The drive starts out at high speeds and reckless, but by ten miles out they've mellowed to a comfortable cruising speed. Even before, Tony was no stranger to taking curves sharply enough to threaten two wheels coming down Mulholland, and by rights he ought to be making appreciative comments (at least in his own head) about Natasha's driving ability, but that's shoved to the back of his brain for later.
His house is gone.
Thank god for the cloud and remote server clones, which is JARVIS's only saving grace. Tony's hand slides over the thin rectangle of metal and plastic in his pocket almost involuntarily at the thought. All the old suits, over half his prototypes...
He tilts his head back against the passenger-side headrest and closes his eyes. He's got no idea where Pepper is, other than the fading glimpse of the white shirt she was wearing and her hair as she and Barton were running in the other direction.
"Where are they?"
He opens his eyes as he asks and sees Natasha's hands clench on the steering wheel. "She's with Barton," she grinds out, her eyes flicking quickly back and forth between the mirrors and the road but not looking at him.
"I got that. Where were they going? Where are we going, for that matter?" His voice is solid, it doesn't break or tremble and he mentally gives himself an extra point for that.
"I don't know."
"You don't know? You're the one driving!" It comes out sharper than he'd like.
"Exactly. I am the one driving, Stark. So sit back and shut up at least until we stop for the night."
Since he thinks he can still feel the heat from the explosion on his face, because he hears the tightness in her voice, for once he does what he's told.
"What the hell was that?!" Pepper is strapped in, but she's still trying to crane around in her seat to catch a glimpse of the scene behind them. She hates the shrill note that creeps into her voice when she's scared but it's never going away and she's learned to live with it (even embrace it on occasion because of the twitch it always gives Tony, just a hint over his left eye).
She doesn't know where Tony is, just that Natasha had pulled him aside while her partner - Barton, she reminds herself - had grabbed her and then they'd all run like their lives depended on it. Which they had.
"Explosives. Rocket-launched grenade from the helicopter, probably. No telling until the bomb-squad gets inside and does eval and clean up. Not our problem, though."
Barton's handling the wheel deftly but without any wasted movement, no flourish at all and she's used to seeing Tony drive this car and it looks wrong.
"Why aren't they behind us?"
"They went the opposite direction. It's safer to split up."
She's used to asking questions, to insisting and badgering until she gets her way or finds out what she needs to know, at least with people that she knows are immune to her power suits and killer heels. Now people usually do what she wants with just a look, because being CEO has that effect, but she's not above reverting to her old methods.
Not to mention she's scared. And when she's scared she has a tendency to... babble.
"Safer for who? For us? For them? Do we even know who just attacked us, or why? God, the house... it's just... who the hell would do something like that? No, nevermind. There's a laundry list. God. Everything."
What she meant was "our life".
Pepper falls asleep in the car after a few hours and he lets her sleep until they're well into Arizona and he stops at a drive-thru to get food. She dutifully pulls on his baseball cap and wraps up in his jacket so no one will recognize her, but out of the board room and press conferences she's slightly less visible than Tony would be, so she doesn't have to hide .
It's after midnight, but he knows his limits and they both need showers and she needs real sleep. He doesn't trust her to take a watch since she doesn't have the training, but it won't be the first time that he's slept lightly or not at all.
Natasha finally stops at a no-tell motel near Sacramento, even though still being in the same state makes the hair on the back of her neck stand up and the space between her shoulder blades itch. She would prefer to put another 300 miles between them and the blast radius. She would prefer to have intel and eyes and ears and access to the SHIELD resources she's come to appreciate even if she doesn't actually need them.
She would prefer to know where Clint and Pepper were, and that they were alright.
After a surprisingly brief argument Tony stays in the car while she goes inside and pays for their room. She gets it for a week and uses the credit card from a long-ago back-up alias that she keeps in hand for emergencies. It predates SHIELD (because she doesn't need them), but Clint knows about it in case he comes looking this way. She moves the car and parks around the back corner of the building, away from the cameras she spotted even though the place probably can't afford to run them. Then, and only then, does she let Tony get out of the car and they walk to their room as if they're a perfectly normal couple stopping for the night. She even slips an arm around his waist and tucks herself against his shoulder and to his credit he doesn't even flinch.
Once they're inside he lets her go and starts pacing. The hours in the car are catching up to him and he's restless and on edge.
That makes two of them.
She turns on the light and when he looks down he sees his sleeve and the blood that's smeared on it. Sharp eyes jump to her and look her over and then he's grabbing her shoulder gently but firmly to turn her around. She sees him coming so she doesn't lay him out flat on the floor for lunging at her.
"Where are you hurt?"
"It's not bad," she says shortly but he's already zeroed in on the dark spreading stain just behind her shoulder and is reaching for the hem of her shirt to pull it up so he can inspect it. "Let go of my clothes, Stark."
"Take the shirt off. Do you have any kind of first aid kit in your - no, of course not. Because we don't actually have any kind of gear bag. Hell, I don't even have a suit with me. I don't even have a suit in the same goddamn fucking area code!" It's a sudden and powerful realization and looking over her shoulder she sees it settle on him just how vulnerable he is right now. He's a master at compartmentalization and putting on a face for the crowd but even he has his limits. She should know, it's one of the myriad of things they have in common. She turns to face him as she shrugs the shirt back into place.
"Here's what we're going to do. There's a big box store a mile down the road. I'm going to leave you my gun and my cell number. Then I'm going to go buy us food, some clothes, and a first aid kit, and when I come back you can play nursemaid and stitch me up, how's that?" She doesn't particularly like having other people take care of minor wounds, but Clint's not there and she can't reach it on her own. If it's still seeping blood so many hours later it probably needs to be cleaned and sutured.
"I'm staying here why, exactly?"
The look she gives him says volumes. It clearly states that she knows he has an IQ higher than that and he's got to be kidding.
"You are one of the most recognizable faces in the country. What part of it being a bad idea for you to go out in public when someone is trying to kill you do you not get?"
He looks mutinous, but nods. "Point. Fine then, go on. Be quick."
With a shake of her head she sets her gun down on the table, confident that he knows how to use it, and rattles off her unlisted cell number for him. She picks up the keys and is halfway out the door when she hears a quiet "and be careful" aimed in her general direction.
"I'm sorry. I'm not even sure what to call you." Pepper is curled up against the headboard with her knees tucked up near her chin but her posture isn't defensive. If anything she looks comfortable that way.
"Clint Barton. We met right after New York."
"I know. I mean, I remember you. I just don't know what you want me to call you. Agent Barton? Or Clint, or-"
"Clint is fine. Or whatever you're comfortable with." He's sitting at the room's small table, staring at his cell phone and tapping his fingers against the surface in the only show of frustration he'll allow. Going completely blind has always been Nat's forte and now she's not here.
(He shoves the fear curling in his belly down as far as it will go because now is really not the time.)
"Alright. But if I get to call you Clint, you have to call me Pepper."
"it's Virginia, actually."
He notices that his foot is twitching slightly as well and forces it to be still. She won't call unless there's trouble. Not for awhile yet. No news is good news and all that crap. "I know. Why Pepper?"
"Tony's fault. He nicknames everyone. Usually it sticks. Happy's real name is-"
"Horace. Happy suits him better."
She stares at him unflinchingly and he's not sure how she manages to look like she's a fifteen year-old tomboy and a powerful business woman simultaneously, but he thinks it's similar to some of the tricks Natasha uses all the damn time. He wonders if Pepper learned it from her during her brief stint as Natalie.
"I know just as much about you, you know."
And that is why she's a killer in the boardroom. He arches one eyebrow at her. "Do you now?"
"Have you ever looked to see what's in your SHIELD file, Agent Barton?"
"I'm aware of it, Ms. Potts."
She breaks into a smile, genuinely pleased but still dangerous. It doesn't matter that he could take her hand-to-hand in under thirty seconds, she's still dangerous.
"It wasn't just idle curiosity. I like to keep my house in order."
"Still haven't forgiven her, have you?"
A flicker of curiosity flares in her expression. "Who?"
"Natasha. For lying to you and Stark."
"Forgive? Yes. She saved Tony's life. She saved Rhodey's life."
"But trust is another issue altogether."
There's another long pause and he watches her as she picks at a loose thread on the bedspread.
"I trust her with Tony's life. I just don't trust her with my friendship yet. Or..."
"I get what you mean."
"She talked about you, you know."
It's the first thing she's said that's really surprised him all afternoon.
"I seriously doubt that." Natasha was far too good at her job to endanger her cover that way.
"Not by name. In a not-so-rare show of... something unflattering, I was complaining about Tony being an ass and we talked for a little while. I asked her if she'd ever had a relationship with anyone that drove her as crazy as Tony was driving me at the time, all the time, and she got this smile on her face for about half a second and I knew. Then she said something about living with them versus jail time and we went back to the quarterly earnings report. But I knew there was someone, or had been. Then after it was all over, after New York, I saw you two together and I knew you were the one she'd been thinking of."
"You're... a very perceptive woman, Ms. Potts."
"Please. It's Pepper."