

He doesn’t bother with the mental tally anymore.  He needs to finish this as quickly as possible.  Goon number four reaches behind his coat for the gun tucked into his waistband, having apparently reached a similar conclusion.  And Tony doesn’t have time for this – not in a crowded restaurant, not when the fifth man is probably already gunning for Rhodes. 

 

He’s still holding the chair, so he swings it at the guy’s head hard enough to crack and splinter the wood. The man slumps wordlessly, an awkward heap at Tony’s feet, and Tony waits half a heartbeat to make sure the guy doesn’t so much as twitch before running full-speed after number five.

 

He bursts into the kitchen, nearly knocking over one of the workers.  A cursory glance at the man’s terror-wide eyes that keep darting toward the back of the room tells him he was right not to bother checking the restroom first – he’s on the right track. 

 

He pulls out his gun, hurries through the busy crammed space, nearly slipping on a spilled mess of pasta and broken glass left in the middle of the tiled floor. 

 

Yes, definitely on the right track.

 

There’s a shout up ahead, a harsh demanding tone, and he rushes toward it, worried that he is already too late when his ears pick up a dull twang of a blow followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground.  And skids to a stunned halt at the sight of the fifth goon sprawled in an awkward senseless heap by the back door and Rhodes standing over him with a cast iron skillet in his hand. 

 

He blinks, shakes his head in amusement.  “A skillet tenderized goon chop,” he remarks approvingly, squatting down next to the likely comatose would-be assassin to retrieve the man’s fallen weapon.   “Nicely done, Chef Rhodey.”

 

“I’ve done ten years in the military,” comes a slightly clipped, slightly breathless response.  “I’m not entirely helpless.  And the name’s Rhodes.”

 

Tony dutifully ignores the correction.  “Former military, huh,” he squints assessingly up at his charge. “Marines?”

 

Rhodes tosses the skillet, raises his hand to fix the glasses that got tilted a bit during his altercation.  “Air Force,” he corrects, “fighter pilot.”

 

“A flyboy,” Tony hums, straightening back out, the assailant’s weapon held loosely in his hand.  Dismisses with a casual shrug, “Impressive, but not a particularly useful skill in our current situation. You know how to shoot?” 

 

“Yeah, I know how to shoot.”  Rhodes sounds almost offended now, and Tony grins appreciatively.

 

“Here you go then, Platypus,” he holds the extra weapon out to him by the barrel, his grin growing wider when Rhodes takes it without hesitation, the weapon fitting into his hand with expert ease.  He steps to the door, opens it the tiniest of cracks.  “Stay close,” he says, making sure to catch the other man’s eyes.  “Keep low. Cover fire only – don’t poke your head up for any reason.  Understood?”

 

Rhodes looks like he wants to argue, brows knitted into a stubborn frown, and Tony can’t have that – can’t afford to have a goddamn politician (even one who may have seen combat) going all Dirty Harry on him.  He grips the man’s shoulder, squeezes hard.  “Look,” he says, drawing on what little patience he has and trying for placating, “your military training aside, you are an extremely high value target, and those guys out there – their goal is to take you out.  My job is to keep you alive.  Let me do it.  Please.” 

 

Rhodes regards him silently for a moment, then nods. “Okay.”

 

“Okay.”

 

And they’re off.

 

***

 

Just as he had predicted, there are more goons waiting outside.  The good news is there are only four of them, milling about next to two black vans with tinted windows.  The bad news – they spot them all too soon for Tony’s liking – about halfway to the relative safety of the car, and these guys, being outside, are not shy about using their weapons.

 

He throws out his hand behind him, blindly grabs a fistful of the pale blue fabric and yanks down, forcing Rhodes to duck behind the closest vehicle.  He follows suit, wincing in mute apology to the car’s hapless owner, whoever they may be, as bullets pepper its other side.  A momentary lull in gunfire has him up on his feet again, firing over the hood of the car and hissing at Rhodes to move while their assailants in turn duck behind one of the vans for cover.  Rhodes obeys without hesitation this time, taking off at a low crouch, and Tony fires off a couple more shots, blowing out the vans’ tires, and runs off after him, making sure to keep himself between Rhodes and the shooters.

 

He unlocks the car on the run, yells at Rhodes to “Get in and get down”.  Gets in himself, flinching as the driver’s side window shatters from the impact of a bullet, showering him with glass.   He doesn’t wait for them to get in another shot.  Slams the key into ignition, floors the pedal and peels out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell.

 

***

 

“How did they manage to track us down?” Rhodes straightens out slowly in the passenger seat, looks back over his shoulder at the restaurant parking lot they had long since left behind.

 

Tony shrugs, wincing as the movement pulls unpleasantly at his left shoulder.  Spares Rhodes a sideways glance.  “I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” he admits, barely able to hide his frustration.  Because he missed something, he knows he did.  He got rid of their phones, they’ve got a brand new credit card, a new car, made sure their movements couldn’t be traced.  Hell, he even got Rhodes to get rid of his old clothes, so he would–

 

Shit.

 

He glances Rhodes’ way again, eyes narrowed in thought.  “You wouldn’t happen to have something on your person that was a gift, would ya?  Fairly recent?  This year sometime?”

 

Rhodes frowns at the question, seemingly confused as to its relevance, but he obliges nevertheless, lifts up his left hand to show off an exquisite-looking Bulgari encircling his wrist.   “Got this little beast about two months ago,” he says, and his eyes widen in sudden horrified realization as he stumbles breathlessly over the name of the giver, “from Obie…”

 

Shit, shit, shit

 

“Take it off,” Tony commands, squeezing the steering wheel harder as he berates himself for being stupid, stupid, stupid not to have thought of this sooner. 

A sudden wave of sharp, stabbing pain that tears through his shoulder at the angry motion nearly makes him gasp out loud.  He grits his teeth, loosens his grip on the steering wheel a bit, taking a couple of long steadying breaths through the nose.  Spares a quick glance at the front of his shirt, unsurprised to see a steadily growing patch of wetness that spreads out from a small hole just below his collarbone.  Of-fucking-course.

 

“Smash it,” he forces out hoarsely, because they need to take care of this first, this is important, his goddamn shoulder can wait.  “On the dash… use your gun.” 

 

Rhodes does as he’s told, drives the butt of the gun into the delicate clockwork until the beautiful timepiece is nothing but a mess of twisted metal and broken glass.

 

“Toss it,” Tony instructs, and what’s left of the watch is sent flying out the open window. 

 

It’s not ideal. Stane or whoever else that’s pulling the strings already has part of their itinerary, they can figure out the rest soon enough even without the tracker.  But it should at least buy them some time.  Which, judging by the way his shoulder is now a constant painful throb in odd concert with the beat of his heart, they desperately, desperately need.  

 

He thinks back to his original plan.  His old house in Malibu.  Another 20+ hours away.  There’s no way he can get them there now.  Not in this shape.  They need a stopover, a safe place to rest and get patched up before he gets them back on their way.  Luckily for them, they are about an hour away from one – a small safety harbor he himself helped create many years ago for those he swore he would give his life to protect.  And he hates the idea of being the one to now bring danger to their doorstep.  Would never even think about doing so if he were on his own.  But he’s got Rhodes to think about – the man who is now also his to protect.  He cannot, will not fail him now. 

 

He flicks another troubled gaze at his bloodied shirt, looks up at the road sign for the rapidly approaching junction with US-54 and turns the car toward the exit ramp, sending a quick mental apology to those, whose lives he’s about to make a whole lot more complicated.

 

***

 

“I knew Stane as a kid.  Did he ever tell you?” He doesn’t know why he’s volunteering this information now. Blames it on the blood loss.  On the fact that the road flickers in and out of focus for him with ever-increasing frequency and they still have about 10 minutes left to go and he desperately, desperately needs to find a way to stay alert.  Talking helps.  Talking about anything really.  He’s just not so sure that starting a conversation about his messed-up childhood with a guy he met only a couple weeks ago, a guy who probably only tolerates his presence out of necessity, is a good way to go.  But his mouth no longer seems to listen to his brain’s admonitions, and he doesn’t think he has the wherewithal to fight that particular battle now.

 

“I… no…” Rhodes sounds equal parts confused and surprised.  “I didn’t.”

 

“Used to come see my… Howard about his projects.”

 

A wave of dizziness assaults him out of nowhere and he grips the wheel harder to stay in his lane.  The wound in his shoulder echoes dutifully, the surge of pain momentarily whitening out the road before him.  But it helps, jolts him into greater awareness, buys him a few minutes more.  Hopefully enough to reach the house.   He blinks rapidly to clear his vision, his chest heaving with breaths that seem too shallow, too inadequate somehow.

 

“I used to … like it when he came.  …Kept Howard’s attention away,” he admits, the words pouring out of him like liquor out of a bottle.  And, god, he needs a drink – he would kill for one just about now.  Drinking helps.  Howard taught him that.  He didn’t want to learn.  He was too young, he thinks.  But Howard said he needed to, so he obeyed.  He wanted to be good, wanted his father to like him… or at least… at least not hit him so much.  He left him alone when Obie was there, so that was nice… that was nice.

 

“Wh…what?”

 

He clamps his mouth shut at his passenger’s appalled gasp, flicks a pathetically hopeful glance to the side, wincing at the expression of stunned horror on the other man’s face.  Shit.  He didn’t mean to say any of that out loud, he really didn’t.  Damn this blood loss.

 

“Stark, I–”

 

“S’fine,” he interrupts, turning his attention back to the road, hunching in on himself under the watchful, concerned stare he can feel burning a hole in the side of his face.  “Whiskey under the bridge.”  A hysterical giggle bubbles forth, and, boy, is he not helping himself here.  He doesn’t even dare look Rhodes’ way anymore.  Can’t bear the judgment, the pity he knows he’s gonna see in the man’s eyes. 

 

The road winks out for a moment.  Comes back veiled in a rapidly thickening gray haze.  His left arm slips off the wheel, hanging a dead weight at his side.  The fingers of his right one are growing colder by the minute and he can barely feel the leather in their white-knuckled grip.  His time has run out.

 

“See that driveway up ahead?” He nods toward a simple gravel road framed by trees and thick overgrowth on both sides.  “There’s a house… at the end of it.  Friend of mine… Pep…Pepper.”  He’s slurring, he can feel it, his tongue growing too heavy in his mouth. But he still needs to, he needs to…

 

“Stark?”

 

He can hear the worry in Rhodes’ voice, can feel the man’s hand gripping his shoulder – a strong solid anchor in an ocean of cold and darkness that’s slowly pulling him under.  It’s nice that anchor, but it won’t be enough to keep him from floating away.

 

“Take the… take the wheel,” he manages on a soft, breezy exhale, as darkness rises higher to engulf him completely.

 

Rhodes’ anxious call of his name is the last thing he hears.

Chapter Text

Rhodey the Platypus

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

 

“Easy, hey… hey, take it easy,” he calls out, hands raised in surrender as he warily eyes the barrels of two pump-action shotguns pointed with deadly precision at his chest. 

 

This wasn’t quite the welcome he was expecting, but then again he can’t really say he had time to think about what it was he was hoping to find at the end of the gravel driveway he somehow managed to swerve into without hitting any of the trees that framed it.  Between the adrenaline-fogged turmoil of their flight, Stark’s shocking confession and the man’s abrupt loss of consciousness that had James lunging for the steering wheel to avoid ramming the car into the nearest tree, he didn’t have time to think about anything.  So maybe finding himself facing two gun-wielding teenagers (and, yes, they are just kids, goddamit, and what the hell kind of place is this anyway?) shouldn’t have come as such great of a shock.

 

“You’re trespassing.” One of the kids raises his weapon higher, finger tightening on the trigger, and James has to fight the urge to duck, because he’s really not looking forward to getting shot at again.  He’s had enough of that for one day, thank you very much.

 

“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” he begins, placating.  “I just…”

 

“You just what?”

 

A woman steps out of a large stucco farmhouse that stands at the edge of the driveway.  Tall and blue-eyed with a long beautiful mane of strawberry blond hair pulled into a messy bun above her head, she somehow manages to look intimidatingly regal in a plain white button down tucked carelessly into a pair of threadbare jeans.

 

“The only people who come here are either running from trouble or looking for it,” she muses, taking a few slow, measured steps toward him, and even though she carries no weapon that James can see, there’s something about her that makes her look even more dangerous than the two gun-wielding teens.  “So which of that applies to you?”

 

“I…”  He looks back over his shoulder at their car, parked crookedly in the middle of the driveway (he did the best he could under the circumstances, forced to maneuver his way around Stark’s dead weight to get to the pedals and the wheel).  Looks at Stark’s unconscious form, barely visible from where it’s slumped sideways between the steering wheel and the door.  “I was told to come here,” he says, turning back to his “welcoming committee”.  Thinks back to the name Stark mentioned before passing out and scaring the fuck out of him.  “I’m looking for someone named… Pepper?” 

 

He feels ridiculous saying it.  Pepper doesn’t even sound like a name.  Not a person’s name anyhow.  And maybe that wasn’t even what Stark was saying at all – the man was barely putting words together.  What if James misheard? What if it wasn’t “Pepper” at all?  But he can’t very well ask Stark for clarification now, and it’s not like he’s got much of a choice, does he.

 

The woman, however, stiffens visibly at the odd moniker, blue eyes narrowing in open suspicion.  “Where did you hear that name?”

 

He swallows nervously as the older of the two teens shifts threateningly toward him.  Stumbles back a step, feeling the back of his knee hit the bumper of the car.

 

“Please,” he tries again, daring to wave his hand in the direction of the driver’s seat.  “My friend’s been shot, he needs help.”

 

The teen glances back at the woman as if asking permission, walks carefully around James to the driver’s seat, his weapon still at the ready as he peers inside through the shot-out driver’s window.  In the next instant his dark eyes widen in alarm, mouth falling open with a shocked gasp.

 

“Miss Potts!” the kid yells over his shoulder even as he’s wrenching the door open, the shotgun tossed aside without a second thought. “Come here, quick! It’s Mr. Stark!” 

 

***

The next few minutes fly by in a frantic bustle of activity, where James stands to the side, forgotten, as he watches the two teens pull Stark out of the car with almost reverent care, settling him briefly down on the older one’s lap.  The woman, Potts, crouches down next to him, her face scrunched up in worry as she presses trembling fingers to the pulse point on Stark’s neck. 

 

James doesn’t begrudge her that worry.  Because Stark looks bad – a few heartbeats away from a corpse kind of bad.  The man’s skin is ashen, his face slack, the left side of his shirt is soaked with blood.  Not for the first time James berates himself for not noticing that something was amiss sooner.  Perhaps he could have done something.  Could have insisted they stop the car.  Could have applied pressure to the wound, wrapped it up, slowed the bleeding down.  Could have prevented this from getting so far out of hand.

 

Potts stands up abruptly, motioning for the boys to pick Stark up.  “Put him in my room,” she instructs, voice tense – a far cry from her cool, composed timbre from before.  “I’ll need boiled water, towels and my medical kit.  Get everything ready.  And then the two of you go take care of the car – I don’t want either of you witnessing this, you understand?” 

 

The older teen opens his mouth as if to argue, then relents with a nod and the two of them take off toward the house, Stark’s limp body cradled carefully between them.

 

Potts closes her eyes for a moment, takes a breath, her shoulders trembling slightly before she visibly pulls herself together.  Casts a brief assessing look back at James.  “Come along,” she tells him in a tone that makes it sound more like an order than a suggestion.  “You can help.”

 

***

 

In the end James doesn’t end up doing much past crouching by Stark’s head, hands resting lightly on the man’s biceps to help keep him still should he awaken while Potts works on cleaning and wrapping the wound with the help of another woman, who seems familiar somehow, though James, for the life of him, can’t figure out why.

 

Potts cleans out the wound with copious amounts of boiled water, her hands sure now, in control, exhibiting none of the earlier quiver.  But James is all too aware of how skin-deep that control is.  Can see it in the almost frantic urgency of her movements, in the lines of tension around her eyes, in the pallor of her cheeks that almost rivals Stark’s…

 

Stark’s body jolts violently when she pours some rubbing alcohol onto the wound, and she jerks her hand away with a startled gasp, cuts a worried glance at Stark’s face. 

 

“Tony?” she calls out, and there it is – that same naked vulnerability in her expression, the undisguised fear in the wide blue-eyed gaze that James had observed outside earlier.  “Tony?”

 

She reaches for him, hesitant, trembling fingertips skittering over the ashen skin.  Stark’s eyelashes flutter briefly in response, his forehead scrunching up.  But he doesn’t wake fully, and James can feel the pain-strained muscles under his palms relax as the man slips back under mere moments later.

 

“He’s alright,” James gives Potts, what he hopes is, a reassuring nod, loosening his grip on Stark’s arms.  “He’s still out of it.  Just… just keep going.”

 

She doesn’t acknowledge him, but her jaw clenches sharply, lips pressing together in a grim, worried line.  Tears her gaze away from Stark’s face, reaches for the dressing that the other woman holds out for her.

 

“May,” she calls out as she finishes applying the dressing and moves to cover Stark with a blanket that lies folded at the foot of the bed, “could you go check on the boys, please?” There’s something in her voice, a kind of dark tension that puts James on edge once again.

 

The other woman frowns at that, casts a wary glance at James.  “Are you sure it’s a good idea, Pep?” she hedges, concern written into every line of her expressive face.  “I–”

 

“We’ll be fine,” Potts insists, her voice soft but with an undercurrent of cold, unyielding steel.  She gives James a smile that’s all teeth and sharp edges.  “I’ll be out in a bit.”

 

The other woman purses her lips unhappily – an expression eerily similar to what James saw on the face of the older teen not too long ago.  Acquiesces with a soft sigh of defeat.  “Call me if you need me,” she says and walks out, throwing James one last almost apologetic look.

 

It’s only when the door clicks shut behind her that James’s brain finally catches up to him long enough for him to remember a pretty brown-eyed woman that used to sit behind Justin Hammer during meetings, writing things down on a thick notepad. Parker, May Parker.  The senator’s goddamn secretary.  The one James strongly suspects was the reason behind Stark’s abrupt firing 10 years ago.  The one who disappeared without a trace.    

 

And he really has to wonder about the coincidental strangeness of it all, has questions he wants to ask.  But Potts (Pepper, James knows that, too, now) is looking at him with murder in her eyes, and all those questions are momentarily forgotten as James wonders if the woman might possibly turn out to be more dangerous for his health than the hired killers.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

 

He shifts awkwardly under Pepper’s steely glare, drops his hands from Stark’s arms, moving to stand from his less than comfortable crouch. 

 

“Why do I feel like I’m about to be court-martialed here?” he tries, his forced smile turning sour at the unimpressed quirk of the perfectly manicured eyebrow he gets in response.

 

Potts straightens her shoulders, cants her head to the side, spearing him with a look of a scientist examining a bug pinned to a microscope slide.

 

“The doors of the September Foundation are open to anyone who comes to us seeking a safe place to stay,” she says finally with the tone of someone reading information off an advertisement brochure.  Her lips thin momentarily, blue eyes growing hard. “But I would very much like to know what the President of the United States was doing fishtailing onto our property in a shot-up car with my best friend unconscious in the driver’s seat.”

 

There’s an acidic undercurrent of blame in her words, and James bristles at it.  “Look,” he begins, fighting to keep irritation out of his voice, “I’m sorry Stark got hurt, I really am, but–”

 

Tony,” she cuts in, an open challenge in the steel-blue eyes, and he blinks in confusion, the unexpected interruption making him stumble over his next words, losing his stride.

 

“Tony,” he nods his acknowledgment after a moment of awkward silence as he tries to gather his thoughts once more.  “I don’t like it when people get hurt on my behalf, Ms. Potts, but Sta-… Tony knew the risks of the job when he signed up for it, and–”

 

“The thing is, Mr. President,” Potts interrupts again, and the smile she gives him is just a tad too sharp to be genuine, “Tony quit that particular job ten years ago and, as far as I know, he never had the desire to go back.  There is no love lost between him and Washington.” 

 

“Oh, believe me,” James scoffs, remembering their first meeting, “I got that message from him loud and clear.”

 

She hums in agreement.  “So why the sudden change of heart?”

 

James thinks back to the hospital, to the haunted look in Stark’s eyes, to the cold fury seething under the man’s words….  “It became personal,” he murmurs, his hands itching to curl into fists.  Because it isn’t just personal for Stark – it’s personal for him, too.  Happy was… is a friend.  And with the insanity that’s been the last two days, he hasn’t really had time to process the fact that he had nearly lost him.

 

He cuts a quick glance to Potts, who watches him with patient expectation.  Closes his eyes briefly, heaves out a heavy sigh.   “I’ve been getting these threats for the past … month or so.  Standard stuff.  Someone taking issue with my attempts to push a gun control bill through.” He shakes his head, letting out a bitter huff of disappointment.  He’s so tired of this, so, so fucking tired.  “My Chief of Staff and my Head of Security became concerned that the threats were escalating, so they suggested I hire a specialist.”

 

“Tony.”

 

James nods, staring blindly at the floorboards.  “He refused. Quite adamantly, too,” he adds, recalling the way Stark strutted out of his office like a goddamn royalty while his security detail lay writhing on the floor.  Smiles, amused, at Potts’s quiet, knowing, “I can imagine.” 

 

Then the smile falls.  “A couple weeks later someone put a bomb in my limo and my Head of Security got caught in the blast and…”

 

“Happy?”

 

James looks up at the gasped out name, frowns at the now decidedly pale woman before him, at her wide-eyed stare, dark with undisguised worry. “You know him?”

 

Potts blinks her gaze away, her hands twisting the edge of the blanket.  Nods toward the nearby end table.  “You could say that.”

 

He turns to look where she’s pointing and his heart sinks as his eyes land on a simple 5x7 picture frame that holds a slightly faded photo of three teens in high school graduation gowns: tousled hair, bright smiles, arms thrown around each other with careless intimacy of close friends.  He recognizes them all, despite the passage of some twenty-odd years: Tony Stark with those big doe eyes and baby cheeks and an unruly mop of brown hair falling messily over his forehead, Happy – skinny and tall and curly-haired, eyes sparkling with amusement he rarely sees in his always serious security chief, and Pepper Potts – the adorable freckle-nosed redhead in the middle with her arms slung playfully around both boys’ shoulders and her head resting against Stark’s.

 

Shit.

 

“I’m sorry,” he repeats, contrite.  “If… if it’s any consolation, he’s alive.  Was alive last I checked.”

 

She huffs, bitter, reaches out to place her hand on top of Stark’s.  “You are a dangerous man to associate with, Mr. President,” she remarks, her voice forcedly even.  “At the rate you’re going, you might cause me to run out of friends.”

 

James ducks his head again, runs a weary hand over his face.  “At the rate I’m going, I may not be president for much longer,” he jokes darkly.  Because he has to be realistic here, has to understand the odds.  The people that have been sent to kill him are professionals – ruthless and wholly unbothered by collateral damage.  They’ve tracked him down, followed him across state lines and they won’t stop just because that tracker is now disabled.  Not until they finish their job, no matter what it takes. 

 

He can feel Potts staring at him again, her questioning gaze burning holes in the side of his face.  “The people that are after you… is there a chance they can track you down here?”

 

“Probably,” he hedges, thinking of the smashed Bulgari lying somewhere on i-70.  Shrugs, defeated.  “Yes.”  And it isn’t fair, he thinks.  Not to these people, whose lives he had so unceremoniously interrupted.  He can’t have any more collateral on his conscience.  No way.  He’s gonna take the car, drive back to Washington, call Coulson.  Put an end to all this nonsense once and for all.

 

“You don’t have to leave, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

 

The simple pronouncement snaps him out of the frantic spiral of his thoughts and he looks up, startled.  Frowns when he finds no more anger, no judgment in the calm, clear gaze that meets his. 

 

“Has Tony told you anything about the September Foundation, Mr. President?”

 

“James, please,” he waves her off.  “I think we’re way past formalities at this point.  And no, uh, he hasn’t.  He just said to find Pepper… you, that is, and…” He hesitates, adds with a wince, “He was barely conscious at the time.  I still can’t believe he managed to drive that far.”

 

She smiles tightly at the awed note that slipped unbidden into his voice.  “Tony’s good at that – exceeding people’s expectations of him,” she says, her expression momentarily turning wistful, fond.  “This place,” she waves her free arm at their surroundings, “it’s Tony’s brainchild.  His atonement, he calls it,” she adds with a rueful twist of her lips. “He wanted to create a safe place for those who couldn’t protect themselves: victims of abuse and violence, people who had nowhere to go, people who needed a second chance.  Every person you’ll meet here – Tony took them out of a bad situation and brought them here, gave them a home.  A safe home.”

 

“All the more reason for me to leave,” he nods, determined now.  “I’m putting all of your lives in danger simply by being here.  Tony wouldn’t want–”

 

Tony is the one who brought you here,” she reminds him, unflappable.  “If he chose to take you under his protection, the least I can do is honor that choice.” She shrugs, nonchalant.  “It is his house, after all.”    

 

“Miss Potts…”

 

“Pepper.”

 

“Pepper,” he concedes with a sigh, feeling more and more like he needs to sit down before his legs give out on him completely.  He can’t remember the last time he felt this wrung out – both physically and emotionally.  “Two people, two good people already got hurt because of me.  I can’t ask you all to risk your lives like that.”

 

“You let us worry about that,” she brushes off his concern.  Then stands, leaning over to place a quick kiss on Stark’s brow.  “I’ll go help set up a room for you.  One of the boys will be by to get you when we’re done.  There’s a bathroom down the hall, if you want to freshen up.  You’ll find towels and supplies in the closet inside.”

 

She moves to walk out, her hand already on the door handle, when he stops her – one of the many questions that have been swarming around in his mind spilling forth.

 

“Atonement for what?”

 

“Excuse me?” She half-turns back toward him, her brow furrowed in confusion.

 

“You said earlier that this house, the Foundation, is Tony’s atonement.  What is he atoning for?”

 

She hesitates, her eyes narrowed in thought as she assesses him silently, wondering, perhaps, if James deserves the right to hear whatever she has to say next.  “His mother was murdered by her abuser,” she discloses finally, her voice too-too careful, as if she’s still testing him, waiting to see what his reaction would be.  “Tony thinks it’s his fault that he couldn’t save her.” Her eyes glaze over momentarily – a memory that makes her lips twitch into an ugly, bitter grimace of a smile.  “He was twelve years old,” she adds dully and walks out, leaving James to blink after her numbly, his legs folding despite himself as he sinks heavily onto the edge of the mattress.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

 

He stares at the closed door in a stunned stupor, listening to the sound of Pepper’s retreating footsteps.  He doesn’t know much about Maria Stark – she was never famous like her husband, stayed in the shadows her whole life.  But her death, her death he remembers rather well.  There was a TV special about the Starks that he had stumbled upon a few years back: “A Curse upon the House of Starks” it was called, if he remembers correctly.  The narrator talked about the tragic circumstances in the deaths of both Howard and Maria Stark, the violent nature of them.  Howard perishing in an explosion that destroyed the family mansion; his wife Maria dying in a fiery crash several years prior.  He remembers the narrator wondering darkly if the Fates have somehow been turned against this family, if they had hung a curse upon the Stark bloodline, and if the younger Stark would fall victim to that family curse as well, if he would suffer the same spectacularly violent, fiery end as his parents.

He never thought about it before, never questioned the official story: Howard Stark’s latest experiment going wrong, Maria Stark falling asleep behind the wheel…. 

 

But the Fates had nothing to do with it, did they.  Sta- Tony’s convinced that his father’s death had been orchestrated by someone from the White House.  And Maria…  if he understood what Pepper was implying, Maria may have been killed by Howard himself. 

Which is… impossible.  Ridiculous even.  More ridiculous than Tony’s wild insinuations that Obie and Justin were the ones behind Howard’s death.  Howard Stark was a visionary.  An engineering legend.  A weapons icon. 

A man like that – an abuser? A murderer? How is that even possible?

 

“Howard didn’… didn’ hit me so much when Obie was there.  It… nice… t’was nice…”

 

He sucks in a sharp breath as Tony’s pain-slurred words flicker across his memory, unbidden.  Casts a glance at the unconscious man’s face, his stomach churning with nausea and dread. He thought he’d misheard him then.  He hoped he’d misheard him.  Because it was too ugly, too horrifying to process.  Because it was the Starks.  Because…

 

Oh dear god…

 

 “Mr. President?”

 

The door opens with a soft squeak, and one of the teens from earlier slips inside.  Shifts awkwardly on the doorstep, looking everywhere but at James.

 

“Your…uh… your room is ready and… uhm… Miss Potts said to tell you that we’ll be having dinner in twenty minutes, if…uh…,” he risks a glance at James, shifts it almost instantly toward Tony before dropping it back down to the floor, “if you’re hungry.”

 

His stomach rumbles at the thought of food, loud enough that the teen shoots him another awkward glance.   “I suppose that answers that question,” he jokes and frowns in confusion as the teen looks away again.  “Something wrong?”

 

The teen fidgets. 

 

“Kid?”

 

“I’m sorry about before,” the boy blurts out suddenly and he’s looking right at James now, eyes wide, cheeks flushed with… shame?  “Pulling the gun on you,” he elaborates at James’s deepening frown.  “Harley and I… it’s our job to protect this place when Mr. Stark isn’t here.  He said so himself.  And then when you showed up, I…. But Miss Potts explained… she told us that you came here like us and Mr. Stark, he…”

 

“Kid…” He holds up his hand to forestall the rest of the verbal assault, rubs his throbbing temples.  “You’re kinda starting to give me a headache.  No offense.”

 

“Sorry.” The teen bites his lip, stares down at his feet again.

 

“Look,” James heaves out a sigh, pushes himself to stand, casting one last look at the man on the bed.  “I think we got off on the wrong foot here.”  Slowly, he crosses the room, coming to a stop in front of the boy.  “How about we try again, huh? Hi, I’m James.” He holds out his hand expectantly and smiles when the kid returns the gesture after a moment’s hesitation.

 

“Peter. Parker.  Peter Parker.”

 

“Good to meet you, Peter Parker.”  He squeezes the boy’s hand lightly before letting go.  Nods approvingly.  “Nice job earlier, by the way.  Impressive.  I think Mr. Stark would be proud.”

 

The teen, if possible, blushes even more at the praise, his face and neck growing pink, and James barely manages to suppress a snort as he claps the boy on the shoulder before following him out the door to his new room.

 

***

 

Twenty minutes later he makes his way down the hall that Peter had indicated to him earlier and finds himself inside a light and spacious dining room that almost rivals the one at the White House.  There’s a long country style oak table in its center, set for ten. Everyone’s plates are full, but no one has started eating yet.  Waiting for him, James realizes, even as all the attention in the room turns toward him.

 

“I’m glad you could make it,” Pepper rises to greet him, gesturing to the empty chair beside her.  Smiles as he sits down cautiously beside her, trying to take in all the curious faces, some already familiar, some not.  “Why don’t we all go around and introduce ourselves?” she proposes, nodding at the quiet murmur of approval from the others at the table.  “I believe you already know Peter,” she motions to his teenage guide who grins widely back at her.  “He and his aunt are one of our oldest residents.”

 

“His aunt?”

 

“Me, Mr. President,” comes the quiet, amused response, and, oh, James wants to facepalm himself now.  Because, of course, of courseParker.  The kid said his last name was Parker.  How did he not make the connection?

 

“How did you…?” he gestures inarticulately at their surroundings, struggling to make sense of it all.  Because he can’t understand why a woman with a cushy government position would abandon it all like that, disappear off the face of the earth.  Because he keeps remembering the dark look that flashed in Stark’s eyes when he had asked him about the reasons for May’s departure.  Because he knows he’s missing something important here.

 

May presses her lips together, flicking a quick gaze at Pepper as if for reassurance.  Raises her hand to push a strand of hair behind her ear.  “Senator Hammer began making sexual advances toward me after about a year of me working for him,” she says finally, determined and furiously blunt.

 

And, no, that wasn’t at all what James was prepared to hear.  This was… this is… His mind flashes back to Justin, to the leering look in the man’s eyes that he had glimpsed more than once when the senator would stare after a female colleague.  Oh no…

 

“I repeatedly told him to stop, filed several complaints with the HR, but nothing ever came of that.  And then one day we were working late, and he called me to his office and locked the door.  He knew I had just filed for permanent guardianship of Peter the week before, and he told me that if I screamed, he’d contact his buddy at the Child Protective Services and have Peter taken away from me.…”

 

Beside her Peter makes a choked off sound of anger, the boy’s hands curling into fists, and she smiles at him, small and watery.  Reaches out to cover his fisted hand with her own. 

 

“It’s alright,” she says.  “I’m alright. You know he didn’t get far.” 

 

“Still wish I was old enough back then to break his stupid face,” Peter grumbles unhappily.  

 

And, yeah, James can understand the sentiment. Can feel his own fists itch with the useless desire to punch the lewd bastard.

 

May’s smile grows a bit brighter at that and she raises her other hand to ruffle the teen’s hair.  “As much as I appreciate the sentiment, sweetheart,” she murmurs, her eyes warm, “I’m afraid Tony got there first.”  She turns her attention back to James, her expression turning serious once more.  “Tony lost his job because of that incident, got an assault charge on his record, and for that I am truly sorry. But I’m not sorry for what he did.”  Her hand tightens around Peter’s.  “We are safe here. Happy.  I can never be sorry for that.”

 

“I… I understand,” James manages, his throat uncomfortably dry.  But the thing is, he doesn’t understand. Any of it.  He worked with Justin.  Rubbed elbows with the man almost on a daily basis.  He never knew… how did he not know?  He shakes his head, feeling irrationally angry with himself.  Stupid, he thinks. Naïve and stupid.

 

“Laura?” Pepper addresses a short slender brunette sitting on the other side of James, breaking the awkward silence that settles at the table following May’s story.  “Would you like to go next?”

 

The woman shrugs her assent, gives him a small, hesitant smile.  She has a plump-cheeked bright-eyed toddler bouncing excitedly on her lap, small, chubby fingers reaching hungrily for the plate.  “Well, I’m Laura,” she begins, smiling indulgently at the toddler even as she gently guides the little hands away. “And this little troublemaker is Nathaniel.” She nods at the two children sitting next to her. “That’s Cooper and Lila.  We’ve been living here at the Foundation for about…,” she looks back at Pepper for verification, “two years now?”

 

“That’s right,” Pepper inclines her head in agreement before turning to address James.  “Laura’s ex-husband is a former CIA operative whose cover got burned during a mission with a Russian double-agent.  He has since disappeared.  There are speculations that he had switched sides and went on the run with that Russian woman.”  She gives Laura an apologetic look, her mouth pinching unhappily.  “Either way, Laura and the kids were left out in the open as potential targets to anyone whose path he ever crossed.”

 

“Jesus…” James can’t help the exclamation that escapes him as he stares with mounting horror at the three little kids at the table.  How could someone endanger their own children like this?  Why?

 

“Clint was never good about thinking things through,” Laura dismisses with a shrug, her smile just a tad too strained.  “Luckily for us, Tony got to us first.”

 

And, yes, James thinks, lucky indeed.  He can’t even imagine what would have happened to this little family if Tony hadn’t intervened.  He’s seen enough reports about families of compromised agents where the subjects were not quite so fortunate.  Some of those gave him nightmares for weeks after.  For a husband, a father to willingly…

 

He shakes his head, grits his teeth against a wave of anger against a man he doesn’t even know.  “How did… how did Tony find you?”

 

“The Shield.” It’s Pepper who responds. 

 

“The… what now?”

 

“The Shield.  It’s an AI program that Tony and Jarvis, Tony’s… guardian, have created,” she clarifies, her lips twitching in amusement at his open-mouthed confusion.  “It monitors police and military channels, reports from CPS and other government agencies according to the parameters that Tony set up, sends him alerts whenever something falls within those parameters and…,” she shrugs, “then Tony goes to investigate.”

 

James blinks. Blinks again. “You’re telling me that Tony Stark… former Special Agent Tony Stark… created an artificial intelligence program?”

 

Pepper’s laugh, lighthearted and contagious, resonates across the room.  “Surprised you again, didn’t he.  Told you he’s good at that.”

 

“Tony graduated from MIT at 17,” another kid chimes in, gruff.  It’s the other teen from his welcoming committee: an unruly mop of curly hair falling over his ears and sharp blue eyes drilling holes in James from across the table.  “What, you thought he’s just a dumb jock like all the other boneheads you call secret service agents?” The kid scoffs, rolls his eyes with obvious disdain, bumping shoulders with a little girl sitting beside him, who giggles in delight.  “Please, the guy’s a genius.  And Pete and I, we’re following right in his footsteps, ain’t we, Pete.” He winks conspiratorially at Peter, who has the decency to duck his head and blush.  “I’m Harley, by the way.  The hacker.” And there’s a wickedly mischievous glint in the teen’s eyes that has James shaking his head in wary bemusement. 

The kid’s trouble.

 

“Harley here,” Pepper cuts in with an indulgently disapproving tilt of her head, “got on the police radar at 10 years old for somehow hacking into the local mayor’s home computer and projecting….” She pauses, lips pursed, as if she’s searching for the right word.  Grins at Harley, her eyes sparkling with mirth. “…compromising pictures from the mayor’s birthday party onto the wall of the City Hall.”

 

The bark of disbelieving laughter bursts out unbidden. “You’re serious?”

 

“The town’s water tower got busted,” Harley shrugs, unconcerned.  “The whole town was without clean water for weeks and that asshole wouldn’t do anything.  So I had to give him some… incentive.”

 

“Right.” Pepper’s smile dims a bit.  “Unfortunately, the mayor wasn’t quite as amused as the rest of the townsfolk. And when he found out that Harley and his sister had been living without proper parental supervision…”

 

“Our dad split when I was 5 and our mom spent more time looking for another Mr. Right than she did at home with us,” Harley clarifies with another shrug and James cringes at the forced carelessness of it.

 

“The mayor’s lawyers argued parental neglect,” Pepper continues, confirming what James is already thinking.  “Child Services got involved, the mother walked away and the kids got placed into a group home.  Spent months there by the time Tony managed to push the adoption paperwork through and bring them both out here.”

 

“And next year I’m going to MIT,” Harley concludes with a cocky one-sided grin, shoveling more potatoes onto his plate.  Bristles at Pepper’s chidingly raised eyebrow. “What? Tony said so.”

 

Somehow James doesn’t doubt him. 

 

He shakes his head, stares numbly at his still empty plate.  All these people, all these potential tragedies averted.  They all could have become just another statistic, another tragic loss.  But here they are – happy and thriving and safe.  A patchwork family, broken but somehow perfect.  And it’s all because of Tony.  He tries to reconcile that with the image of the annoyingly self-assured, abrasive asshole he met in his office all those weeks ago, the guy he’s been so irritated with only a few hours prior.    

He feels like such a jerk.

 

“A lot to take in, isn’t it,” Pepper asks him quietly over the clinking of silverware and the low din of resumed conversations.  Smiles knowingly when all he manages is a silent nod.  “You should eat,” she tells him.  “I’m going to go check on Tony after dinner. I’m sure you’ll want to join me.”

 

And, yeah, yes, he will.  But first…  “Were you also… Did Tony… What did he do for you?”  He flusters as her smile falls, her lips thinning out.  Backtracks awkwardly.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to assume.  I…”

 

She waves off his apology, reaches to unbutton the right-hand sleeve of her shirt. “My ex-boyfriend, Aldrich, had a very… fiery temper,” she murmurs, slowly pushing up the white fabric.  There’s a long thin burn scar that runs along her forearm, marring the smooth skin.  “He did this after I tried to leave him the first time.  Told me he’d burn me alive if I tried again.” She drops the sleeve, lets it fall back over the damaged skin.  Waits in silence as James stares back at her in open-mouthed horror, words he was about to say stuck painfully to the back of his throat. “I had just graduated college.  I was still so young… naïve.  Didn’t really know what to do, where to go.”  She smiles again, a bitter twisted little thing.  “I couldn’t sleep that night, I was so scared. So I called Tony.  Sobbed to him over the phone.” She pulls at the edge of the sleeve again, fiddles with the button there, threading it back through the loop. “He came over that same night.  Drove… god knows from where.” She shakes her head, her expression turning wistful.  “He came inside, told me to go wait in the car…”

 

James watches her expectantly as she falls silent all of a sudden, lost in the memory.  “And?” he prompts gently, curious despite himself.

 

She blinks as if coming out of a trance. Looks up at him, her eyes hard once more.  “And I did,” she says simply, holding his gaze as if daring him to question her further.  “Tony came back out a few minutes later.  He got in and we drove off.  That’s all.”

 

James knows better than to ask anything else.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

 

She’s in the middle of changing the dressing on Tony’s wound when the door to her bedroom is pushed open and James walks in.  He watches her in silence for a few moments, hovering awkwardly by the far wall, before stepping further into the room.

 

“How is he?”

 

She shrugs, one-shouldered, picks up a roll of gauze to place over the dressing.  “The bleeding has slowed down quite a bit,” she allows, carefully smoothing out the gauze.  Lingers, her fingers resting lightly on the strip of the tanned skin turned pale with blood loss.  It feels warm under her touch.  A little too warm.  She tells James as much. 

 

“Infection?”

 

There’s an unmistakable note of worry in his voice, a reflection of her own, and she bites her lip against it.  Sighs, pulling the blanket back up to cover Tony’s shoulders. 

 

“I’ll be keeping an eye on it,” she says.  “There’s a pharmacist I know next town over.  I can get antibiotics from him, if need be.”

 And, hopefully, there won’t be, she thinksBecause, Tony’s strong.  He’s gonna beat this.  She has to believe it, she has to. 

She scans the slack features before her, her chest tight with concern.  “You made me a promise, Mr. Stark,” she reminds him silently, smoothing her fingers over a furrow of pain that creases Tony’s forehead even in the unconsciousness of sleep.  “Don’t you dare break it now.”

 

She hears James hum distractedly in response, hears the floorboards creak as the man approaches the bed, hesitating to a stop a couple steps away.

 

“Something on your mind?” She raises an eyebrow at him, waits him out as he stands there, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth as if unsure how to begin.

 

He sighs, long and heavy.  Runs his palm over his short buzz of hair.  “Is it true? About Howard?” he blurts out finally, his eyes a bit desperate, a bit wild. 

 

“What about Howard?” She sees James flinch at her tone.  Knows she sounds cold, hostile even, but she can’t help it – the mere mention of that man sets her teeth on edge.  Especially now, when Tony lies here, unconscious; when it’s only been hours since she cleaned his blood off her hands; when she can’t help but remember the last time she’d seen him like this…. 

 

To James’s credit, he doesn’t back down.  Holds his ground even under her scorching glare.  “I didn’t know Howard personally,” he begins, cautious but determined, “but his reputation–”

 

“I know all about his reputation,” she spits, her lips pursing in disgust.

 

“He was a well-respected figure in Washington,” he objects weakly, like it’s an obligation he feels somehow to defend Howard’s name, and she grits her teeth sharply to keep herself from snapping at him once again. 

He’s got more to say, she can see it.  So she’ll let him talk and then she’ll decide if what he says justifies her committing murder.

 

James chews his lip again, blows out another breath.  “Look, I misjudged him.  Tony.  Badly.  I… everything I’ve learned today, it’s…” He shakes his head, looking weary all of a sudden, drained.  “Tony said something in the car on the way here.  I don’t think he meant to say it and I, well, frankly, I wasn’t even sure I understood him right, but…”  He flicks an oddly distressed, uneasy glance at Tony before meeting her eyes once more.  “Did Howard really…” He makes an aborted gesture in Tony’s direction.  “Was Tony…”

 

“Abused?”

 

He winces at her bluntness.  Nods, crossing his arms on his chest as if to protect himself somehow from the ugly truth of it. 

The absurdity of the gesture almost makes her laugh.

 

“I met Tony when I was in fourth grade.  Our principal, Mr. Wolfe, came in to our classroom one day almost halfway through the first semester with this scrawny 7-year-old.  Said the kid was gonna be joining our class.”  He reminded her of a cornered wolf cub then the way he stood there, staring defiantly at the classroom full of much bigger, older kids – frightened and beaten but ready to fight.   

 

“Fourth grade at 7 years old?” James whistles in surprise.

 

“Yeah,” she chuckles grimly, remembering the angry looks, the jealous rumors, the taunts that were thrown Tony’s way.  “It didn’t go over well with the rest of us, as you can imagine.  Everyone saw him as a spoiled rich brat whose daddy probably paid off the principal to get him placed in a higher grade (never mind that he was smarter than everyone there).  Who was too good to talk to any of us or to sit with us at lunch.  Too good to ride the bus, so he had his butler take him to and from school.”

 

She runs her hand absently down the blanket, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles.  Stops when she reaches Tony’s hand, her fingers twitching slightly in indecision before she carefully picks it up to cradle in her own. 

 

“Took me months to realize that that butler, Jarvis, was the only person in Tony’s house who actually gave a damn about him,” she admits, her voice thick with self-loathing.  Runs her fingers with soothing apology over the bruised, scraped knuckles.  “Tony would disappear every so often.  Wouldn’t show up to school for days at a time.  Everyone thought he was probably tanning on some exotic beach in the Caribbean or something.  Only…. only he would come back and he’d be paler than before and he’d walk funny and flinch as if he were in pain whenever people bumped into him in the hallway.”  She looks up at James, her lips twisting bitterly.  “You don’t get concussions and broken bones while lounging on the beach.”

 

James runs a shaking hand over his mouth, eyes wide with horrified disbelief.  “And nobody… nobody knew?”

 

“Some people did,” she acknowledges, the old familiar pang of guilt thrumming deep in her heart, making her chest twinge with it.  “But nobody could do anything.  Howard had the whole town bought and paid for.  His staff, the school administrators, the teachers, the doctors – if any of them so much as thought about going to the authorities, Howard’s lawyers would have… these people would have been out of the job.  He’s done it, too.  It wasn’t an empty threat.”  She drops her gaze down to where her thumb continues to trace gentle, absentminded circles along the skin of Tony’s hand.  “And Tony knew.  That’s why he never complained to anyone.  Lied whenever someone would ask him how he got hurt.  He’d say he fell off a bike, or tripped walking down the stairs, or ran into a door, or some other ridiculous excuse like that.” 

 

A harsh angry bark of laughter scrapes its way out of her throat, and she clamps her mouth shut against it, clenches her free hand into a fist.  Because those lies? She fell for them, too, at first.  She fell for them, too.  And she never did forgive herself for it.

 

“He didn’t want people losing their jobs because of him.  Didn’t think he was worth it,” she whispers, feeling the shocked horror of that realization gnaw at her heart even now, decades later.  “Can you imagine that?  The kind of life he had as a kid that would make him believe something like this?”

 

James swallows thickly, looking vaguely sick.  Works his mouth for a moment, the words seeming to flounder in their attempt to break past his lips.  “And his mother?” he manages finally in a breathy whisper.

 

“His mother…” She huffs out a tired, rueful breath.  Maria loved Tony, Pepper’s sure of it.  Tried her best to protect him from Howard’s drunken rages when she could muster enough courage to do so. Which wasn’t often enough.  Not nearly often enough.  But she did try.    

 

In the end, it was what got her killed.

 

“Tony got sick one time over the winter.  The flu.”  Her lips twitch with mild amusement when she sees the way James frowns at her, confused at the apparent non sequitur.  But her smile dims all too quickly as her mind flashes back to that night she visited Tony at the hospital, to the way he sat there, slumped in Jarvis’s cautious embrace, still so frighteningly pale and with that heartachingly lost, broken look in his eyes.

 

“Howard didn’t believe in being sick,” she spits out, her voice dripping with venom.  “His favorite mantra was ‘Stark men are made of iron’.  Been drilling it into Tony’s head from the day he was born.  Imagine how disappointed he was when he found out that Maria kept Tony home from school because of some flu.  So the bastard made Tony stand outside for 3 hours in his pj’s in 20 degree weather.  To toughen him up.” She raises one hand in the air, her fingers snapping out air quotes.  Drags in a breath, struggling to maintain her rapidly slipping composure.   “Tony ended up in the hospital with pneumonia.  Jarvis told me his fever got so high, they were afraid they were going to lose him.  And Maria, she didn’t take it well.  It…uh… it was the first time that Tony actually came close to dying at Howard’s hand and, I guess, it rattled her.  Enough so that she confronted Howard.”

 

“What…uh… what happened?”  There’s a hesitancy in James’s question, almost as if he’s asking it against his will, as if he would really rather not know.  Not that she can blame him, really.

 

She doesn’t know all that happened, though.  Jarvis wouldn’t even tell Tony all of it, trying to spare the boy (not that it helped any). 

She tells James what she does know.  That there was an argument, a bad one.  That, for a long time after, there was a faded bloodstain on the floor of the Stark mansion next to a broken piece of railing at the bottom of the staircase that led from the upstairs floor down to the foyer.  That Tony got so upset when Jarvis broke the news to him that a nurse had to sedate him to keep him from hurting himself.  And that Tony believes his mother’s death was his fault because, in his mind, he was the reason for that argument and because he was stuck in the hospital and wasn’t there to keep Howard’s fury away from her.

 

Tony had vowed then that he wouldn’t let anyone else he loved get hurt because of him.  He hasn’t broken that vow since.

 

Beside her James sinks down heavily into a nearby chair, moves his head from side to side with a wide-eyed, shell-shocked look.  “Was that when… You said before that Jarvis was Tony’s guardian.  Did he take custody of him then?”

 

She shakes her head, presses her lips together hard enough to feel the ache shoot all the way up to the joints of her jaw.  “About a year later,” she replies, reaching for the blanket again to pull it down from where it’s covering Tony’s chest.  “After this.” She points to a small round patch of scarred skin slightly to the left of Tony’s breastbone, faded over time.   Hears a sharp intake of breath beside her that lets her know James recognizes it for what it is.

 

“H-how?” is all he manages, his voice sounding dangerously strained, as though it physically pained him to say it.

 

She raises Tony’s hand to her lips, turns it gently to press a light kiss into his palm.  Lays it against her cheek, letting herself burrow into its familiar calloused warmth, drawing strength from the contact.  She’s gonna need it if she has any hope of getting through that particular story without breaking down completely.

 

“It was the anniversary of Maria’s death.  Tony was…,” she closes her eyes briefly, wincing at the memory, “he wasn’t handling it well.  Couldn’t really concentrate in school.  The teachers were understanding, of course.  They knew.” She huffs, resentful.  “It was hard not to, what with the news coverage slobbering all over the tearjerker story of the poor grieving widower Howard Stark and his son.”  She finds it hard not to gag as she says it out loud now.  Back then she felt like scratching out the eyes of every news anchor that waxed poetic about the elder Stark on that ‘difficult anniversary of his wife’s untimely death’. 

 

“They let him go home.  I volunteered to drive him – the perks of being 3 years older.” A smile tugs at her lips unbidden as she remembers Tony pouting like a disgruntled toddler the day she got her learner’s permit.  She, of course, made sure to milk the advantage fully for the next three years, rubbing it in her friend’s face any chance she had. 

 

Except that day.

 

“We heard a gunshot just as we pulled up, and Tony… he just ran inside – didn’t even wait for me to stop the car.” 

 

She takes a breath, short and unsteady.  Feels it hitch uncomfortably in her chest.  She remembers running into the house, following the sounds of raised voices.  Remembers finding them all in the kitchen: Howard, his eyes bloodshot with alcohol and anger, a half-sloshed-out drink in one hand and a gun in the other; Jarvis, pale but determined, his hands gripping the countertop as if he were trying to stop himself from lunging at his employer; and Tony, slowly inching closer to his father, his hands raised imploringly as he pleaded with him to put the gun down.

 

“Howard was drunk,” she says, gripping Tony’s hand harder.  She can feel herself start to tremble, can feel her heart stammer wildly in her chest.  She doesn’t think she’s ever been as scared as she was that day. 

“He was drunk and he was angry, and he decided to take it out on Jarvis.  And Tony, he…  he couldn’t bear the thought of losing someone else.  Especially not on that day.  There was already a smoking hole in the wall next to where Jarvis was standing, and Howard wasn’t calming down, he wasn’t even… I don’t think he even knew where he was or what he was doing.”

 

There’s a watery veil in her eyes, and she raises her gaze to the ceiling to keep the tears at bay.  Beside her James sits still as a statue, she’s not even sure the man’s breathing, but she can feel his eyes on her, the shocked, troubled heaviness of his scrutiny. 

 

She forces herself to keep talking.

 

She tells him how Howard raised his gun again, and how Tony lunged at him, pushing him hard into the wall to get him away from Jarvis.  How Howard roared in a drunken rage and swung the weapon at his son, pistol-whipping the boy and sending him stumbling down onto the floor.  How his trigger finger jerked at the tail-end of that wild swing; how deafening the sound of the gunshot felt when she was standing so close.   

 

She blinks, letting the tears spill over, running unchecked down her cheeks.  Drops her gaze back down to the small pink scar on Tony’s chest, her free hand reaching for it without conscious thought, fingers ghosting over the puckered skin.  

 

A memory washes over her, a nightmarish flood of images she knows she’ll never forget. 

 

Jarvis rushing past Howard to get to Tony, who’s struggling weakly to pull himself up, looking dazed and scared.  There’s a small trickle of blood on Tony’s face from where the impact of the barrel broke the skin, and it runs in a thin steady line down his cheek, curving at his jawline to slip innocuously down his neck and stain the collar of his shirt.  Another, larger stain mars the front of it, spreading outwards from a small ragged hole in it center, growing and growing and growing.  Jarvis presses his hands over it – they tremble, Pepper notices.  And isn’t that odd? Jarvis’s hands never tremble, but here they are, shaking like an aspen leaf in the wind.  And Tony winces, trying to flinch away from Jarvis’s touch, his face scrunching up as if in pain, but Jarvis doesn’t relent.  Jarvis shouts at her, at Pepper, to call the ambulance, and he presses down on Tony’s chest harder and harder and harder.  And Tony cries out, Jarvis’s name falling from his lips – a gasped out plea chased with blood that stains them red and drips down his chin when he attempts to speak again.  And Jarvis’s face grows ashen with fear, something Pepper’s never seen before.  And then he’s lifting Tony up in his arms, and then they’re running, out the kitchen, down the hallway, outside, to Pepper’s car.  No ambulance, it’s gonna take too long….

 

She takes a long, shuddering breath, pulling herself forcibly out of the haunting vision.  Glances at her suspiciously silent audience, sitting hunched over in his chair, his head buried in his hands. 

 

“I’ve never seen Jarvis so angry.  He was… I honestly think that the only reason he didn’t shoot Howard right then and there was because Tony needed him more,” she muses quietly.  “And I think Howard realized that, too.  Jarvis told him after - once we knew that Tony was going to be okay – he told him he was taking Tony away.  He went back to the house, packed up all of his and Tony’s stuff right in front of Howard and told Howard that he was leaving and taking Tony with him, and that if Howard so much as thought about stopping him that he would rip him apart with his bare hands.  And Howard just… let him go.  Let them both go.  He didn’t fight it.  I think he was afraid to.”

 

Gently, she lays Tony’s hand back down onto the sheets, tucks it under the blanket that she pulls back up to cover his chest.  “Very few people know about this.  Even here at the Foundation,” she warns, and James raises his head at that, gives her a slightly confused look.  “Tony doesn’t like to talk about being abused.  Thinks it makes him weak.”  She closes her eyes, pained, lifts one hand to wipe at the tears drying on her cheeks.  “Another one of Howard’s life lessons,” she adds, her lips twisting in disdain.  She’s glad Howard’s dead, but she still thinks he got off too easy.  One day, she thinks, she’s gonna drive out to New York to the ruins of the old Stark mansion and dance on the bastard’s grave.   Maybe drag Tony and Jarvis along, make it a party. 

 

“The only reason I told you,” she continues, stern, “is because Tony let some of that slip out in your company, and I could see you’ve already started making assumptions.  I didn’t want you to make the wrong ones.”

 

“I understand,” James rasps out, subdued.  “I won’t say anything.”

 

She nods, satisfied, rises stiffly to her feet.  “I’m gonna go check on the animals,” she says. “Gotta secure everything for the night.”  She still feels shaky and cold, her head swimming with the haunting memories of the past.  Some fresh air would do her good.

 

James doesn’t move from where he’s sitting.  Looks at Tony with an expression of pensive worry and a watchful sort of protectiveness that loosens something in Pepper’s chest, fills it with warmth.  “I…uh… I think I’m gonna stay with him a bit, if that’s okay,” he murmurs, breaking his vigil for a moment to send a questioning look Pepper’s way.

 

She dips her head in approval, leans in to plant a quick gentle kiss on Tony’s brow.  “Don’t stay up too late, though,” she warns, trying to pull off an easy smile but still falling far too short.  “This is a working farm, Mr. President, and we are all in the habit of rising early.  As a temporary resident here, you’ll be expected to pitch in.” She gestures vaguely in the direction of the window that looks out onto the field and the barn behind the house.  “Them cows ain’t gonna milk themselves.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

 

A familiar melody is what awakens him.  A soft, gentle hum of a song his mother used to sing to him on nights when Howard’s “discipline sessions” got a little too intense.  She’d slip into his room just as Jarvis was finishing wrapping up the worst of the evidence of Howard’s drunken “teachings” and she’d sit beside him, running gentle fingers through his hair, wiping away the tears he tried so hard not to let slip, and she’d sing.

 

He only ever heard that song once after his mother… after Jarvis came to the hospital and told him what happened.  Jarvis held him then as he sobbed into his butler’s chest, the pain in his heart threatening to overwhelm him completely.  And Jarvis sang, low and raspy, his voice breaking ever so slightly on the words.

 

                Blackbird singing in the dead of night

                Take these broken wings and learn to fly…

 

The song had soothed him then, even though his heart ached with the knowledge that he would never again hear it sung in his mother’s warm lilting voice. 

 

It soothes him now.  As does the rhythmic feather-light weave of delicate fingers through his hair.  He knows those fingers, knows that voice.  They hold within them a promise of safety and steadfast loyalty, a rare warmth of affection, a home away from home.

 

                All your life

                You were only waiting for this moment to arise…

 

He lolls his head slightly, leaning further into the welcome touch.   Smiles when he feels the hand in his hair still momentarily before sliding down with an almost frantic urgency to rest against his cheek.

 

“Tony?”

 

“Hey, Pep,” he rasps out, cracking open his eyes to squint up at the familiar freckled face.  And feels his smile drop as her expression falters before shattering altogether.  “Hey, hey, no, don’t,” he pleads, panicked at the sight of tears that brim in her eyes.  Reaches weakly with his good hand to wipe away a couple that have slipped off the edges of her eyelashes to trickle slowly down her cheeks.  

 

She pulls away from his hand.  Shakes her head with a sniffle, swiping in turn at her cheeks.  “I’m…”

 

“Come on, Freckles,” he murmurs, shamelessly resorting to an old nickname he used to tease her with in high school, “turn off the waterworks before you get me all soaked, huh.”

 

“Jerk.” She laughs wetly, making a show of slapping his arm for good measure. Wipes the rest of the tears away.  “I can’t believe you… you…” Her voice turns accusing, her lips wobbling once more.  “You promised me, Tony.”

 

He did, a week after he got released from the hospital with the bandages on his chest hiding the still healing scar from a bullet wound.  He remembers it. Remembers the bruising grip of her hand on his, her wide eyes brimming with worry and tears.  Remembers how her voice shook when she told him how scared she’d been, how she needed him to swear to her that he would never, ever scare her like that again.

 

He shushes her gently, grasps the lapel of her shirt, pulling her down toward him.  And she goes willingly, buries her face in his chest as he carefully wraps his good arm around her shaking shoulders.

 

“I’m alright, Pep,” he soothes, awkwardly trying to lean forward to place a kiss on the strawberry blond head.  “I am.  Just a flesh wound.”

 

“Just a flesh wound?” She raises her head then, glares at him as if daring him to agree.  “Do you have any idea how much blood you lost?  How close I… we... all of us here came to losing you?”

 

“I’m sorry,” he tries, at a loss of how else to comfort her.  He hates this.  Hates being the reason for her tears, for her worry.  It isn’t her job, isn’t their job to worry about him.  “Happy got hurt and I…”

 

“Thought putting yourself in danger was the right way to go?”

 

“I know how you feel about him, Pep,” he points out with a careful, one-shouldered shrug.  “I’m not blind.  I couldn’t keep him from getting hurt, so I figured…”

 

“You figured, what?” She sits up, blue eyes narrowing sharply on his face.  “That putting yourself in harm’s way would somehow make it better?”

 

“Pep…”

 

She pulls out of his embrace completely, ignoring his call of her name.  Sits back in her chair, stiff as a board.  “And what about the way I feel about you, huh, Tony?” she returns, voice trembling ever so slightly in concert with her hand that still lingers on Tony’s wrist.  “I’ve known you almost my whole life.  You’ve been my best friend, my rock, my baby brother, my…  my everything.  You mean more to me than…” 

 

Her voice cuts out momentarily, lips pinching white with the effort to hold in a sob.  She closes her eyes briefly, curls her fingers tighter around his wrist, tight enough that Tony has to bite back a wince.  “I almost lost you once already, Tony, and it nearly destroyed me,” she says, devastated and earnest in a way he hadn’t seen her since that day back at that hospital over twenty years ago.  It makes him want to crawl out of his skin, makes him want to get down on his knees and plead with her to forgive him.  Anything to get that look off her face.

 

“I love Happy, I do,” she murmurs, her eyes meeting Tony’s once more, unwavering.  “He’s sweet and kind and funny and… and someday I would love nothing more than to settle down with him here, start a family.  Losing him would… would break my heart.”  She smiles faintly at her own admission, drops her gaze for a moment to where her fingers lie clenched white against Tony’s skin.   She takes a breath, then another, then another.  Loosens her grip, slipping her hand into Tony’s instead.  “How do I…,” she begins, then stops with a frustrated huff.  Looks back up at him, her expression – an odd mixture of fond exasperation and heartrending plea.  “How can I get it through that thick skull of yours that you matter?  That we need you.  That I need you.”

 

“Pep,” he tries, begging almost, because he can’t bear this, it’s too much, this is too much!

 

She shushes him, a finger pressed gently against his lips.  Shakes her head in warning.  “I know you don’t like to hear this, Tony, but… you’re just gonna have to suck it up, Agent!”

 

“Former agent,” he mumbles petulantly into her finger, and she rolls her eyes at him, shifts closer, her hand moving to cup the side of his face. 

 

“You try so damn hard to save everyone, to fix everything so that the people you care about are safe….  Have you ever considered that those people want the same for you?”

 

He leans slightly into the warmth of her hand, closes his eyes against the earnest intensity of her stare, the uncomfortable sincerity of affection in her words.   He isn’t used to this.  Doesn’t… doesn’t deserve it.

 

“I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong.” Pepper’s thumb runs a soothing path along his cheekbone, taps lightly against his skin urging him to look up.  He does, forcing himself not to flinch away from the near-overwhelming tenderness of her gaze.  “I can’t lose you, Tony.  I can’t even…,” she swallows sharply, takes a deep breath.  “I can’t imagine what that would do to me.  I don’t want to.”  

 

She leans down toward him, surprises him by planting an urgent, trembling kiss on his forehead.  “You matter.  So much more than you allow yourself to believe,” she insists, pulling away once more to meet his gaze.  Pauses, as if waiting for him to respond.  But it’s pointless, because he can’t.  Can’t say anything for the burning, uncomfortable tightness in his throat. 

 

“You matter, Tony,” she repeats, emphatic.  “To me, to Happy, to everyone here.  Even that Washington charge of yours.”

 

“Rhodes?” he manages to rasp out, grateful for the opportunity to change topics.  “He alright?”

 

Pepper shrugs, an amused smile pulling at her lips.  “If you don’t count the part where he almost got his head blown off by Peter….”  She chuckles openly at the horrified expression that crosses Tony’s face.  “Hey, you can’t blame the boys.  The guy fishtailed onto our driveway like some maniac – they were just doing what they were told to do.”

 

And, yeah, that one… that one’s on Tony.  He did drill it into both boys that anyone entering the Foundation’s territory was to be treated as a potential threat.  Because he’s paranoid, alright? He wants to make sure his family is safe, and he learned early on that it’s better to be paranoid than sorry.  He just… didn’t think, as he drove there, what it would mean for Rhodes.  He was barely able to think at all with his mind all woozy and fractured from blood loss, trapped in the ever-darkening space between the present and the past.

 

“Shit,” he murmurs, closing his eyes against his own stupidity.  “I gotta talk to him.”

 

“He’s fine, Tony.  Don’t worry,” Pepper assures him, amusement clear in her voice.  “Last I checked, he was trying to milk Mindy under Laura’s supervision.”

 

“He what?” Tony’s eyes fly back open, a startled laugh spilling forth.  “Oh, this I gotta see!” 

 

He moves gingerly to push himself up, gritting his teeth at the sharp twinge of pain that echoes through his shoulder.  And stops at Pepper’s restraining hand on his chest. 

 

You need to heal,” she admonishes, the mirth in her eyes morphing back to worry.  “I’m sure one of the boys will take a picture for you, if you…”

 

“It’s not just about that, Pep.”  He smiles wanly at her, gently pushes her hand away.  “Those people, the ones that are after Rhodes, they’ve been tracking us a good part of the way.  We ditched the tracker, but…”  He shakes his head, his mouth thinning into a grim line.  “We gotta get going, Pepper.  I gotta get him and myself out of here before these guys catch our scent again.    I can’t… I can’t let them find this place.  Can’t risk it.”

 

“Tony…”

 

 The heartrendingly raw fear in her voice is almost, almost enough to make him reconsider, to back down under her pleading stare – anything to ease her worry.  But his priority is her safety, the safety of everyone here, including the man he was forced to drop on their doorstep.  So he ignores the way his heart twinges at the look of desperation in her eyes, focuses instead on the torturous task of standing.

 

“Didn’t know you liked the… Beatles,” he huffs out, as he finally makes it to his feet, breathless with pain and effort, one hand still clutching for the support of the bed frame.  Wonders briefly if letting go of that support would be a good idea, if he won’t just end up face-planting on the floor the moment he does.

 

Pepper slides up to him with a resigned sigh, slings his good arm over her shoulders, wraps a supporting arm around his waist.  “I just remembered the song,” she says quietly, letting him lean into her side as they take their first, unsteady steps toward the door.  “Jarvis sang it to you after your mom… after she passed away.  It… uh… it seemed to have calmed you then.  So I thought it might help.”

 

She either doesn’t notice or wisely chooses to ignore the way Tony’s breath hitches sharply at her words.