Pepper frowned. Tony had a tee-shirt on, but at least he'd managed to put on a suitcoat. He was also a day late for the meeting, still had singes along his goatee and motor oil lingering on his hands. There was bruising over his nose and around one eye. He fidgeted. "You didn't call."
"EMP," he muttered. "Knocked out the coms. I haven't gotten the shielding to work properly yet." He scuffed his foot like a school-child. He was going to try puppy-dog eyes.
"The Board never actually expects you to show up, but I do," she told him. He looked up at her with the outrageous puppy-dog eyes that nature granted him along with his insane alcohol tolerance and natural immunity to deadlines. "That look no longer works on me, Mr. Stark. Go to the Corner of Shame. And you will do your work without complaint until I tell you that you can leave." She pointed to the drafting table in the corner. It would have been piled with papers, had this not been Stark Industries. As it was, JARVIS knew to only allow Stark Industries documents and research projects on this interface. "Sign the papers first."
"But, Pep." He protested, even as he took of his jacket and settled on the stool. He picked up the light stylus and scowled at the list of papers. "What is all this?"
"The paperwork you've been ignoring for the past month. Start signing."
"What if I get dinner? Or champagne, you like that French stuff. Or maybe a bottle of that chocolate liquor?" He signed the first contract after glancing through it.
"Do the work and I'll consider forgiving you."
"You are a horrible liar, Potts."
She didn't let her frown soften, but she did turn to her own work. Tony had his Bluetooth in, which meant he was talking to JARVIS as he muttered, but she'd gotten used to the sound of his voice over the years. As long as there wasn't bright enthusiasm or explosions, she was content to let it just wash over her.
"Pep, Pep, Pep."
Oh God. "What, Mr. Stark?"
"Who negotiated this deal with Kingston Industries?"
"That would be Legal."
"The Kingpin wants to use our tech. Actually, this doesn't surprise me." He frowned at the document. "Should we be supplying criminals, Pepper? I mean, he just wants phones and StarkPads, so I'm not going to say no out of hand, but is this something we want on our conscience?"
Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose. "Kingston Industries is his clean business, I believe. They own the shipping in and out of the ports."
Tony snorted. "As though that hasn't been run by the mob for a century. Right. Just, J, take a note, look into Kingston Industries." He signed the contract. Pepper gave him a smile of approval.
She didn't say "good boy," but it was a close thing. Her heart-rate had settled from the initial surge when she'd seen his bruising. The office was comfortable now. He was here and safe and she hummed a little under her breath to let him know that she was here too. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him relax too. He must have gotten to the R&D projects finally. Or maybe something more had happened on the mission yesterday than an EMP pulse. She casually pinged JARVIS to hack into Phil's files and get her the mission summary for her.
Tony was busy tearing into blueprints with scribbled comments. The R&D and Engineering departments would be in her office or crying in their labs tomorrow. She wasn't unsympathetic, but that didn't mean she cared. They knew what they were getting into when they joined the company. It was all spelled out in their contract. She made a mental bet with herself. And extra pair of Jimmy Choos if there wasn't a new crush rumor running around the labs by the end of the day. A pair of Prada sandals if there was. She reviewed the latest press releases and signed off of them. Then, she reviewed the latest acquisition paper.
"Pepper, we need to get to the lab now. Right now before they do anything more stupid than what they just sent up here. I mean it." Tony looked between her and the door. He didn't get up though his eyes were nearly as dark as they got when someone mentioned Afghanistan. She stood. She picked up her jacket and checked her hair in the darkened screen of her StarkPad. Tony took that as permission. He grabbed his own jacket from his chair and made it to the door just in time to open it for her. He fished out a pair of blue tinted sunglasses.
"Wow, those haven't broken yet. It's a record."
"They were in the jacket in the closet. I haven't seen them in weeks." He absently held his arm out to block the elevator door, despite the fact that even here JARVIS controlled the doors. It was one of the inborn gentleman things that he'd always done. Well, once he recognized that she was a woman and not one of his bots. She considered. No, he did the same thing for his bots and generally didn't do it for anyone else. So, recognized that she was as important as one of his bots, which was, in a Tony way, rather sweet.
"Did you see the proposal"
"On the new power adaptation for the chargers? Yeah. Green light."
"Did you sign"
"The contract with Medusa? Yes, Ms. Potts."
"Don't roll your eyes. Your list is down to 873 things that must be answered today, even if I have to ask Bruce to sit on you."
Tony stuck his tongue out at her. "Brucie is having play time with the new DNA sequencer today. He won't hear your cries for help."
"Then Phil will have to save me." The doors of the elevator opened and they stepped out together as in step as always. "The fourth contract with the Air Force for shielding."
"We're not working as subs for those heathens in Maryland. Let them figure out their own issues for the wiring."
"Body armor for the Army?"
"Using the new material I developed for Bruce, SHEILD gets it first though. Updating the uniforms." They stepped into the gleaming white of the main lab. "Everyone. Gather round. Come along, kiddies, it's time to defend your projects to Mom and Dad." Tony's voice echoed through the space. There was a moment of suspended sound. Then, a furious rustling and rumbling that resulted in the lab's occupants gathered around them in a semi-circle. It was like elementary school for geeks. Pepper graced them with a cool smile. Tony raised a hand. "Step forward Kusangi and Tems. You're up first." He brought up a hologram of their work, his own scribbles present on the sides. "What is it for?"
"New stabilization for the shipboard medical bay on Navy ships," Kusangi said quickly. "Proof of concept for the contract bid."
"Tems, do you agree?"
"Yes, it will also work for the carriers and the bar on the jet." He smirked at Tony with a raised brow. Pepper considered, he'd known Tony since Tony was in MIT.
"Good. Review the spec changes and redo the math. Troll the patents, we may have better materials on hand."
"Yes, sir, Stark, sir," Kusangi smiled sweetly at him. Her eyes shot daggers at his notes before widening. "Oh, that might just work." She grabbed her partner's arm and dragged him to the side. They obviously wanted to talk more, but didn't break the unofficial rules by leaving.
"Carson and Gagnon. Front and center. What is it?"
"New adaptations for Intellicrops pest control. Uses salt water."
The list went on until Tony called out the final project. "Hughes." Pepper hid her surprise. Someone was working alone?
Hughes stood in front of them, the side of his lips curled up in a parody of a smile. "You yelled?" He was a pale man with grey hair and dark framed glasses. He was old enough to be Tony's father. That set all sorts of alarm bells off in her head.
"What is it?"
"A new bomb detonator, obviously."
Tony hummed. "Using?"
"Radio wave activation from the StarkPhone network. Easily traced by our network and no other."
Tony nodded. "Who's your partner, Hughes?"
"I don't have one."
Nguyen snorted. Tony looked over at him. "Former partner, I assume."
"Yes, Mr. Stark."
"You reminded him of the rules?"
"Yes, Mr. Stark."
"And when he kept going?"
"I transferred to the Fireproof armor group."
"Smart." Tony turned to Hughes. "You remember that we don't make weapons anymore, don't you, Hughes?" Pepper made a note to get his paperwork to HR immediately.
Hughes huffed. "You'll change your mind again. And when you do, we'll be ahead of the game."
"How long have you been with the company?"
The older man startled. "Twenty-four years."
Tony nodded. "Get your things. We're taking a walk."
Pepper received the paperwork. She held the pad out in front of Tony. He signed it immediately. He shepherded Hughes into the closest office. "Are you his manager?" The woman looked up, startled.
"Ah, yes?" She pulled off her reading glasses. "Oh, Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts, I didn't realize you were coming down today."
"Why was Mr. Hughes working on bombs?"
She froze. "Bombs? No, he was working on a networking issues on the police shut off for cars. At least that's what he was assigned." She shifted through files on her desktop. "Here, the last designs I have on the project."
Tony glanced at them. "Did you actually read them before you sent them up to me?"
She shifted uncomfortably. "Mr. Hughes and I have an understanding. He was the manager of this department prior to Mr. Stane's death. He stepped down to do research, and train me up. All of his work was funneled directly to Mr. Stane's office without review by me. I never received word that it should be otherwise."
Pepper frowned. "Come up to my office, Ms. Haverly. Mr. Hughes as well. Now." She turned and strode toward the elevators. She saw Hughes scowl in the reflective surfaces. There was no place to hide in Stark Tower and that was on purpose. They weren't paranoid, people really were out to get them. Once you've had to kill your boss' father-figure to protect your boss, it's not paranoia, it's just good sense. Hughes had managed to come out clean on all the internal investigations. He obviously wasn't.
HR was waiting for them in Pepper's office. As was Natalie Rushman, from Legal. Pepper raised a brow at the SHIELD agent. Natalie simply stood with an impassive face and her sharp, if slightly too low-cut suit.
"Mr. Hughes' contract with the company has been reviewed," said the HR drone. Pepper had never met the man, but he was efficient. "He signed the update with the renewed rules and regulations along with everyone else in the company when you took power, Ms. Potts." CEO and President were different functions in Stark Industries, thanks to the new bylaws. They'd had to renegotiate with the unions and several of the more independent scientists when those changed. Part of that negotiation had been a strict understanding that no weapons were to come out of Stark Industries labs. Tony's lab was separate. And those scientists who had their own facilities were welcome to continue their research and work for the government. Hughes did not have his own facilities.
She nodded sharply at the drone. "Mr. Hughes, you signed a document that confirmed that there would be no Stark Industries R&D for weapons."
He pulled himself up to his full height and opened his mouth.
"Sit down and listen to Ms. Potts, Hughes. You too, Ms. newbie manager." Tony's bruises and scowl made him look a lot more dangerous than he would ever be to an employee. Natashalie, oh help, Tony's brainwashing had taken, shifted to cover Tony's flank as she would in battle. It was subtle, but obvious to someone who knew who she really was. Haverly took a seat, a pinched expression on her face. Hughes sat down a moment later when no one spoke.
Pepper nodded in Nat's direction. Nat, that was safest, she decided. "Ms. Rushman, you have documentation?"
"I do. Mr. Hughes, while you have not done anything illegal, you have violated your employment contract with Stark Industries. You agreed to the amended contract, which states that any and all weapons research is to be done on your own time and with your own property. Your latest design used Stark labs and Stark patents without authorization."
Hughes snarled, "This company has always made weapons. And will always make weapons, no matter how you try to pretty it up as being Mr. Stark's private work."
"Wrong and wrong, Hughes. It is my private work. Done with my money and in my home lab. Stark Industries does not make weapons. We make armor. We make guidance systems for airplanes and life sign detectors and communication devices. We make the best phone on the market and crops that thrive in salt-water flats." Tony easily held Hughes' attention. "Your contract work is detection and detainment of domestic terrorists and criminals using Stark satellites to control vehicles and to create a network of vehicle communication hubs for convoy and fleets."
Hughes waved a hand. "I've already sent those designs up the chain."
"And instead of requesting new work, you started using that same technology as a weapon?" Pepper asked.
The older man nodded.
"Ms. Haverly, were you aware of his new direction in research?" Pepper kept her voice even. She wanted to throttle the woman in front of her. At the very least, she needed training in how to wrangle scientists. At the most, they'd have to move her somewhere else completely.
"Did Nguyen bring his concerns to you?"
She grimaced. She ran a hand through badly died brown hair. "He told me that he was working on the firefighter's protection project. I didn't realize that Mr. Hughes was working alone."
Pepper nodded slowly. "Mr. Hughes, this is the last strike. In the wake of Mr. Stane's death, you were investigated, along with all of the research department. At that time, due to irregularities in the department, you were asked to resign from R&D management and to return to the labs as a senior researcher. You were informed that you were to work on all projects with at least one partner. You were given a new contract that stated you would not work on weapons on work time or on work property. I now find that you have driven off your partner, you've been creating weapons systems, and you have been interfering in the actual management of the R&D department. Your only remaining choice is whether you will retire or be fired."
"You can't do this to me!"
"I think you'll find that I can," Pepper replied. "Ms. Rushman, I assume you have his paperwork to review?"
"Yes, Ms. Potts." Nat handed over a paper copy. "Mr. Hughes has been offered the standard separation package as well as his retirement. I've had PR draw up a press release thanking him for his service and wishing him well in all his new endeavors. One for internal distribution, the other for public. I've included the standard non-disclosure agreements and legal review documentation in the package." She looked down her nose at the man. A more aware man would have taken that as a warning.
Hughes snatched the papers from her hands. He read them with short little flicks at the end of each page. Haverly looked slightly green. His brows raised as he reached the compensation package. "This is the retirement package, I assume?"
Pepper nodded once. She'd learned the power of silence. It worked on most of the old men. Though it never worked on Tony. She had a whole book on how to handle Tony. Hughes frowned at the non-disclosure paperwork. "A complete gag on discussing Stark Industries?"
"Without approval. If you want to publish a book it has to go through Legal first. You've been working on government projects. Several of them were cleared projects," the HR drone clarified. "That should have been explained to you during your project briefings."
Hughes grimaced. "I worked with Howard Stark. I worked with Obadiah Stane."
Tony yawned. "Yes, you did. And you have created some wonderful weapons. I hear Hammer is hiring. Though he's a bigger blowhard than I am. There's also a slew of companies based in DC that might be interested in your technology background and your clearance."
The scientist considered that for a moment. "And what will the company's recommendation be?"
"You've given us 24 years of service, but your talents are more aligned with our old technology than the new direction for the company. You chose to retire to pursue your preferred research paths." The HR drone - Pepper glanced at his badge - William said.
Hughes nodded, shoulders dropping a bit. "Fine. I'll sign the paperwork." He accepted the pen from William and signed the papers. "When do they take effect?"
"You'll have a week to be debriefed and let everyone know of your retirement to pursue other opportunities. I'll set up the appointments for you." William offered his hand. Hughes shook it.
"Very well. Let me get my affairs tied up."
Pepper offered her hand. "Good luck, Mr. Hughes."
He shook it with a slightly sour look. Tony shook his hand with a PR smile. "All the best in your new endeavors. Ms. Rushman will escort you back to the lab and explain any of the papers you need." Nat nodded at the Pepper in farewell.
Haverly grimaced. "I have a suspicion that I'll be getting a negative report in my HR folder."
Pepper smiled at the woman. "Let's have a discussion." She took her seat and Haverly relaxed. William from HR cocked his head to the side.
"Should I stay?"
"Please," Tony said. He took his seat at the drafting table and turned his attention to the list of items that were flashing at him. Pepper focused on the manager in front of her. The woman's eyes slid from Pepper to Tony and back again. William sat up straight and kept his eyes on Pepper.
"Ms. Haverly, I understand that you and Mr. Hughes had a unique dynamic. You looked up to him as a mentor."
Haverly nodded. She looked tired. "I thought he was the one I didn't have to worry about. I give the department a lot of leeway. They work best that way."
"Without someone riding them about every decision and explosion that happens in the lab?" Pepper's brows rose as she put on a gentle smile.
"Exactly. They tell me which projects they're working on so we can keep track for the patent contest. And I review anything they're hoping to publish. Not that there's much of that. Most of our scientists don't care about academic records, but we've got four people who actually teach at the City University."
Pepper nodded. "And how often do you review their projects before you send them up for VP approval?"
"Once at the beginning. We set milestones. I look over things when they tell me they've reached the milestones."
"Have there been complaints about Hughes not working with others?"
Haverly shook her head. "Not that actually came to me. There were some personality conflicts earlier this year. We rearranged who was going to work with whom. There were three additional partnership changes, but no one said that they were stopping work on their first project. At least a few of them are waiting to see what Mr. Banner is getting up to with interest." Stark Industries didn't use the honorific of doctor unless it was in a public press release. It helped ease internal tensions when the multiple-doctorate peacocks were torn a new one by Mr. Stark who didn't have a doctorate. Howard had started the practice and it was one of the few legacies that they'd never challenged. "I expect I'll be getting some change of partnership statements when he finally declares his non-classified projects."
Pepper made a note to go over the lab procedures with Bruce. Tony would never think of it. "I'll make sure to remind him that he shouldn't be working alone on all of his projects, just the classified ones. You said that Mr. Hughes was training you on management. Have you taken any coursework?"
She shook her head. "My last classes were on astrophysics."
"We'll get you signed up for management classes and women's assertiveness training for a start. I expect you to meet with William to determine what other skills you need for your current position. We'll meet again to review your progress in six months. William?"
"If you'll come with me, Ms. Haverly, we'll make the arrangements." William walked her out.
Pepper sat back in her chair. "Finish up your list. You're taking me to dinner tonight at seven. No need to change. And then later, if you're very nice at dinner, you might actually get lucky, Mr. Stark."
Tony grinned at her. "Yes, dear."
Pepper wrapped herself around Tony, furiously hissing, "Eight hours a day in the Corner of Shame for the next week, do you hear me?"
The strawberry blonde was trembling even as Tony hugged her back. Steve raised his brow at the threat more than the tone. He knew exactly what she was feeling. He wanted to strangle and hug his idiot teammate at the same time, though, he knew the man had made the right decision. Natasha had come out without a scratch, and the armor was barely rattled.
"You stepped in front of a missile. A Missile!"
"I knew I could stop it. Honestly, it was inferior tech. You could have hacked it by your third year as my PA and you hated those hacking lessons."
Pepper bared her teeth. "Do you understand, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes, Miss Potts."
"Corner of Shame?" Clint asked as he leaned back on two legs of his chair. "Is that something kinky? Please tell me it's something kinky."
Tony flipped the archer off, just as Natasha's toe-hit lifted his chair out of balance. He scrambled to right himself. "Thank you, Natasha," Pepper said evenly. "Tomorrow, by nine AM."
"Nine, what is that? Nine in the morning? Does that time even exist?" Tony frowned at her.
"JARVIS, make a note. Mr. Stark is to be in the office by nine AM."
"Of course, Miss Potts. If I may, I'll call the caterer to provide breakfast for the both of you at nine-thirty."
"Thank you, JARVIS."
Tony scowled. "Traitor."
"Miss Potts is my favorite, as well, sir," the AI confirmed.
Steve's lips twitched into a smile. "However, Clint's question has merit. The Corner of Shame?"
"It's the other desk in Pepper's office. Where she forces me to actually do paperwork."
Phil's head lifted. "Is that actually effective? I could fit a small table into my office in Headquarters." He looked contemplatively at his agents. "Perhaps with handcuffs if necessary."
"Try the disappointed frown instead," Pepper suggested. Her shoulders had loosened and she was just standing in Tony's personal space as opposed to touching him. "I'm going to calm the board down. Again. And have PR draw up a statement. And you will be in the Corner by nine AM. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"That will be all, Ms. Potts."
Pepper strode out of the room on her impossibly tall heels, looking less ruffled than she should have after the hug. Tony watched her go with a small smile. Smitten anti-romantic that Tony was, he seemed thrilled every time Pepper yelled at him. Steve shook his head. "Maybe I should trade you for Pepper. JARVIS would work with her on using the suit. You're about the same size too."
"Hey!" Tony scowled at him. "I've seen your before pictures. And don't you dare try to steal my CEO."
"Note that he didn't say anything about not being the same size as his girlfriend," Barton commented to Natasha. She smiled thinly at him. "Of course, size has nothing to do with ability," the sniper added with a pasteboard smile. Natasha turned her attention back to her reading.
"You must love the taste of shoe leather." Steve shook his head. "So, if there happens to be a debriefing session tomorrow?"
"Tell Fury to take it up with Pepper."
"Pepper, I've been thinking."
"No, Tony." Pepper didn't look up from her desk.
Tony stuck his tongue out at her. "I need an assistant."
"But you liked Natasha. We just have to find another Natasha."
"Shall I ask SHIELD to send over an agent for you? I heard Sitwell needed to have some downtime."
"Oh, come on. Your PA was in tears when she found out that Natashalie wasn't coming back for good. I obviously need an assistant."
"MayLynn is an excellent assistant. JARVIS is as close as you're getting until you prove to me that you're capable of not hitting on your PA."
"Are you holding Natashalie against me? Really? We both knew she was more than she seemed."
"She knew you were dying before I did." Pepper's voice was very quiet. Tony's heart clenched. He tapped on the arc reactor. Despite the removal of some of the shards of metal, his heart and lungs were too dependent upon the reactor to remove it now. It now powered a much more effective pacemaker for his heart. The same sort of technology that he'd managed to get into Phil's chest when he hacked medical and found out that he wasn't dead.
"I was going to tell you." Tony bit his lip. "What if I asked Natashalie to help out once and awhile. Not do the full assistant thing because obviously she's got missions and things. But to help out with organizing things and making sure the paperwork is done?"
"And that you eat and sleep?"
"The sleep is all dependent upon you, beautiful Pepper."
There, that slight blush that she hadn't trained out of herself yet. Tony smiled at that. "But just once and awhile. When I have to go out of town or get really bogged down?"
"She's still technically and employee of Stark Industries. Ask her carefully. Do not make demands. And if she tells me that you're mostly trained, I'll consider letting you have a new assistant."
Tony pouted. "I could ask big green."
"Not only no, Hell no. Bruce needs to be your best friend and lab buddy. Not your assistant. Though I have informed him to put granola bars within reach while you're in his lab."
"Conspiracy. Three months. I don't want to piss Nat off too badly."
"Three months then. And ask her properly."
"Great." Tony stood up.
"Tonight. You still have five hours left."
Pepper gave him a smile with a few too many teeth. "Did I mention that I was still learning hand-to-hand with Natashalie?"
Not even the use of his pet name for the assassin made the unease in his gut uncurl from that statement.
"Hey, Nat, can I talk to you?" Tony was hanging over the back of Natasha's seat and looking up at her like a demented upside down puppy. She pushed his head aside and put down her book.
He pouted at her. "Please?"
Pepper asked her to reinforce good behavior. Natasha liked Pepper; liked the underlying ruthlessness that was necessary to run Stark Industries and the unflappability that was necessary to manage Tony. She sighed. "Yes. Start the tea."
That got her one of Tony's real smiles, not a PR grin. "The tea's steeping right now. The cinnamon blend."
She raised a brow, but accompanied him into the kitchen where he carefully poured her a cup of tea and then one for himself. There were also tea cakes with powdered sugar and small squares of dark chocolate. "What is the name of the target?"
The engineer blinked. "Wow. If that's something I can talk to you about, I need to do a quick list and rearrange some priorities with Pepper first. That's not what I was going to ask though. It was, well MayLynn started crying when she found out you weren't actually coming back as my assistant, but just as a representative of Legal for that meeting. And I talked to Pepper and she said that I can't have a new assistant right now. I didn't walk and water the last one right or something." Tony waved an absent hand. "Whatever. And I was sort of hoping that maybe you'd be willing to help out when Pepper and I are on different continents or states or that sort of thing."
"Tony," she cut in before he could continue. "If you need me as Natalie Rushman on occasion, I will be willing to assist. I will not get your dry cleaning or groceries, but I am capable of getting you to meetings on time if Pepper can't. And I will help with your make-up if necessary."
"Oh, Thank, well Thor, I guess. Normally I thank Pepper, but that seems sort of strange in this case. It's just we're coming to the end of the budget year and I need to get the R&D and the proposal teams on the straight and narrow and I was thinking of slowly buying back Stark stock, but I can't do that until I get some of the cash flowing. The recovery of the City and rebuilding in Malibu and all that is tying up my spending money."
Natasha gave him a small, genuine smile. "Get the spreadsheets and the contracts and we'll get to work. Also, get the patent paperwork that you've been ignoring since I stopped being your assistant. You drove three people to tears and at least one of them started drinking heavily, which is why Pepper said no."
"I did not. Oh, wait, was Joshua actually one of my assistants? I though he was just an annoying new intern."
"He returned to SHIELD because being shot at was less stressful than working for you." She poured herself another cup of tea. She selected a piece of dark chocolate. "I'll inform Miss Potts to contact me with your schedule for the next month."
"Bruce, come join me for some tea," Pepper called into the lab. She set down the tray with the jade green teapot that she'd gotten as a present for herself one Administrative Assistants' Day too many years ago to think about. She poured out two cups of chamomile rose blend. Bruce found a stopping point on his experiments and sat down across from her with a soft, hesitant smile.
"Hello, Pepper. I've been feeding Tony here."
"And it's helping. Thank you. He hasn't crashed because of low blood sugar in at least two weeks. I've put Natasha on snack duty whenever he's upstairs. And I think Steve has caught on because he's started taking sliced fruit down to the workshop and leaving it within reach."
Bruce looked pleased with the news. "He should be getting enough protein in his shakes now. I found a new supplement for Dummy to add to his drinks. As long as he doesn't add motor oil."
"At this point, I'm not sure Tony's body can't process that." She smiled over her cup at him. "I actually came to talk to you about your work."
"I know the gamma radiation work is classified to Theta Alpha Eight. But you have some other projects going on right? And those are in the more normal classification ranges? Or even unclassified medical research?"
Bruce seemed to light up. "Yes, I do. I found so many herbal blends that worked when I was in the field that they must have applications in the medical field."
Pepper nodded. "And you realize that Stark Industries has a very large research and development group? Several of whom specialize in medical technology?"
He blinked at her. "Really? I suppose I knew that SI did medical research. I just didn't think of it being outside the realm of prosthetics."
"Oh, Howard actually started that line. And it's been refined every year since then. We have the Intellicrops. And there have been some great leaps in parasitology using nanotech." She frowned down at her hands for a moment. "But we have medications being created on a regular basis. And those scientists? They want their new hero and playmate to come down and meet them. Or at least to collaborate with them. Those unclassified projects should really have collaborators on them." She reached out and placed a hand on Bruce's wrist. "It's actually policy to have someone check your work and Tony can handle the physics, but please, talk to some of the medical researchers about your other work. Tony's brilliant, but he doesn't understand bodies the way he understands machines. Not the way you do."
Bruce flushed a little bit. "Pepper, I'm dangerous."
"Lies. And every single one of those researchers is as manic and as socially awkward as Tony. If you tell them you're getting upset and need to walk away, they'll all understand. There's a meditation room on every lab level."
"I. I'll choose one project and try."
"Thank you, Bruce. That means a lot to me."
"Hey, Katniss, come with." Tony rolled his hand toward himself. Clint considered, then crossed the room to catch up with Tony at the elevator. The doors slid shut. "So, you looked bored and I know that Agent locked you out of the range for the rest of the day. So, I found something else for you to play with."
"Better be those twins you had to turn down because you're on the straight and narrow Pepper road."
"Josie and Lois? They're horrible. Trust me, even drunk it wasn't enjoyable. Nearly had to snort something to get it up. All bones and no chest. But, no, not that sort of thing. Stark Industries has a new sports line."
"Sports? As in?"
"Archery, mountain climbing, paintball, boxing equipment, kickboxing, and gymnastic equipment. Basically, anything special I've been adapting for the team, only in a more general population friendly way. And know what they need? Someone to test it out. So, maybe, just maybe there's a climbing wall."
Clint considered for a moment. "And you're asking me to be your R&D tester?"
"Yes." There was a hesitation in Tony that seemed out of place.
"And make sure that's all they're testing okay? I found someone working on detonators in R&D. I want to make sure the sports set isn't hiding anything from me. You're good at that sort of thing. Better than I'd be. And if you really like something? I'd like to make it Hawkeye approved. You'll get your usual percentage for merchandising."
"What percentage of merchandising?"
Tony scowled. "They didn't tell you. Or give you the contract did they? Miserable penny pinching idiots. Trying to steal your money for their budget. I don't freaking think so. SHIELD has iron-clad contracts with SI. Has since their inception. Howard started the damned agency and I will get Legal right on making them do what they should. You'll have your royalties by next week." He led the way into the sports R&D section. There was a two story climbing wall and on one side of the open space.
"Stark, I think I love you just a little bit."
"Of course you do." Tony puffed up. "I'm just that awesome. Now, where is. . . aha! Stefani. Over here. I've got your victim."
Stefani was a short, fit woman with deep chocolate eyes and skin to match. Her hair was styled in a two inch afro and her SI workout clothes fit her perfectly. "Clint Barton right? I'm Stefani Brown." Her hand had the callouses of a fellow archer. She was wearing rock-climbing shoes.
"Nice to meet you."
"Be nice to him. I actually like this one," Tony told her.
"Get out of here, Mr. Stark. Or the actual threat of hard work will give you hives."
Tony shuddered theatrically. "I expect a full project review in my queue by the end of the week. It's budget time again."
"God, don't even remind me. Go. Out." She waited until the elevator doors closed behind Tony. "Okay, you've been working with our resident mad scientist, so I'm actually going to review safety procedures with you."
"You have safety procedures here? Did Pepper set that up?"
Stefani laughed. "Damn. You know where the power really is in this place. Good. I won't have to smack the women are just as capable as men thing into you."
"Have you met my best friend? Natalie Rushman from Legal?"
"That is far too much woman for me." There was a distant look in Stefani's eyes. "But what a way to go."
"Okay, now I believe you work with Tony," Clint told her.
"Did you just terrify SHIELD's legal department?" Coulson asked. He was shuffling through his paperwork in his actual office for once. Stark was lounging in the visitor's chair with a disturbingly smug smile on his face.
"They were trying to rip off Legolas and Natashalie. I'm not letting that slide. And the angry pirate knows that."
Coulson looked up. "Rip off?" His back stiffened. "What were they doing to my agents?"
"They were stealing royalties. I've set up accounts for them that SHIELD has no access to until I'm convinced they're scared enough not to do it again. My lawyers are salivating. They found the original SSR and SHEILD contracts with Howard." Tony's smile turned nasty. "And the ones with Stane. I'm holding them to every last word now. Oh, it's truly an amazing thing to watch my lawyers at work. They're like my own personal sharks with laser beams."
Coulson's lips thinned. "I'll need to get the security footage of that. I have a new assignment."
Stark frowned. "I heard about that. I don't like it. Send your Life Model Decoy and play house with me and Pepper."
He did not blink. He determinedly did not blink at the casual invitation. He knew he was always welcome at the Tower. "You did not intend that as anything more than roommates, correct?"
The other man fidgeted a bit at that. "Well, I'm totally open to the idea and Pepper likes you a lot, so it's totally your choice. But then, I always sort of thought that you and the Bobbsey Twins were, you know, committed."
"They take off the straight-jackets on a regular basis."
"That sounds a lot like 'I cannot confirm or deny' right there." Stark sat forward with a bright grin.
"I heard that you were attempting to steal my agents."
"They were bored. Now they aren't bored. Besides Pepper and Nat actually work well together and neither of them hates me enough to try to kill me right now. Though they're practicing in the gym together. I don't know if that's hot or terrifying."
"You have the best deadpan of anyone I have ever met, Agent. Are you sure you're not a LMD?" Stark lifted a finger as if to poke at him.
"I have more items on this desk to kill you with than you have patents, Mr. Stark."
"Okay. Okay. No touching the agent in his den. Got it." The inventor looked at his watch. "Come on. My schedule's free and it's lunch time. Let me treat you to something more fun than vending machine donuts."
Coulson checked that the time matched his own internal clock. It was just after noon. "I have to be back within the hour."
"There's a diner just down the road. Good at ignoring anything they don't want to see going down. And the media is terrified of the owner."
The diner was small and had one way glass on the windows. There were more cameras and security built into the walls than Coulson expected. The far back booth let him and Stark both have their backs to a solid wall. They ordered. Stark surprisingly opting for a salad and hot turkey without any bread. Coulson ordered a pork roast sandwich. Stark pressed a blue button on the back wall. "That's a white noise feed. No one will be able to hear us talk here. The owner is connected."
"I do not want to know anything more."
"Good. Because I wouldn't tell you anyway. Agent, who sent the nuke?"
"The WSC. You know that."
"That is not what I asked."
"Those files are classified well above my level."
Stark snorted. "Again. Not what I asked."
Coulson studied the man across from him. "Tell me you aren't turning supervillian on us. I'll lose my bets."
"Of course not. I just want to explain to the idiots that tried to kill me and my city that it's a very bad idea to do that. And SHIELD is compromised. Fury is supposed to have the last word when it comes to orders, and yet, he had to use a hand-held rocket launcher to stop one of the planes."
"I'll investigate internally. It's been years since the last good mole hunt." He hesitated. "There's a file. And actual paper file in the common kitchen behind the panel in the cupboard with the powdered sugar."
Stark nodded. "Got it. Tell me, have you ever considered working as a CFO?"
"Pepper would string you up by your toes if you pulled a stunt like that."
The Cheshire cat style grin he got in response was exceedingly disturbing.
"Cap, Cap, Cap."
Steve Rogers did not wince at Tony's overly-bouncy mood. "Who let you have sugar?" he demanded.
"I resent that. It wasn't sugar. Nat forgot that I can't have bread with preservatives in it at lunch and well, I'm taking advantage of the productivity before I crash. Anyway, these came up from Marketing and I seriously do not art well."
"Art is not a verb."
"Loki, it's like you and Pepper were separated at birth sometimes."
Steve winced at that. "You're swearing by Loki now? What the Hell, Tony?"
"Thor said he was getting creeped out. I was sort of hoping that would work on Loki."
"Psychological torture of the imprisoned alien. Right."
"He threw me out of window. Still, can you look at these? I am not the one to ask if layout designs are effective. I even brought print outs because despite my attempts to change the world, these will still actually be in dead tree format." He handed over a sheaf of full-color ad mock-ups. "You can use Phil's perch today. He's stuck in the office dealing with the fall-out of my legal team and SHIELD's colliding." Tony offered two felt-tipped pens - one red, one black. "Here mark them up. Make suggestions. I'll take you down to talk to the Art Department when you're done. I've got, JARVIS, there's something on my list?"
"There are many items on your list, would you prefer them by deadline or threats from Miss Potts?"
"Pepper order. Are you trying to get me killed, J?"
"I haven't found it necessary to assist in that, Sir." The AI's voice was arch. Tony actually winced at the tone. "Technical details on the new StarkPhone for the Expo."
"The Expo. How many months do I have until that?"
Steve purposefully looked away as Tony restrained a small tremor in his hands. He couldn't be sure if it was anxiety or the seemingly allergic reaction to the bread. He looked at the full-page ad for the latest something to come out of the labs. He frowned at it. "What is the target market for these ads? I can't even tell what this is for."
"Oh, right." Tony blinked. "Come on down. I'll introduce you to Pandora. He can tell you all about what they're trying to do with loud volume and too many teeth. Expo related list, JARVIS. Cut me off when I start babbling about missile tracking. That's not for this year."
"Of course, Sir."
The Art Department ended up being a full floor of drafting tables and floor to ceiling windows. The center column of the room was plastered with versions of ads and most of the desks had a clear partition the artist had covered with his or her own artwork. Steve couldn't stop the smile at the smell of paint, markers, and rubber that permeated the space. There was a cheerful din of too many voices and insults that were being thrown around the room. "No, no, out Tony," said a man with a tiny frame and copper-kissed skin. His dark hair was short-cropped and his suit was askew. He had on a pair of red, white, and blue canvas shoes that made Steve pause.
"Tell me those aren't Captain America shoes," Steve stated.
Tony just laughed at him. "Of course they are. Stark Industries has made a mint off of the Avengers footwear line and so have you. It's sitting in that bank account you refuse to look at. Pandora, paint-smeared darling, I have brought you a new minion."
"Call me Pan. I'm the head of the Art Department. You seem sane. Let's get you away from Tony right now."
Tony rolled his eyes. "I feel the love."
"Paint thinner is not drinkable," Pan reminded cheerfully, "but it is the closest to alcohol as we have on this level."
"And to think I used to like you. Steve Rogers, Pandora Singh."
"I will take you to a desk, you will show me your ability to draw, and then we will discuss what this menace has asked you to do. I am assuming it is to review the ad mock-ups we sent up. Miss Potts is too busy to handle them."
Steve was caught up in the whirlwind of chatting to a fellow artist and missed when Tony disappeared. "Where?"
"Art is Miss Potts' past-time. Mr. Stark is capable of doing the reviews. However, he is also not comfortable with the chaos of this floor. He keeps wanting to *help* and *fix* things that do not need fixing."
"He wants to make a charcoal application for my StarkPad. It's on the fifth iteration. It's getting closer, but not for anything special."
Pan looked at him for a long moment. "You must not let that man bully you into anything. He is like a small child. While I am pleased that Miss Potts now runs the company, it unfortunately means that she no longer runs him."
"He's not that bad."
The artist they were next to burst into laughter. She tossed her shiny gold locks. "Tony is totally a toddler when he's on this floor. He gets into everything and has no sense of personal space. But if you try to get into his workshop? Boyfriend will cut a wench."
"And what were you doing in his workshop?" Pan's voice was severe.
"Pinstriping his robot."
"Dear Gods. You touched one of his children?" The manager's eyes were wide. "Did you sleep with him?"
"No, I got the fear of Potts knocked into me during my HR session."
"Which one of the robots? Dummy's a sweetheart."
The two artists looked at Steve in wonder. "You are allowed in the Workshop?" Pan asked.
An evil smile crossed his face. "You are now my favorite minion. Come, we'll get you a desk."
"Mr. Stark, you have a meeting in exactly two hours. JARVIS, please help him find a stopping point," Natasha said.
"Of course, Miss Rushman. While we have a private moment, I must warn you, that if any of your actions harm Sir, I will take exception."
The spy looked up at the closest camera. She did not allow any of her surprise to show through. "I will protect Mr. Stark from himself as well as anyone else."
"J, did you just threaten Natashalie?" Tony's head actually lifted from his work. "I am so proud of you, baby."
"I have found that the additional counter-measures you provided with the reconstruction of the tower to be adequate for enforcement." There was warmth in the computer's voice.
Oh, Natasha realized that JARVIS was more than a computer. Tony and Pepper's reactions to him told her that clearly. But in the rest of the building, he never acted as more than just an external memory for them. The fact that she was now considered close enough to the family to be shown his true capabilities was genuinely warming, if not a bit terrifying. Being trusted to this level was not what she had considered when she'd agreed to play shepherd to Tony. "What counter-measures?"
"Sir has granted me a more proactive method of protecting the residents of the building. It will not be easily over-run."
"How is that additional firewall fitting?" Tony asked as he wiped his hands on an oil-stained rag and pushed away from his station. Dummy took the rag back to its pile. The robot chirped at her, then poked gently at her with a sad little whine. She patted his hand.
"Quite well, Sir."
"Dummy, Nat is not an upgrade to Pepper's chassis. We've been over this. Same function, different models. Like You and Butterfingers."
Dummy seemed to perk up at that. He rolled over to pick up the stray pieces of wire that had fallen to the floor and put them in the scrap pile. Tony followed her out of the workshop. "Lock up, J."
"Of course, Sir."
"So what is this meeting?" he asked as they entered his bedroom. There were obvious touches that came from Pepper in the room now. Natasha settled in the chair by the door.
"Supplier meeting with the subcontractors on the gymnastics equipment. They're having issues with the contract now that the specs have changed."
"We put in a change order and agreed to cover the differences in cost. What's the issue?"
"They believe that they should be getting a larger cut of the final profits."
Tony scrubbed at his hands and arms with lava soap. "Idiots."
"There is oil on your face as well," she reminded. "I've taken a look at the contracts and there is no reason why they should get anything more than they are already getting."
"JARVIS, take a look at the subs business and make sure they're on the up and up. If they're faltering, work up the specs for purchasing them outright."
Natasha considered laying out his clothes, but he was sober enough, or perhaps simply well enough to do so on his own right now. She put down her pad and chose a suit for him anyway. He smiled brightly at her choice of shirts. He pulled on the blue shirt over his favorite Black Sabbath tee-shirt. He buttoned it to the top and let her tie his tie for him. She accepted that as the show of trust it was and gave him a soft smile. He put in the star cufflinks and then pulled on the dark grey suitcoat with his jeans. He put on his blue sunglasses. "Subs do not get the full suit," he informed her. "Only the board or charities get that. Or Congress, I suppose. Who are the idiots sending?"
"Their contracts negotiator. Legal will be meeting you in the conference room. You'll want to review the specs and the budgets first."
"J, put them up for me." His stomach growled. "In the kitchen when I get there. Is there any Chinese left or did one of the human vacuums get to it?"
"Your egg foo young is still in the refrigerator."
Pepper smiled at the SHIELD agent in her doorway. "Phil, what a pleasant surprise. Come in."
"I was hoping you'd be able to take a few minutes to walk down to the coffee shop with me."
Her smile didn't dim out of long practice. "Let me get my purse." Her purse had a taser, a knife, and mace. "JARVIS, let Happy know that I'm walking with Phil."
Phil closed her door as they left. He didn't offer his arm. JARVIS didn't allow the elevator to stop on any of the other floors on the way down. It was a security feature that she'd come to love over the past few months. She and Phil settled in the comfy arm chairs behind the fireplace in the corner of the shop. Phil monitored the front door and she found herself far too aware of the back room. "I know your time is valuable."
"Phil, you are always welcome to interrupt me. I trust your judgment." She sipped her salted caramel hot chocolate.
"Your boy," he started. Oh, they were going to have one of those conversations. Hopefully, no one noticed them. "He is attempting to be a good boy and find you something for your birthday."
"Meaning you and Natashalie," she covered her mouth. "And Nat are attempting to find one for me."
"And steer him away from any allergies."
"He wanted to buy me chocolate strawberries."
Phil gave her a small half-smile. "J managed to divert that crisis."
"If only he were able to do that more often. And you were sent to see what I would like?" She shook her head. "I've bought my own presents since the first year I worked with him. I will continue to buy my birthday and anniversary presents until the day he finally throws himself into an early grave." More chocolate. She needed more chocolate before this conversation became depressing.
"And if he were to consider a solitaire ring?"
"Then I'd assume he was under mind-control and ask Nat to do a recalibration for me." Marriage. The word itself was enough to make her shudder and break out in hives.
The agent actually chuckled at that. "What would you like for your party?"
"Chocolate better be involved, but beyond that? I have plans, Phil, and unless the world is ending, I will carry them through."
"Noted. I'll explain to the director that if you're disturbed he's the one who will have to deal with the fallout."
Her smile felt dangerously feline. "I've always liked you, Phil, but the director and I have a bit of history."
He sat forward. "You are aware, of course, that the entire agency is filled with the world's worst gossips."
"I have used that fact to my advantage, yes."
Their eyes met. "I understand completely."
"Hey, Nat, is your brother-husband-whatever-the-hell-you-think-of-him as willing to get his hands dirty again?" Tony bent down to get a better angle on the gauntlet he was fixing. The bruise on his forehead was an angry purple. Natasha stretched out her tense muscles before looking over the schedule Pepper's assistant had provided.
"I'm certain of it. Phil would take more persuasion."
"Pepper will cover that if we need to. I have intel, but I need a subtle touch on it. Not my style."
The assassin hummed at him, asking for more information while part of her mind was looking for trouble in the meetings that were coming up.
Tony set down his tools and gestured in the air. A shimmer of blue turned into a dossier that included video and security maps. "This one needs to know that he's treading on my toes. He's the deciding vote that sent the nuke right at us."
"Does he need to survive?"
"No, but no collateral damage either. He has children. His wife, I'm not sure on. She seems to be culpable for some things. He's covered up her less than legal pursuits before. The kids are young enough that they haven't been complete douches yet. I meant to do this over tea and cakes, but Steve's wandering around up there and it would offend him, I think."
"You might be surprised," Natasha informed him. She enlarged the security maps. "JARVIS?"
"Yes, Ms. Romanov?"
Clint was going to have fun. "Tell Clint to join me on the roof, please. Are there projectors up there?"
"Yes, JARVIS can take care of you. Take your StarkPad. The file's large and sometimes it's easier to read it on the small screen."
Natasha studied Tony's pupils. "I'll be back down to check on you in one hour." He frowned at her. "I cannot tell if your left pupil is actually larger than your right at the moment." He touched his head.
"It's just a little concussion."
"You have met Pepper Potts? If you collapse, she'll hold me responsible."
Tony blinked. "Oh."
Clint lounged on the lawn chair. "What's up?"
"Stark is taking on the WSC." His partner said.
He sat up straight. "Is he going super-villain on us?"
"I assure you, Agent Barton, that Sir's actions are currently all legal."
"JARVIS, we need privacy."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Clint." JARVIS' voice was deadpan. He started playing "Daisy" over the roof party-speakers.
Natasha's lips twitched. "JARVIS, you're aware of the SHIELD plans for Tony's eventual slide into the dark side."
"Of course, Agent Romanov. Mr. Stark is also aware of the plan and has actually asked me to improve upon it as necessary to compensate for any additional technology he develops during the course of his long and illustrious career as an enemy of the Avengers. He accompanied the request with the evil laugh he's been practicing as well."
Clint looked at Natasha. "I can't tell if he's pulling our leg or not."
"I am painfully honest, Agent Barton. I see no profit in lying to you."
"Will you keep this discussion from Tony?" Natasha pressed.
"As long as your actions do not threaten Mr. Stark's safety, I will keep your confidences. If you will direct your attention to the dossier currently on the wall, I will give you a brief overview of the subject."
"Oh, we have a hit. Why didn't you say so?"
Phil looked at his best agents. He sighed. "Do not destroy Sitwell while I'm on assignment." Clint and Natasha looked back at him with innocent, blank faces. Sitwell was going to try to kill them. Phil calculated how often he would be able to come back to New York to convince them to behave. "Do not let Stark Industries hire you away either."
Natasha shook her head. "I only work with Mr. Stark when I'm not on assignment."
"I only work with the sports group when I can't get into the range for practice."
Note to self: Remind Sitwell to monitor Hawkeye's range access. "Reports in on time."
"We'll also remember to wash behind our ears."
"Clint." Phil frowned at him. "Please don't make Sitwell shoot you. I will not have time to come back and clean up after that which means Pepper will do it."
Natasha actually blinked at that. As though she didn't know that Pepper was as dangerous as any agent in the agency. He paused. Maybe she didn't know. Natasha and Clint didn't regularly hack SHIELD databases the way Pepper and Tony did. They might be unaware of what exactly Extremis could accomplish. Clint cocked his head to the side. "Pepper will? Not Agent Hill?"
"Agent Hill isn't as fond of you as Pepper is." Suddenly, becoming the CFO of Stark Industries didn't sound like a bad transfer. Clint in Sports R&D. Natasha as Tony's watchdog. Steve Rogers in the art department. Dr. Banner in the science department. He shut off that line of thinking. He didn't want one of the telepaths in the agency to catch onto it. "Now you'll be good while I'm gone?"
"Of course, Principle Coulson," Natasha said. Her face was flat, but he could see the devilment in her eyes. He was going to owe Sitwell so many diner meals that it was ridiculous. At least he'd have Lola with him, with her new and improved AI design. His eyes tightened as he considered how to keep that secret as well. "We will, of course, check in with you frequently. We have access to a private jet after all."
Oh, Christ. He narrowed his eyes at both of them. They looked impassively back at him. Havoc. The helicarrier was going to be screwed.
Clint shifted in his seat. Pepper looked at him evenly, the way Phil might. "Pranks are fine," she said finally. "Just make sure that no one gets hurt and that it doesn't single any one person out. And do not do anything in the actual labs. The cafeteria, main gym, and lower level conference rooms are okay. Do not do anything in the public areas of the tower, the executive conference rooms or any of the meditation spaces. Those spaces are to be safe at all times. And if you mess up something in one of the labs, I'll let Tony know it was you."
The sharpshooter considered that for a moment. Plenty of places to work with for his plans. "Great. I'm going to be out of town for a few days. Will you look after Nat?"
She smiled. "I think that's possible. You have an assignment?"
"A place or two I wanted to see. I'm actually not on call this weekend. I think Fury wants me out of the helicarrier."
"I saw that lovely glitter treatment you gave to Maria. The blue really brought out her eyes."
He narrowed his eyes at her. How did she know about that? "Thanks," was all he said. "Are you coming up for dinner? I can drag GloWorm out of his lab for you."
"Thank you. I'll be up at six. Is Nat going to be there? Or is she actually in the building?"
"She is. Want me to let her know to come down with some tea for girl talk?"
"Tony's going to be in Kenya next week and I was hoping she'd be available. Phil is, out of contact, at the moment."
"Sitwell's subbing as our handler." He rolled his eyes.
Pepper's lips twitched down. "I'll coordinate with him. Part of SI's contract involves security in foreign countries now."
"Now?" Clint leaned forward.
He let his brows come together to show his confusion.
Pepper let out a breath. "You don't know. You honestly don't know? Tony was kidnapped. Three months later he walked out after killing all of the men who'd held him with an arc reactor in his chest."
Clint sat up straight. "There weren't details in my briefing. I knew he'd been kidnapped. We were on point to find him, if possible. I knew that he blew them all up. I knew that the reactor was in place and about the palladium. I was told that he created the Iron Man suit when he got back from Afghanistan. And SHIELD always protected SI didn't it?"
"No, US Military." She bit her lip. "Okay. Okay. I can deal with this later. Go play on the climbing wall or something and I'll get JARVIS to fill you in on the details that are necessary. God, I have to brief Steve too. Bruce needs details. Natasha definitely knows. So, just you, Steve and Bruce. And different levels I think. You don't need as much spelled out for you. Bruce will need the full medical files." Her eyes drifted to the side for a moment and he got the impression of red flashing across her eyes for just a heartbeat. It was almost like Bruce when he was talking to The Other Guy. He needed to talk to Nat badly now. "Okay, I'll have something ready for you after dinner. JARVIS will distract Tony for me." He sketched her a two-fingered salute and left her to her work. Her phone rang just as he did. "Potts speaking. Hello, General, how nice to hear from you." Her voice was poisoned honey.
He hurried up to the Avengers gym. Natasha was in the middle of a series of turns on her point shoes. He watched her go across the room in a series of beautiful jumps. She should have been on stage. Maybe they should both run away to the circus again. She could dance on the high wire and he could ride horses and shoot moving targets. He shook away the strange fantasy.
"What is wrong?" She stopped in front of him, absently dropping down and up to keep her muscles warm. She was speaking in Russian, so he switched to that language himself.
"Pepper was hoping you'd be able to take care of Tony in Africa. So, if you could take some tea down that would be good. Her nerves are shot right now. And I had this strange moment when I could have sworn that there was red in her eyes. Like she was communicating with someone like Bruce does."
"Da. I will speak with her. Are you worried she is being controlled?"
"No, that's not it at all. Just take a look."
She inclined her head. "I must finish my routine." She gave him a nod. "JARVIS, two measure entrance?"
"Of course, Miss Romanov." The music swelled and she was back into the stream of the music. Clint's phone chirped at him. The display read "J. Stark." He answered the call. "JARVIS?" he asked.
"Yes. I have found that it is easier to discuss certain things privately this way." Clint settled in the corner to watch. "Are you recording this?"
"Sir has requested that all of Miss Romanov's ballets be preserved. You were discussing Miss Potts."
"You speak Russian?"
"I speak many languages. You need not worry about Miss Potts. The Extremis is contained. She uses it to more quickly communicate with the technology of the tower."
"Right. Well, I've got to figure out how to blast Tony out of his workshop in time for dinner. Glitter darts, do you think?"
JARVIS was quiet. "My calculations show that glitter would cause damage to the system he is currently creating. Perhaps nerf would be best."
"Sure thing. Thanks for the assist."
"I but live to serve."
Clint snorted. "Sassy-pants." He hung up on the AI. He'd either pay for that with cold showers for the week or JARVIS would ignore it. He watched Natasha dance until his brain settled. He had research to do, a scientist to wrangle, and a hit to finish. It was good to be useful.
Coulson picked up the phone carefully. "Yes?" Someone had gotten an upgraded security clearance. Good for him.
"Do you have any idea what your agents have done?" Sitwell's voice was pleasant and bland. He'd practiced that tone of voice in front of a mirror.
"My agents?" Coulson met the bland and doubled-down on it.
"You know exactly who I mean. They painted Agent Hill with glitter. They replaced the director's eye patch with a Hello Kitty version and he wore it."
"Are you certain he hadn't lost a bet to Hill?"
"The entire legal department was in tears."
"That was probably Stark," Coulson admitted. "He set his legal team on ours over Avengers royalties. They seemed to have found other contract breaches along the way."
"Then, they disappeared for three days."
"It was their scheduled weekend last week."
"And Stark has given them permission to use his jet at any time."
Coulson checked his watch. "I hate to cut this short, but I have agents to oversee."
"Coulson, come home. For the love of all that's holy, come home." Sitwell's voice broke. "I will take the move. What do you want? A new car? A new suit? Captain America wrapped up in ribbon on your sofa?"
Coulson's lips twitched. Someone was telling stories. Stark probably. That sounded like one of his pitches. "Tony, stop having JARVIS call me."
"Did you just accuse me of being one of the consultant's minions?" Sitwell asked.
He truly hoped that JARVIS had this conversation recorded. "Of course not. JARVIS is more like a best friend than a minion. Goodbye, Agent."
"I hate you."
There was a teapot and small powder covered cookies and dark chocolate on the kitchen table. Steve blinked at them. "No touching," Tony said. He was bent over the stove frowning at a pan. "Those are for Natashalie. You can have the cookies in the Underdog jar."
Steve followed the pointing finger to the dog in white pajamas and a cape. "I'm afraid to ask."
"J, put Underdog on the must watch list for Cap." Tony carefully poured the contents of his pan into the plastic moulds on the counter. "There. Just need to let those cool for a while. Anything you need?"
"Just a snack. I was talking with Pan. He said you'd grown up around most of the departments."
"I had the run of the place for most of my life." Tony shrugged. "Some of the oldest managers think of me as a kid. And I wasn't actually much of a manager for anyone but the geeks until after." He didn't say after what, but Steve got the impression that he meant the arc reactor. Facing mortality could do that to someone. "And Pepper's been running me and the company really for years. It'll be fifteen years soon. Wow. I should do something special. J, remind Pepper to get herself an anniversary for being insane enough to be my PA."
"Of course, sir. Shall I offer her the choice of red canvas for her straitjacket?"
"Who taught you to be this mean? It couldn't have been me."
"I couldn't say." JARVIS practically sniffed the words. "I have placed a reminder on her schedule. Miss Rushman is on the way."
Tony winced. "Thanks, JARVIS." Natasha stepped into the room. She studied the teapot.
"Start the tea and you may be forgiven. Otherwise, I'll ask Pepper for permission to spar with you."
"Apple cinnamon or pear?"
"Pear with a hint of green." She sat down. "I'm trying to figure out why Pepper hasn't killed you yet."
"My boyish charm and puppy dog eyes."
Natasha hummed at that. "You have documents to sign. Immediately. And you had better have those numbers ready for the budget meeting."
"The budget sheets should be in your email. And I even worked out the budget for art and sports with Steve and Clint."
Steve settled himself against the counter to watch the floorshow. It wasn't nearly as interesting and a Pepper and Tony session. Natasha still used full sentences with him.
Bruce looked at Tony. He was actually eating something. He was looking properly rested for once. Pepper must have enticed him to bed. "I'm going to Kenya for a week. Nat's going with me," he said. Bruce raised his brows. "Kenya?"
"Energy project. Working on solar power for the majority of the country. Or wind. Still doing the preliminary haggling with the government for permits." Tony shifted from foot to foot. "I was wondering if you wanted to come too? I mean, I'll be stuck in meetings, but I know you've been around the world and back again, so I wasn't sure if you were getting bored."
"Can't be bored in CandyLand." Bruce smiled at him. "If you want me to come keep you company, I will."
Tony shook his head. "I get twitchy enough in meetings. I wouldn't put you through that sort of hell. I spend half my time hoping that Ironman will be needed and poof, no more meeting." Bruce laughed. "You are insane. If you're sure? Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll stick to New York for now."
"Don't lock yourself up in here all the time. Take Steve to the museums or something. Seriously, catch a movie. Do something. You have the card, use it."
"I will. I won't stay in the lab the whole week."
"JARVIS, enact lab protocols for Bruce the way you do with me okay?"
"Of course, sir. Dr. Banner, at what times would you like sleep reminders?"
He and JARVIS hacked out a general set of safety parameters. His eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. When Tony's locked out of his workshop, where does he go?"
"Into Miss Potts' office, most often. Occasionally, the movie room. Or for food. Eventually, he ends up in bed. Sir's brain does not shut off, even when he is physically exhausted."
"I need to wean him off of coffee." Bruce made a note. "And talk to Pepper about getting him back into martial arts with someone other than Natalie or Clint."
"Hey, I'm still here." Tony crossed his arms over his chest and pouted.
"No, you're a figment of my imagination," Bruce told him.
"I've never been a figment before. And Happy and I still train."
"Kickboxing. Yes, but you need something that is more contained and meditative. Non-competitive. When you're sparring with Natasha or Clint, you're fighting dirty, like you would in the field." Tony cocked his head to the side. "You think it'll help run down my batteries if I have to focus on my body."
"Exactly. Like when I've wrangled you into joining me and Pepper for yoga."
"When did this discussion turn into handling me and not about a thrilling trip to see a Kenyan hotel?"
Bruce shook his head. "Tony, handling you takes a village. That's why Pepper tranqed Clint and gave Natasha high heels to make them move in. She wanted more spies on her side."
"I am not sure if I should be thrilled by that or worried. I'm the one who's supposed to go supervillian in this family."
Bruce laughed. "SHIELD has a plan for that. Of course, if it's in response to something happening to Pepper, I've been reliably informed that the plan includes assisting you to take down whomever was stupid enough to hurt her."
"If Pepper gets killed, I'll destroy them. And then, I'll salt the earth where they lived." Tony's face was solemn, his dark eyes cold.
"And then, we'll talk you down. Or the Other Guy will hug you until you calm down."
"He hugs well." Tony nodded. "As long as it's after, that's fine."
She looked up. "Hi, Steve. Come in. Oh, are those the files I requested from the Art Department last week?" Her smile was predatory.
"Ah, Tony fixed the budget for Pan." He stepped warily into the office. "Why do I get the feeling that I was sent up here because they thought you wouldn't get mad at me?"
"Because you're a sweetheart and I like you very much." She gestured to a chair. "Pan knows I won't attack anyone who can make Tony do something when I ask. It used to be a competition between the managers to see who could get him to actually focus. I think the medical department considered grinding up Ritalin for his coffee. So Pan actually had this budget when Tony finished his R&D budget then?"
"I'd assume so, since he told Nat that he'd done the Art and Sports budgets when he finished his."
"Interesting. Let's see how Pan's budget differs from Tony's." Steve set the papers down on her desk. "I'll just go get you a mocha."
"Phil has trained all of you so well. Please, have a seat." He straightened as though she were a commanding officer, then sat carefully. He glanced over at Tony's desk.
"Is that the Corner of Shame?" His lips curled up. "The drafting table?"
Pepper smiled. "Yes." She scanned down the pages of numbers, putting ticks next to the differences. If they evened out, she wouldn't say anything. If they didn't, she'd ask for clarification. "When I was hired as his personal assistant, I was told that his father had always kept a small desk in the corner for Tony to retreat to when he was running around the Malibu office. While we were designing the Tower, I thought it would be a good idea to have something similar to what I've got set up in Malibu."
He looked discomforted for a moment. "Did you ever meet Howard?"
"No, he died before I started here. Well before. Tony was seventeen. I've seen his records though. Everything that SHIELD didn't steal when they raided the offices."
"SHEILD raided Howard's things?" Steve's voice was sharp.
"They stormed through before the funeral. Tony was at MIT."
The blonde ran a hand over his face. "I visited his grave."
"Tony visits his mother on mother's day. He and Howard didn't have the easiest relationship. I'm sure you've fallen into some holes around it."
"I made a few snap judgments. And sometimes, sometimes it's like Howard's sitting right there and I start to say something to him. A few pitfalls, yes." Steve's smile was bittersweet. "Don't get me wrong, Tony's swell, but I still miss my friend."
"Oh, Steve." Pepper moved out from behind her desk to give him a proper hug. She and Tony might not be the most socially adept people on the planet, but hugs were something she did well. He stiffened for a second, then melted into her embrace.
"Thanks, Pepper." He blushed as he pulled away.
"Did you know that Phil has a tattoo of your shield?" Steve's cheeks flamed red.
"No, ma'am. Please tell me you're just teasing me."
"You'll have to ask Phil. Or Clint."
He eyed her suspiciously. "I'm on to you, Miss Potts. Everyone thinks Tony's the one who runs all the pranks, but I know better."
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Capt. Rogers." She settled herself back behind the desk. "Tell Pan to come see me himself, please."
"Yes, ma'am." Steve saluted her absently. "Tony mentioned that there was a gallery opening this weekend. Did you want to go?"
"Oh! Yes. Thank you. I'll have JARVIS put it on the schedule." Pepper's smile was wide and genuine now. Steve wouldn't just be going to make her happy. He'd actually enjoy it.
Natasha stretched. Tony had finally fallen asleep. She shifted his head onto a pillow. They'd all learned that once he crashed he would sleep until there was an emergency. She kicked off her heels and tucked her feet up onto the seat. She perused the file that JARVIS had placed on her pad. She kept the anger off of her face as she read. So this was one of the people responsible for nearly killing them all with a nuclear weapon that wouldn't have closed the portal.
The WSC member had gone behind Fury to one of his moles in the agency and sent orders for the bombing. Phil would take care of the mole. He enjoyed those sorts of hunts. This one was for her alone. And they were going to be in Africa. She glanced at the sleeping Tony. He would make a good alibi, she decided. He might actually know about the file as well. He and JARVIS were practically one mind.
It would be no issue for her to slip into Dar el Salam. She had contacts in Mombasa that could get her a chartered flight with no records. No more than three days to eliminate the issue and she could be back at the hotel with Tony each night if necessary. She studied the security schematics. They were laughable. The man thought he was untouchable and that his identity was well-hidden. Fool.
Tony shifted in his sleep with a small whine. His brow was sweaty. Natasha watched the nightmare as it peaked and ran its course. Tony didn't wake. That was for the best. The flight attendant stopped next to them with a frown on her face. She was older than one would have expected – closer to fifty than thirty, but pretty and wore her uniform well. She didn't speak, but held up two sealed bottles of water. Natasha nodded. She set one in the holder next to Tony's hand. He'd find it when he woke. The woman hovered for a moment, looking distressed. Natasha stood and motioned her to the back of the plane. "He will be fine," she said.
"It's just, I've been working on this plane for a long time. And there used to be strippers and wild parties. He's just gotten quieter and quieter. I'm worried about him."
"You preferred the stripper poles?"
"Not preferred exactly, but." She shifted uneasily. "He was like a little brother who never grew up. Peter Pan with more drinks and computer programs spinning around him. Miss Potts showed up and he couldn't scare her away, so there were quiet times on the plane too. And then, he scared us. And when he came back, he was like a shadow. And Obadiah tried to tell us he was insane. Well who wouldn't be? I was on the flight home. He'll take things from me, so they called me in. It was horrible, Miss Rushman." The woman's hands clenched together. "You and Pepper are taking care of him though, right?"
"We are doing what we can. And if anyone hurts him like that again, we'll make sure they pay for it."
"You were there," she said quietly. "When he flew that missile into the hole? Pepper cried on my shoulder when she realized that she'd missed his call."
"I was. We heard." And it had kicked her in the gut that the call hadn't gone through. Love might be for children, but she had never accused Stark of being an adult. She held the woman's hands in her own.
"I don't think he knows how much we've always cared about him. I've been with Stark Industries for twenty-five years. All of them flying on his plane. Even at his most wild, Tony never hurt anyone but himself. And maybe we've made the mistake of treating him like a teenager, but you won't find many people at SI who don't like him or love him just a little bit. We got rid of all of them when he stopped building weapons." She tipped her chin up. "All he ever wanted to do was build his robots and make pretty girls smile at him."
"And you had a crush."
"Have," she corrected. "Just let me know if you need anything, Miss Rushman. Anything at all." Her eyes were bright and clear. Her lips curled up. "I suddenly realized that Miss Potts might not have told you everything about this plane. It's hardened against EMP, of course. And has pull out beds. But it also has an armory and all of us are trained to use the weapons. Your fingers tell me that you've handled weapons on a regular basis. I'll show you where it is, but opening it will depend on whatever accesses Miss Potts and Mr. Stark have given you."
"What is your name?"
"I think we will be friends, Miranda. Do you practice at the range in New York?"
"I practice at whatever Stark range is available."
"We'll have to shoot together."
Nick Fury let himself smirk at the Hello Kitty eye patch. It was good quality leather and freaked out his underlings. He tucked it into the drawer with the rest of the trinkets he'd acquired through pranks over the years. Perhaps he'd give the eye patch to his niece if she decided to be a pirate this year. A glittering cube of a puzzle that the elder Stark had left on his desk caught his eyes. He pulled it out and set it to the side of his desk. He could use it to distract visitors, or to remind them that he had other things to do. It looked impressively complex, but likely had a simple solution. He'd never bothered to try it.
Two of his agents were being slowly tangled in a Stark-web. He leaned back in his chair and considered the reports that Sitwell had for him. Disappearances were normal for Hawkeye. He flitted in and out of the mew that Coulson had set up for him. His eye narrowed. Of course, he'd put money on Hawkeye looking for his handler. Perhaps a little passive surveillance of Coulson to make sure that he was well taken care of before flitting back to New York. Black Widow, on the other hand, had been formally requested as security for Stark's meeting with the Kenyan government. He'd okayed the mission simply to keep her out of the helicarrier for a few days.
Rumor had it that Stark had ghosted Coulson away for a few hours over lunch before he'd left on his new assignment. That could be good or bad. They could simply have been discussing Lola or Coulson's pacemaker. On the other hand, at least one of the WSC faces had changed recently. Someone new in power was always a tricky proposition. Nick didn't have information on this one. Not yet at least. Stark had hacked in at least four times this week, which meant he was feeling paranoid as well. The amount of time Stark spent in the SHEILD databases was always a good indicator of his state of mind.
Rogers was spending all of his time in the Stark Industries Art Department when he wasn't actively out after a criminal or pounding out his frustrations in the gym. Nick didn't frown at that. Rogers remained in fighting shape and SHIELD didn't have to pay for his gym equipment anymore. Banner hadn't been seen on SHIELD property since Stark had given him a lab.
Damn it, Stark was collecting the Avengers and there was no real way to stop him.
He saluted the absent man with his coffee. His secretary notified him of the next emergency.
Steve looked at the file in front of him. He frowned. "Am I reading this properly, Sitwell?"
Sitwell shifted in his seat. "That Tony Stark has never been made a full Avenger? Yes."
"I knew that. He whines about it on a regular basis. This list of projects that are currently open for his consultation. He doesn't have time for all of this."
The SHEILD agent sighed heavily. "The important ones are on the top. He just keeps the list for when he gets bored with doing things that don't go boom. When did this turn into a discussion about Stark? This was about your adjustment period and the new contract."
Steve snorted. "I am not signing on with SHEILD. I am perfectly content with the arrangement as it stands."
"But think of all the good you could do as an agent as opposed to a superhero."
"I get called out twice a month for things that fell out of Azimov stories. I don't have the knowledge of the current century to go undercover. I've had three people ask me if I were formerly Amish. And from their perspective, they're not wrong. No, I am not going to become a SHIELD agent. Ask me again next year or the year after that."
"How much did you bet Coulson that you could win me over?"
Steve laughed at him. "Never bet against our agent."
The other man bristled at that. "I keep asking him to come back, but he won't."
"Did you want some cookies?" Steve waved at the counter. "There's too many for me to eat alone and most of the team is scattered right now."
"In the dog container."
Sitwell helped himself to two cookies. He slumped down at the table. "I was looking at the super-villainy plan for Stark. Do you really think that you can contain him with that?"
"It's a very good plan. And everyone is confident that it will work out for the best. Have you met Pepper yet? She's the reason for sub-plan P."
"Miss Potts? Not officially."
"JARVIS, could you put Sitwell on to Miss Potts' schedule."
"Of course, Captain Rogers." JARVIS was using his most computer-like voice. He didn't trust Sitwell yet. That was fair, neither did any of the team. Coulson might. Then again, Steve was never sure where Coulson lay on issues like that.
"Tell me Stark isn't inventing Skynet."
"Stark isn't inventing Skynet," Steve replied with as earnestly as he could.
"I don't believe you. Oh God. He's going to make us all bow down in front of his robots."
Steve made a note to ask Clint for pointers on pretending to be a robot.
"Now, I think you gentlemen are hiding something from me, and I really don't like secrets. Spit it out," Tony snapped at the latest government flunky from the Kenyan president.
The flunky shuffled papers at him, eyes darting around the room.
"Do you need me to translate that into another language? I'm pretty good at that." He paused for a moment. "Sasa, nadhani mabwana ni mafichoni kitu kutoka kwangu, na mimi kwa kweli si kama siri. Kuitema." All of the eyes in the room were on him now and a few were sweating. They'd never considered that he might have been able to understand their side conversations. He was just an American businessman who liked women and drinking after all. Swahili had come in handy more than once over the years and it wasn't nearly as hard-learned as the Arabic. Heck, he was one of the few people that Black Panther would deal with for land rights now. He thought fondly of Deilia, the woman who'd been his language tutor. His father had kept him occupied with anything that might come in handy as he got older. Some languages he could only handle niceties in, but there were a few that he'd maintained actually fluency in.
Flunky actually winced. "My apologies, Mr. Stark, there has been an emergency and the president will not be able to meet with you at this time."
"Then, how about the Minister of the Interior? I could have sworn that's who I was supposed to be meeting in the first place."
"The Minister is indisposed." Flunky licked his lips. "I have some information though?" He offered his folders. "The Minister thought you would need these figures."
Tony's eyes narrowed. "Should I be worried about two senior officials being indisposed? Do they need help?"
"Mr. Stark," one of the bodyguards on the door said, "the assistance of Iron Man is not required. Thank you. This is merely an internal matter."
Tony's quick glance took in all the information on the man. He nodded once sharply. "Let me know if that changes. See, I like him. Show me your numbers." He gestured the flunky to sit next to him. He wasn't taking anything from the man's hands. It wasn't paranoia. It was just good sense. He'd been poisoned, captured, cut, and otherwise hurt by taking things from other people. No, especially not with Natasha off on the little task he and Pepper had set for her. One more WSC idiot down. It was time to consider whether they could get a puppet in or completely dismantle the thing. JARVIS was in their systems now.
They'd foolishly connected to SHIELD to contact their little moles.
Coulson glared at the agent in front of him. "And why did you think this was acceptable?"
"I didn't do it, sir, I swear!" The agent was new.
Codename Wetnap if Phil got his way. His partner Codename Mouse, was already suffering through his third rewrite of his report. "You didn't paint yourself and your partner blue."
"No, I didn't!"
"You didn't fall asleep during a routine stakeout and wake up blue?"
"I did wake up blue." He stuttered to a stop. "Oh God. Is this punishment for falling asleep? Do you have some sort of thing in the cars?"
Phil let the very edges of his lips twitch up. Agent Wetnap nearly hyper-ventilated. "I expect your report to be properly filed before you go to the showers and wash that off."
Wetnap nearly stumbled over a chair to get away.
A text lit up his phone. "Inspired, Agent."
"Thank you, JARVIS." It should worry him that JARVIS was monitoring his office, but he'd gotten used to Stark's protective instincts since he'd become friends with Pepper. Stark had made a point to threaten him with exposure and financial ruin if he harmed Pepper in any way. It was actually a threat he could carry out as opposed to a physical contest. JARVIS's attention was more like having a friend to whisper snarky comments into your ear as you watched the people in your office.
"I have sent you a file to examine on your personal time. The usual encryption."
Phil nodded, knowing that the cameras would follow the motion.
Pepper leaned back in her chair and put her feet up. She didn't normally wear a pantsuit anymore, but today she'd decided that she just couldn't stand the feel of nylons. New York wasn't as forgiving a climate as California. She studied the sharp toes of her heels. Tony and Natasha were in Kenya and by all reports making progress. Tony wasn't even texting her every hour.
Bruce was settled in his labs and now actually working with a collaborator from Medical R&D. Haverly had poked her head in to thank Pepper for whatever she'd done to convince him to talk to people. The entire department was now desperate to communicate with him. They were being gentle though, simply inviting him to coffee breaks and team yoga sessions.
Clint was having a ball in Sports. They loved him and he was helping push the products further than anyone had hoped. His endorsement of certain archery equipment was a boon. She'd have him start doing exhibitions or videos for promotion soon. He was a showman at heart and Stark Industries practically owned SHIELD right now. She smirked. Vicious lawyers were always a must.
Phil was the only person she and Tony hadn't convinced to work for them in any capacity. Oh, he was still officially the liaison between SI and SHIELD, but they hadn't actually seen him in over a month. She frowned. JARVIS was watching over him. Jane Foster was next on her list. The employment contract was already on its way. That way, when Thor came home, she'd be waiting for him. Betty Ross would be coming too, if Pepper could get her father out of the way.
Steve was Pan's favorite minion to send up with files and final products. He seemed to be enjoying his new role as artist. It was nicely behind the scenes. Oh, the opening was tonight. She checked her schedule with a flick of her eyes. The Extremis was the deepest connection with tech she'd ever had. Tony's robots had fawned over her for hours with the sweetness of kittens while Tony and Bruce had fixed the Extemis and then the bots. She understood Tony's devotion to his children. Their children, she supposed, as she thought of the tower and JARVIS. She'd been there as JARVIS took his first faltering steps into learning. She felt his smug press against her ping and smiled at his camera.
"MayLynn, I need to get ready for the gallery opening tonight. Route anything necessary to my cell, please," she told her assistant. A little part of her mind was jumping up and down at actually having her own assistant now. "And send a reminder to Mr. Rogers that the opening is tonight and he should pick up his suit from the penthouse. It was delivered this morning."
"Yes, Miss Potts. Will that be all?"
"Yes. Thank you, MayLynn." Pepper stepped into the private elevator, eyes on her StarkPad. "Hello, Clint. Heading up for an ice cream break?"
"It's Super Nanny time. If I don't watch it, Phil will send me passive-aggressive text messages about how disappointed he is in me."
She smiled at him. "That's so sweet."
"What did I just say? No, it's not sweet. It's manipulative and terrifying. You've never been on the other side of the Phil stare."
"Of course not. I'm the good child."
Clint stopped off at his floor. He looked back at her. "Are you going super-villain on us while Tony's out of town?"
"No, if I go super-villain, I'll want all of you here to take out at once. And Tony will build me the weapon to do it."
He shuddered. "I just had a vision of what that would be like. I offer my services as a minion, should it be necessary."
"We like you, you may live."
"Perhaps," JARVIS intoned. Clint jumped. The elevator doors closed. "Your new dress has arrived."
"Thank you, JARVIS." She strode into the penthouse. "And the shoes?"
"Were incorrect, I took the liberty of replacing them with a similar pair from the local boutique."
"What would I do without you, J?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Miss Potts." He sniffed.
Christine Glover had been covering the New York City art scene for years. She knew everyone there as well as the important buyers. If she didn't know someone, they were either a new artist, or useless. She had been the person to cover the Stark donation to the Boy Scouts. Now, there was Pepper Potts looking at the newest, shiniest, art on the walls as though she were starting up a new collection. Christine slipped through the crowd to stand next to her. She was delicately blocked by a very handsome man in a dark, hand-tailored suit.
She studied him. He was a very wholesome looking man. He managed to pull off the retro style of the suit with no effort. His smile was sweet, but his eyes were scanning the crowd with as much automatic aplomb as Pepper's usual bodyguard. "Here's your champagne. You like this one?" Retro-boy was obviously not impressed.
"The colors are nice."
"Looks like something that Phil's niece created. Have you seen the one around the corner? Similar colors, better balance."
"Oh?" Potts raised her brows. She turned and the A-line skirt swirled around her knees in a flash of red and gold. Her shoes were a glittery blue that matched the stones around her neck and throat. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. Christine blinked. IronMan colors, of course. Christine stepped closer, only to be cut off again.
"Miss Potts," she said finally.
"Hello, Ms. Glover." Potts' voice was neutral.
"Can I talk to you for awhile?"
"Of course." There was the smile Christine recognized. "Steve, this is Christine Glover, the Times art lead reporter."
"Ma'am," Steve said. Damn, what a shiny smile he had. Her brain clicked into gear.
"Steve Rogers?" she squeaked. She cleared her throat. Steve offered her a glass of sparkling wine. "Thank you." She sipped it to regain her composure. Potts' lips were twitching. Evil woman.
"A pleasure to meet you." Steve offered a PR class smile. He offered his arm to her and Potts and escorted them to the silver and green art around the corner.
Pepper leaned forward to study the paint technique. "The balance is better, but it just doesn't speak as much."
Steve considered that. "It doesn't yell, it whispers." He quirked a grin at her. "You're too used to someone who fights for attention."
"Perhaps. Maybe it's the colors."
Steve's eyes narrowed. "Am I about to be treated to your version of House pride?"
"Shut up, Hufflepuff." They shared a smile of friendship and shared jokes.
Christine smiled to see it. "Have you finally decided to send Mr. Stark to his room for these events?"
"Tony hates these events. Well, except for all the women in short skirts." Potts' gave her a wicked grin.
"Steve on the other hand actually can discuss art."
"And he doubles as a very able bodyguard."
"I cannot tell you how pleased my driver is to hear that." Potts smirked at her. "He did get you home in a reasonable amount of time."
"And I got a strong lecture on never trying to match Tony for drinks. I have learned my lesson."
"I have video. It was the best interview about art I've ever seen him give."
"Are you getting back into art buying?"
"Well, there is a lot of open space in the Tower." Potts led them away to a tiny piece in blue. Both she and Steve seemed taken with it. "And I have always loved art." She seemed wistful. "And if I put it under Stark Industries it will be safe." She considered that for a long moment. She glanced at Steve. He nodded.
"If you'll excuse me for a moment, ladies?"
They smiled at him and he slipped away to talk to the organizer.
"So this one is a definite?"
"It's like the arc reactor. Dynamic and beautiful and the most amazing shade of luminous blue."
"Can I quote that?"
"I'd be disappointed if you didn't. Are you enjoying the evening, Christine? Half of the people I was expecting to see aren't here."
"They're busy running around like chickens and worrying about the insurance on their collections. 'Does the attack count as an Act of God?' Is the big question."
"I saw your op-ed on that. It was insightful. And our legal team is having a field day with the options. Stark Industries is self-insured after all, but our sub-contractors aren't. And they're sorting out the insurance for the Maria Stark Foundation properties that were affected."
"So is Stark Industries getting back into art collecting, is it Mr. Stark, or is it you?"
"Stark Industries yes. And I've never stopped collecting. Tony will like whatever I buy for him."
The "or else" was implied and Christine smirked. "On a more prurient thought, my girlfriend wants to know if Black Widow is single?"
"I am honestly not sure. Sometimes I think she's in a relationship, but then she'll imply that it's more sibling-like. I do know that she's not currently looking for anyone." Potts gave her a sympathetic smile.
"And yes, she really is that pretty. And I'll give you the name of her bra company."
"Oh, thank God. I thought I'd have to beg for that."
"That could be arranged." Steve coughed into his hand. Potts looked over her shoulder. His cheeks were red. "The boys were right. You are adorable when you're blushing. Don't let the old-fashioned look fool you, Christine, he's as much of a teenage boy as the rest of the men out there."
Christine held up her flute to salute that. They clinked glasses. "Welcome back to the art scene, Miss Potts. We've missed you."
"I'll be sure to stir up a scandal just for you."
"I look forward to it. And to seeing more of Captain Cutie there. The only man I'd go straight for."
"Hello, Miss Potts," Sitwell took her offered hand. Her handshake was firm and her smile was pleasant.
"Please have a seat, Agent Sitwell." She sat behind her desk. It was sleek and modern. A small spinning model of the IronMan suit twirled in the right corner next to a snake handled letter opener on a stand. It looked like something someone had brought her from India. There was no laptop or monitor on the desk and it seemed wrong. She sat behind her desk in a perfect cream suit with a warm yellow shirt that brought out her hair. She wasn't a beautiful woman compared to Black Widow, but she was pretty in a more approachable way. He didn't feel the need to have a gun in one hand when he got near her. "Now, Steve didn't say what you wanted?"
"He thought I should meet you because of your involvement with Mr. Stark and the rest of the team. Not to mention the wonderful chocolate chip cookies."
She laughed at that. "The cookies are good aren't they? They're Tony's mother's recipe. He keeps them in stock for early morning rambles."
"I enjoyed them. Is he the baker then? I thought it was Dr. Banner?"
"Bruce cooks. Tony bakes. Never ask Tony to make you dinner. It will only end in heartburn. He tries, but no. Just no." Miss Potts shook her head. She wore no visible makeup and no jewelry. It was startling to notice. "You're holding down the fort for Phil. How's that going?"
"They hate me," he said bluntly. She might understand. "They barely get their paperwork done and half the time I'm being pranked by Clint or Tony. I keep begging, but Phil won't come back."
"He'll be back when he finishes this rotation. He's still the official liaison and I won't have it any other way. He's been invaluable over the years. The team has warmed up to you. They wouldn't prank you if they didn't like you at all. They'd just be professional."
Sitwell considered. "So, how do I make them hate me?"
She laughed out loud at that. "Oh, Agent Sitwell." She shook her head. "If they've accepted you, it's too late. Now, what did Steve think you needed to know? I don't mean to rush you, but the data is coming in on our African expansion projects and I need to get them processed before Tony gets it into his head that he can make unilateral decisions again."
"I would like to take you for coffee, if it's not too much trouble. To get to know you as a person. Your record with Stark Industries is well-known. And your ability to handle Stark himself is legendary." Sitwell gave her his best harmless smile.
Her eyes narrowed. "I know about subplan P," she informed him. "I'm behind the project one-hundred percent. And if subplan P2 becomes necessary? You damn well better let Tony avenge me before you stop him. Just," she bit her lip. "Don't let him self-destruct if P2 comes to pass. And don't let him build a replica of me because he would. He'd try to bend the world to his will and make me come back and I don't want him to be destroyed when it doesn't work." Her eyes were clear, bright. They caught his with an unbreakable gaze. "And if you lose him, if he spirals out? Make sure it's quick, please."
Sitwell's heart clenched. The love in her eyes was almost painful to witness. She was asking him to promise to kill her lover cleanly if he went bad. "I will," he whispered. "But first, I'll do my best to save him. Believe in that, Miss Potts. I will fight for this team." He lifted his chin.
Her smile was blinding. "Good for you, Agent Sitwell. You've exceeded everyone's expectations for not shooting one of them already. Oh, and Tony's not building Skynet."
He believed her. "Skynet's too small isn't it?"
"No comment, Agent Sitwell." She offered her hand and escorted him out with that simple gesture. He was sure he heard laughter as he left her office suite.
"Hawkeye, report," Agent Milktoast said. Clint couldn't be bothered to remember anything but the man's codename.
"Targets acquired. Waiting for Salamander to get into position."
Salamander was slightly promising in comparison to the rest of the children on this milk run. It was insulting. A pang of guilt twinged in his chest where the staff had come to rest. They were all children because so many of the good agents had been killed or injured during the incursion on the helicarrier. The survivors didn't trust him enough to go on ops with him and SHIELD didn't want to increase the body-count. Maybe in another six months. The ones that had been subverted had all gone down fighting. Fourteen of them had been shot because no one could manage to get a strong enough hit to their heads to "recalibrate" them. He grimaced as he stared down the barrel of his gun. It had taken several sessions with a therapist and even more drinking sessions with Stark to batter the guilt down to a reasonable level. He bit his tongue on the comments that wanted to bubble up as he watched two of the rookies chatter over a shared cup of fries from the food truck that was stationed across from the target's residence.
Salamander was lithe like Natasha, and had trained in Cirque before getting recruited by SHIELD. She twisted her body into a corner and set up a recording device. She gave him a thumbs up. "I have a go from Salamander."
"Go," Milktoast said.
The dart impacted the side of the target's neck and disintegrated as designed. The target slapped his hand over the sharp pain. He frowned, finding nothing. He looked over his shoulder and saw nothing. He returned to his talk with the man who ran the West Coast crime scene. Clint watched his lips, he was discussing his mistress' hips right now. Hawkeye did not need to know that.
"Hawkeye, maintain watch on Salamander." Clint packed away the weapon and flicked his preferred bow out instead. Frick and Frack the rookies stumbled into the body guard in front of the building. Frick, the petite blonde offered a sweet smile. Frack turned red and muttered into her French fries. The guard looked them up and down, then winked. That had better be an act or he'd have to set Natasha on them. Salamander sneered down at them from her vantage point. She glanced back at the target and her mouth formed a horrified O.
He peered at the man's mouth. He was discussing his prostitution business. Boring. Really? Salamander was horrified by that? There were people in Stark's office with dirtier mouths and dirtier pasts. And they were all civilians. Frick and Frack had moved passed the guard now. They were circling around the building. "No visual contact on the Bobbsey Twins."
"Hawkeye," Milktoast started. He sighed. "Acknowledged. I have the twins in view."
Surveillance was boring. Tony and Pepper had the decency to use his talents the way they should be. He was a sniper, not a former Feeb with a cast iron bladder and a face that blended into the background. Part of his brain wondered idly if Natasha was having fun in Kenya or if she'd come home cranky.
"Mr. Stark," Natasha said carefully. She presented a pad. "Just sign this."
Tony looked at her with bright eyes and an almost manic smile. She couldn't smell liquor on him which meant he got into something artificial again. He signed the papers with a quick glance. He'd read every word in that time, but she wasn't positive he'd actually registered them. "Did you meet Sammy yet? He's the one who built the windmill model we're going to be using in the wind-farm. Local design and local supplies."
"Yes, sir." She gave the local a quick, cold smile. "Mr. Stark, you have a conference call in two hours. Will that be enough time to finalize the blueprints?"
"Sam's numbers are good. I want to steal him. Make that happen."
Sam was an older man. He had the semi-fond smile that most people got when they were humoring Tony. "I already contract to Stark Industries."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Yes, yes, but I want you to be permanently part of SI. Pepper, sorry, Natasha?"
"You'll have to ask Miss Potts."
Sam laughed into his fist. "I remember Miss Potts. You'd better ask her first."
He gave them both a put-upon sigh before pulling out his phone. He typed quickly. "There. As soon as I get confirmation, I want to have paperwork available for Sam to look at. Let's finish the numbers on those supply needs. And do you think the grid can handle the influx or do we need to upgrade that too?"
Pepper glanced at the text. She sent back a quick agreement before she went back to reviewing the report that Steve had just dropped by for her. She frowned. "Steve, are you sure about this?"
He sighed. "I wish I weren't."
"Damn it, I warned them."
Steve shook his head. "Fury himself doesn't know about all of these. People at headquarters never stop me when I go looking into the archive."
She raised her brows for more information.
"I've got to learn my history somewhere right? And Peggy's file is in there. I used to take it out every other day when I was actually there, so the archivists don't pay attention anymore. JARVIS tells me that they aren't on any of the servers he can access."
She tapped her fingers on the desk. "There are cameras everywhere in SHIELD."
"And JARVIS has control of the helicarrier."
"True." She smiled. "And you haven't talked to Fury about these? Or Sitwell?"
He rubbed the back of his head. "To be honest, Pepper, I don't trust them nearly as much as I trust SI. Tony isn't a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination, but he's put his money where his mouth is. Can we help them?"
"Yes, we can. First, I have an assignment for you. Jane Foster doesn't want to join SI and I can't exactly talk about Thor's suite over the phone lines. She doesn't have the clearance yet."
Steve's brows rose. "To know what happens in a civilian company space?"
"We still work for the government. And we are still a secure site." Pepper frowned. "It's one of the unwritten rules that we follow the government's lead on clearances. All SHIELD activities and contracts are covered by the highest levels of clearance. Your clearance has been grandfathered in. Dr. Banner has restricted access to certain areas. Clint and Natasha have limits to what they have access to as well. Dr. Foster and her assistant do not have active clearance to know of the majority of our activities yet. Not even that we're ready to host her boyfriend. Rhodey has higher clearance than anyone else of his rank simply because of his association with Tony." She cocked her head to the side. "I want you to talk to Jane. Just be yourself. She'll be expecting you. Tell her that you fought beside Thor. Tell her everything that you can, but do it in a private space and have JARVIS use your phone to jam any signals in the room."
"He can do that?"
"It's an app on your StarkPhone." She smiled. "One of the apps you can only get if you work for SHIELD." It was also a back door for JARVIS, but what Phil decided not to tell SHIELD didn't bother her. Every SHIELD agent worth their salt had it installed on their phone. And they all carried SHIELD-issued StarkPhones now.
"And I get it because?"
"Of the Avengers Initiative. Technically, you're now a SHIELD contractor."
"Not a consultant like Tony?" He laughed. His eyes twinkled and he looked actually happy for a moment. "When do I leave on my goodwill tour for SI?"
"Well, when you put it like that, I do have a few other places that you could visit. On behalf of the Avengers. PR has been instructed to refuse or delay any and all requests for your presence until after the majority of the New York clean-up." She leaned forward.
"I'll talk to the PR office." He grimaced. "I don't mind doing it for a good cause, but I really prefer being hands on."
"Don't worry, we'll work out a fine balance. I'll have MayLynn get you the details."
"And it's almost dinner, Pepper. Bruce is cooking."
She considered that. "JARVIS, what does my schedule look like?"
"Captain Rogers was your last appointment for the day." He sounded smug. She narrowed her eyes and accessed her calendar herself. "Did you just cancel on someone to make sure I had dinner?"
"I did learn from the best, Miss Potts."
Steve smothered his laugh with his hand.
Clint collapsed backwards onto Phil's bed. He cycled through the stations on the television. Hopefully, Phil would actually be home at some point. He missed the man. He idly settled on some horrible Syfy original movie. "Would you prefer something from the catalog, Clint?" JARVIS asked.
"Nah. Thanks. So where is everyone? Place is deserted."
"Mr. Stark and Agent Romanova are still in Africa. Miss Potts is currently in Malibu. Mr. Rogers is in Arizona. Dr. Banner is in his lab. Agent Coulson is in his office dressing down new recruits for today's mistakes. Director Fury is currently in the shower."
"Okay, enough. Too much information on Fury."
"Was there any one else you were interested in tracking?"
Clint considered. It was JARVIS. "How's Dr. Foster?"
"Dr. Foster is currently in Arizona with Mr. Rogers. Miss Lewis is currently handling the negotiations for her."
Clint laughed. He threw a thumbs up at the ceiling. "I'm just going to veg out for awhile. Call me when the pizza gets here okay?"
"Of course, Clint."
"Dr. Foster, I'm Steve." He offered his hand.
The scientist's eyes narrowed at him. She shook his hand. "I've told SHIELD to shove it."
"I'm not here as a representative of SHIELD." He looked down at his phone and activated the jammer the way Pepper had shown him. The icon lit up the way it was supposed to.
"You are now protected," JARVIS' voice informed him.
"I'm here as a representative of Stark Industries," Steve said.
Dr. Foster's eyes widened. "I've turned down Stark four times."
"And you shouldn't. You really shouldn't. I brought some paperwork with me. I think you'll find the terms more than generous." He cleared his throat. "I don't normally handle recruitment, but Ms. Potts thought you'd listen to me before someone else." He handed her a file folder. "And usually Ms. Potts wouldn't send paper, but she wanted you to actually look at it, not delete it."
"And why exactly did she think I'd listen to Captain America?" She started flipping through the papers.
"Because I can answer your questions. I'm not bound by any non-disclosure agreements."
Her head snapped up. "Thor?"
He smiled. "Is not currently on Earth. However, he does have an apartment. There's an apartment set aside for you and one for your assistant who Agent Barton assures me will be coming with you."
"She is a little over-protective. I'll review this and talk with you later this evening."
"Dr. Foster, currently, I have an application running that protects us from having anyone overhear us using electronic surveillance."
She stared at him for a long moment. Then, she nodded and signed on the dotted line. "I'll be expecting the Stark packing crew to be very delicate with my things. And Tony Stark is not allowed to touch any of it."
"Lucky for you, he's out of town right now." Steve took the folder back. "I'll let Ms. Potts know the good news."
"Let me get this straight," Betty grumbled. "You're telling me that I am not allowed to choose my own assignments? That I cannot quit? Where exactly in my employment contract does it say that?" She glared at the HR representative. "I am still a civilian. Am I under arrest? A slave?"
Mrs. Jenkins paled and gulped. "Your father has assured me that…"
"I am not under my father's command. I am leaving. Right now. I am going on a job interview. And if you are going to stop me, then you had better bring a security guard with a weapon." She put her purse over her shoulder and walked out of the office and toward the lobby of the building. She moved at a quick pace, eyes scanning as she did. She made it past the reception desk and was out the door, while maintaining a steady walking pace. She didn't look as though she were running.
She made it to her car and was on the way to the meeting place before the guards at the gate got the word to keep her from passing. Jenkins would have to navigate past General Ross' secretary before she was able to call down the security force. She pulled into the truck stop. Steve Rogers greeted her with a smile. He was leaning next to a sleek car. He popped the trunk and moved her bags for her. He held a hand to his lips to keep her from speaking until after he had activated an app on his phone. She sat in the passenger's seat and just took deep breaths.
"You are secure from all transmissions, however, there are three trackers in the vehicle," a British voice informed them.
Betty considered. She powered off her phone and pulled the battery. "Did that help?"
"Three active trackers noted."
She sighed. She took off her watch and dropped it out the window. It shattered on the asphalt.
"Two active trackers."
"Can you scan for them?" Steve asked the voice on the phone.
"I do not have the appropriate sensors in your vehicle," the voice said.
"Tell Tony my phone needs to be upgraded then." He grimaced at Betty. "I have things for you in the back. You'll have to removed everything and pack it back into the bag. I'll drive while you change."
She studied him for a long moment. "If you weren't you..." She shook her head, then crawled into the back seat.
Pepper closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. //Miss Potts?// JARVIS enquired through the Extremis interface.
//I'm fine,// she reassured him. //I'm going down to the workshop for a few minutes.//
//Dummy and You will be most pleased to see you.// The connection retreated and all that was left was the hum of the electronics that surrounded her in the tower. She walked confidently through the familiar halls and took the direct elevator to Tony's workshop. She greeted the bots -- rubbing their arms and letting them ping against their connection. She took off her heels and padded across the room to the quiet corner couch. "Would you like music, Miss Potts?"
"Crank up the AC/DC, JARVIS." Pepper stretched out on the couch. "I'm doing a deep dive."
"Of course, Miss Potts." Music blared from the speakers. Pepper smiled and relaxed into the familiar beats. She couldn't tell anymore if it had come from spending time with Tony or her own preferences, but classic rock was now the most relaxing sound in the world. Hanging out with Natasha, Clint, and Phil had made gunfire just as familiar. She put an arm over her eyes. She dove into the Extremis interface.
Stark Technology spanned the globe. She could watch everything interact in a perfect dance – satellites and phones and a connection into almost every hall of power in the world. From here she could spy on any line, see into almost any house, touch the four corners of the world, all powered by the nano-technology that ran through her bloodstream and the arc reactor that boosted JARVIS' access to every phone in Stark Industries had ever created. There was only one thing she wanted to touch today though. As quickly as thought, she bounced through two satellites to buzz Tony’s phone with quick Morse code. She gave him five minutes before reaching out to his version of the nanobots.
//Pep... Pep... Pep... you have got to see this!// He spilled out a completed blueprint of the newest upgrade for Clint's arrows. Blueprints he hadn’t yet actually put into digital form.
She laughed. //Punch-arrows? Tony!//
//He'll love them.//
//True. And he did agree to be my minion when I take over the world.//
//We, Miss Potts. We.//
//Hush.// There was something sweet and perfect about this sort of joining. It wasn't telepathy. She couldn't feel his emotions or see through his eyes. Not that they had experimented with that possibility, but they could share thoughts. Tony painted in digital lines. She painted in digital fire. Somewhere between them were a thousand plans they'd never discussed, but knew intimately. //Steve brought me issues.//
//Do I need plausible deniability or do I need Spider and Cupid?//
//Yes?// she hazarded. //I am setting plans into place. I will be using Cupid's talents. I will ask you to send Spider to do things and I will not explain.//
//Do it.// She dropped an encrypted packet of information into his agenda, sealed with their private key. //Timeline, Miss Potts?//
//As much as you can while you still have cover in the area. I'm sending you to Morocco next. Your escort is sectioned to you until the end of the year.//
//Does Piratical himself know that?//
//I believe he is aware of the world situation which we are investigating and is willing to let her continue in this role. Agent is safely out of fire for now.//
//Understood.// There was a pause while Tony juggled a few things on his schedules. She monitored the changes, and reveled in the familiarity of his mind. It was so much clearer now that she could see the circuits and feel the power and know that JARVIS, Dummy, You, and Butterfingers were as real as she was, not just assume it. There were things the Avengers would never know if she could help it. They would never know that she could call her Rescue suit from beneath her skin. They would never know that she was ready to watch the world burn before she let anyone hurt what was hers again. She and Tony had assembled a family -- a half-broken, jury-rigged, clockwork, non-blood family and she would be damned if she let anything preventable hurt them. //Wish we did this more often,// Tony told her. The brush of his signature against hers made her blush. //Will that be all, Miss Potts?// he teased.
//Just be in the moment, Mr. Stark.//
His wild energy tamed itself into a more orderly presentation and rested on the connection. //JARVIS won't let us go more than an hour,// he warned her. //Bet we could do a lot in an hour.// He drew a Cheshire grin the way he normally drew out circuits on the Stark Digital Interface he'd designed to facilitate communication between them on nights like this.
//I'm sure we could.// She took over the board and drew something a little more intimate.
"Dr. Foster, I'm Pepper Potts, it's a pleasure to meet you."
Jane startled, but reached to shake the offered hand with an absent smile. "Thank you for the generous contract." Potts was neat as a pin in her dress and high heels that should have broken her ankle by now. Her hair was up in a neat twist with a few whisps dangling by the side of her face. Jane blinked. The woman was wearing miniature arc reactors in her ears -- shimmering silver with blue paua shell to replicate the blue glow.
"The R&D staff is looking forward to meeting you."
Jane shook her head. "I'm not used to working with people who are actually interested in my work."
Pepper laughed. It was a deeper sound than Jane expected. "I think you'll be surprised at the number of people Stark Industries has swept up into its net. Has anyone introduced you to Bruce yet?"
"No. I've just been setting up my lab." She whipped her head around. "Don't touch that." The man with loose curls and thin wire-rims jumped back from her sensor array and looked around himself in surprise.
"My apologies, Dr. Foster." His smile was hesitant. "I haven't gotten a chance to see your equipment before. Dr. Bruce Banner."
Jane blinked. "Oh, Dr. Banner. I used several of your gamma radiation papers while I was creating my sensor arrays." She offered her hand and was pleased when he shook it without hesitation. "Thor speaks very highly of you."
He blushed at that. He ran a hand through his hair. Poor man was more socially awkward than she was. "Thor is kind." His smile grew a little sly. "And completely smitten with you, Fair Scholar."
Jane blushed herself. Pepper's eyes crinkled at the edges, but she didn't actually smile at that. "Bruce, I'll leave Dr. Foster in your capable hands. Jane, Ms. Lewis is coming as well?"
"She's looking after our personal things. She mentioned needing to find an apartment?"
Pepper shook her head. "JARVIS, where is Ms. Lewis right now?"
"She is in her suite, Miss Potts. Should I ask her to join you in Dr. Foster's lab?" Jane did not jump. She will deny the little squeak as well.
"No, thank you, JARVIS." Pepper paused. "JARVIS, have you been introduced to Dr. Foster?"
"Dr. Foster, meet JARVIS. He will order any supplies you need and assist you in any way possible."
"Hello, JARVIS," Jane said cautiously. "Do you have microphones everywhere?"
"Stark Tower is completely wired. Rest assured that I will not impinge upon your privacy unless the sensors inform me of a medical emergency or you call my name."
That made the half-formed fears that were in her chest fade. "Thank you, Mr. Jarvis."
"I'll make sure that Dr. Forster knows how the supply ordering works," Dr. Banner offered. "And help move equipment. I'm waiting on my results to compile before sending them down to Haverty's people."
Pepper's face did light up at that. "You've found someone to work with beyond Tony? That's wonderful!"
Banner dropped his eyes with a little smile. "You were right. The R&D teams have been kind. And eager. I have been informed that I need to be there when we report to Mom and Dad." He raised his brows.
Jane glanced at Pepper. She seemed only slightly embarrassed. "You've been to the workshop." She shrugged. "I'll let you two get better acquainted. If you need anything, let JARVIS know."
"Of course. Thank you, Miss Potts."
"Pepper." The CEO stalked out of the room, already tapping on the pad that was in her arms. "That was... interesting and intimidating."
"Pepper is, well, I think she's capable of taking over the world. She was Tony's assistant for nearly ten years before he became Ironman. Some of his bad habits rubbed off on her. Let me show you around the tower. JARVIS, lock down Dr. Foster's lab while we're out please?"
"Of course, Bruce."
Bruce led her out of her surprisingly shiny and top-tier lab and into the tower. It was nearly overwhelming to have actual funding and a place to operate from.
Betty rinsed the dye out of her hair. She studied the green and purple stripes that ran through her now short cropped hair. She turned on the hairdryer while Steve opened the main door with a bag of food. "Dinner is here. It's not anything fancy, but it smelled good. The lady behind the counter told me I looked just like Steve Rogers. Imagine that?"
She laughed at him. "No idea why that could be. Did you give her the 'aw shucks' look?"
"I told her that my friend Tony teases me about being Captain America every chance he gets. It got a laugh at least."
"You are much more clever and underhanded than expected, Steve."
He smiled. "I just tell the truth. It's not my fault other people don't believe me." He studied her for a moment. "Miss Potts sent make-up, if you want it."
"I'll look at it in the morning. I get the bed near the door. None of this protecting me BS. I need to be able to get out quickly."
"I'll try not to wake you up when I get up in the morning." He gave her a sheepish grin. "I generally don't sleep much beyond four in the morning."
Betty rolled her eyes as she flipped on the hairdryer and dried her hair. It would help set the color. The thrift store towel was a goner for anything beyond further hair dye, but that was okay. She'd let it dry and pack it into her new bolt bag. The tracking devices had been in her shoes and her backpack strap. It seemed her father could learn new tricks. Steve unpacked dinner onto the nightstand. He settled onto his bed with a burger and what looked to be a brand new StarkPad. It had a Captain America shield on the back. She settled on her bed and grabbed the burger and fries. "Tell me I can get one of those with a picture of the Hulk on it."
"I'm sure you'll find one in your new room," he said drily. "Unless Bruce beat Tony down. Miss Potts has one in IronMan colors. I think the folks down in R&D have adopted the purple Hawkeye theme though."
"Those aren't commercially available yet right?"
"The themes? No, you have to work for the company to get one. Or be attached to someone who works for the company. I think there are a few running around for friends and family."
Betty smirked. "I am gaining a new appreciation for the marketing department."
"Don't be fooled. There's something like a hundred thousand employees. They don't need to sell outside of the company stores," he warned her.
"Oh, but just think about how many people are going to be clamoring for them when they see their friend has one."
Steve nodded. "The marketing flyers are still being proofed. I was working on the lettering for the Captain America ones. Ten percent of the proceeds from the themed pads is going to the Avengers Foundation to be distributed to those who are rebuilding their lives." His smile turned bitter. "It should shut up the newshounds. Freaking vultures."
"Huh." Betty settled back, thinking. "And what will Stark Industries do when the general rolls up to talk to them?"
"I believe the last time Tony blew up his favorite bar. Trying to come to the Tower though? That would be a mistake. Security is very touchy about people getting near their scientists."
She closed her eyes and bit into the perfect hamburger. "You cannot get one of these on base," she mumbled.
"Nat," Stark said. His voice was low, husky from too many long nights when he wasn't sleeping on her watch.
"Stark." She kept her voice quiet. If he were attempting to hit on her again, she was calling Pepper.
"Orders. Pep said she's sent you the details. I need you to head into town and pick me up a few things, while you’re there." The hotel room was dark, but she could see by the muffled light of the reactor hiding under a well-worn tee-shirt. She could see his eyes. She raised her brows in question. "Here's the list." He flicked his fingers and a file appeared on her Starkpad. Stark held it between them. "JARVIS is jamming the bugs right now. They'll assume we're sleeping. Pepper's file." He flicked his fingers again. She narrowed her eyes. She wasn't sure how he'd programmed the visual interface, but she was sure that JARVIS now had a camera to see through Stark's eyes. It was disturbing, but not unexpected. "If you need equipment, there's local currency." He slipped an envelope across the short distance.
Natasha studied him before she glanced through the files. She nodded once, then tucked away the cash. She was not going to ask what the larger plan was. She trusted Pepper to do the right thing. Fury had assigned her to Stark for his protection, but she was still here as his assistant. As long as his orders didn't directly contradict with SHIELD, she was content to follow his lead. He switched the jamming off. "Nat, Nat, Nat, wake up," he said with the same annoying puppy-dog voice he usually used on Pepper.
"Mr. Stark, it's two in the morning. Go to sleep."
"This is important. I need the files for the contract with the new sub for the thing."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Miyaki Inductors?"
"That’s the one. The super-conductor people for the subway upgrades."
"Are you actually calling them right now?"
"Yeah. I want to catch them before lunch."
She growled low in her throat, but located the files for him. "Do I need to cut your coffee intake again?" she asked.
"Better women have tried." He narrowed his eyes at her. "Thanks." His mind was already on the super-conductors as if he'd never played at being a handler. Coulson would be so proud of him.
"Coulson," Fury greeted. "What is Stark up to?"
"Public transportation upgrades. Strategic partnerships with multiple countries to upgrade train and rail systems. Also, I believe, water purification in developing nations." Coulson didn't look up from his computer.
"Out of the goodness of his heart?"
"Stark doesn't have a heart. He has a machine." Coulson tapped his own chest as a reminder. Fury scowled at the piece of experimental StarkMed he couldn't see, but knew was hiding in Phil's chest. It had taken fast talking and a free hand to move the Avengers Initiative into Stark Tower that had kept Stark from simply stealing Coulson away to his own medical people and guarding him like a pissy dragon.
"Because he needs to increase his strangle-hold on utilities." Fury nodded slowly. "Natasha has informed us that he's taking on energy infrastructure projects in Africa." His mind raced through the possibilities. Stark's trip was taking him through several areas of particular interest. Black Widow was free to carry out other missions under cover of her position as his assistant. He contemplated the agent in front of him. "What are you planning, Phil?"
Coulson looked up with a small frown. "To finish my paperwork before the children get back from their outing so that when I discover they've done something stupid I will just ground them as opposed to spanking them."
Fury winced. "You enjoy training new recruits."
"No, I enjoy training new recruits whom I recruited. There is a difference. Agents Wetnap, Mouse, and Hankie are not my chosen children."
"Of course not, Principal."
"They all need extensive training." Fury heard the implied "which you will pay for" in the statement. "The only positive is that they have very few bad habits to unlearn."
"I'm sure they will rise to the challenge."
"Or I'll send them to our enemies as a weapon."
"Coffee?" Fury offered.
"So much coffee, sir." He put down his StarkPad and flipped the Captain America themed cover shut. Fury hadn't seen those yet.
"Is that authorized?"
"Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Avengers Charity to rebuild areas affected by superhero battles." Coulson gave him a bland look. "They're only available to Stark Industry employees, their families, and friends."
"Tell Pepper to do a SHIELD version and dump the same amount into the rebuilding fund."
Back to the Msc. Bedroom