Hello ! I had this idea in my head for quite some time now, so here it is on paper and it turned out longer than I thought it'd be.
Anyway, have fun reading ! Oh and if some characters may seem OOC, just think of it that way: they don't know all the story and they see people hurt and they're angry, they didn't think it through. Hope it makes sense... :S
Disclaimer: I don't own the Avengers.
Fragile Is Trust
Pepper didn't know what had happened but she knew something was wrong. Very wrong. She could sense the tension in the air, she could see the glares the team directed at Tony – even Bruce. And she didn't understand why.
Tony was subdued and barely talked anymore. And this…This was so wrong. She was used to Tony always talking, being just generally loud and flamboyant. She was used to him being there and you just… you couldn't not know he was there because the instant he was in a room, you knew it and you couldn't forget it. His presence was overwhelming and he… He was so… It was just the way he was, it was him being Tony Stark.
And now… Now he didn't talk, he wasn't loud and obnoxious and arrogant and everything that made him him. When he was in a room with her, she sometimes managed to forget he was there, even if he was standing just next to her. It felt so damn wrong.
And it had started two days ago.
There had been a mission – nothing new there – and when they came back, everyone had been tense and Tony had just gone to his lab and locked himself up there. It wasn't unusual. But the problem was how he avoided everyone's gaze and just didn't look at Clint and Natasha who were both hurt. Natasha had a sprained ankle and Clint a broken wrist. The mission had turned wrong it seemed and they blamed Tony.
She hated it. She was caught in the middle and she didn't even know why.
But she knew Tony. He would feel the guilt and the blame they put on him, believe it truly was his fault and that would make him be even more reckless than he usually is. And then the guilt he felt would grow and make his low self-esteem lower and he would drink more to try and forget it. That would lead him to saying things he would regret later to the team with his words so short but sharp and meaningful because he was good with them. And they would start hating him and that would make him hate himself for the pain he caused them and he would push everyone away so much that they would truly end up hating him and then… The team would be broken and Tony would be the one that's the most hurt out of them all.
And she had to prevent this now while she still could.
She needed to know what happened.
That's why she decided to catch the team (minus Tony) while they were doing a movie night. She entered the room, the sound of her high heels clicking on the floor overpowering the sound of the TV thanks to Jarvis turning it down. They frowned and turned to her, wondering what she wanted – or probably thinking Tony had sent her. She stopped in front of the TV, facing them, standing tall, her arms crossed, blue eyes slightly narrowed. She wouldn't let them get away without giving her answers.
"Tony sent you? Couldn't come to us himself? He's such a co…"
Pepper cut Steve before he could finish that word. "What happened during that mission?"
Her eyes immediately caught the way Steve and Thor tense, the raised eyebrow Natasha sent her, how Bruce kept his eyes on his hands that he clenched on his lap and finally the snort Clint let out. "Like you don't know."
She raised an eyebrow. "I don't actually but I live in this tower as well and I'm not blind. You're mad at Tony for some reason and it has something to do with the mission from two days ago. I think I have the right to know why."
"Why don't you ask your boyfriend?" Clint spat the last word with so much venom that she suddenly wondered if maybe she was too late. What if the team was broken beyond repair already? God, what happened on that mission?
"I'm asking you," she replied coolly, using that no non-sense business voice she perfected during the years she spent dealing with people who were trying to intimidate her into doing what they wanted her to do.
"Fine, you want to know, then we're going to tell you," snapped Steve. Her eyes flew to him, not betraying anything, but she was surprised at the vehemence of the Captain, being used to his gentleness and shyness when he would address her. "Tony disobeyed direct orders."
"Am I supposed to be surprised?" If they only learned now that Tony wasn't one to obey orders he thought wrong, then they had no right to get mad at him.
"He flew in an unstable building on which Clint was. The building collapsed while he was on it."
"Bruises everywhere, a bruised rib, a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist. Thank you very much Tony," Clint said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Pepper frowned. There was something…
"And then he disobeyed again by going to 'help' Natasha," Steve continued.
"I had everything under control and was about to do something that needed all my concentration. He arrived and distracted me which resulted in me falling and twisting my ankle," the redhead explained, voice cold and face emotionless. "I didn't need his help."
"His actions could have lead to something far worse and we can't afford to let him do everything he wants without him being aware of the consequences," Steve finished, crossing his arms and straightening his back. Ever the leader.
But Pepper knew better. There was something there that didn't add up with Tony. She knew the man, better than any of them. He would never have done something that would hurt any of them. She nodded and thanked them, voice clipped and firm, before turning on her heels and marching out of the room. She could feel their eyes on her back while the TV turned back on.
She headed straight to Tony's private workshop where she knew he was. "Jarvis?"
"Yes, Miss Potts?"
"What's his mood?" She asked watching him through the glass doors. He was at his desk, tinkering with something she couldn't see. Screens displayed information around him and she vaguely recognized the holograms of a Starkpad and Starkphone. She could see the way he was hunched over himself, his shoulder blades tense. She saw the half-dozen of cups of coffee, probably empty, on the desk. His hair was ruffled, standing up on the edges – he must have run his hand through it several times. She couldn't see his face but she knew he would be a little pale, with dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, his beard would be a bit unkempt, his cheeks hollow. She doubted he ate anything in the last two days – except for Dummy's smoothies (sometimes she thanked the God for that robot because he was the only one that managed to keep Tony alive with his smoothies and coffees.).
"He is… tired and has swinging moods, Miss Potts. Right now, he is on a… I would say disgruntled mood." Jarvis answered, his voice filled with worry. She smiled slightly at that thought, knowing Tony would deny Jarvis having the ability to feel anything.
"Thank you Jarvis." She put on her code and entered the shop.
Tony didn't look up despite the fact that the absence of music made it impossible for him not to know she was there – and he knew for sure it was her because she was the only one who could access that lab without his authorization. She walked to him and stopped when she was standing beside him. She looked down at his work and saw he was tinkering with a pad.
"I'm working on updating the Stark pad and phone. I sign all the papers and corrected some when I didn't agree with some points." He gestured at the stack of papers on the desk behind him.
"I'm not here for that, Tony." He sighed and put his screwdriver down. He looked up at her, putting his hands down on his lap, turning his wheeling chair so that he would face her. "What happened?"
He closed his eyes and his shoulders fell a little. His defeated posture accented the almost sick appearance he had. Her heart clenched for him because she knew he would get hurt and she couldn't do anything to stop that. "I… I hurt them. They're right to blame me, they could have died because of me."
She looked behind her and grabbed the chair that was there. She sat on it and took Tony's hands. His eyes drifted to their linked hands and he sighed. She hated seeing him like this. "Tony, did you know they didn't need your help?" He looked up at her and frowned. "I know you. You would never have done something that could hurt them willingly. There was something wrong, right?" She pressed further, squeezing his hands.
He half-smiled. "Why can't they see that? My ear-piece broke when one of those robots hit me on the head. I tried to get Jarvis to maintain the communication but in the middle of the fight I couldn't… I didn't know because I didn't hear it."
And somehow that made it all worst. Because this was a matter of trust. They shouldn't have had to ask why Tony disobeyed (they didn't even ask but that's beside the point), they should have known Tony wouldn't have done that without a reason. They should have known he wouldn't have done anything that would have hurt any of them. They should have known better, like she did. They should have trusted him.
Because this? This may have destroyed the trust Tony had put in them. He had opened his home, his heart to them. He didn't have to. But he did despite the fact that it was against his very being, against everything he learned since an early age. He had his heart ripped out of his chest once and yet he willingly allowed them into his home and they became his friends.
And now everything was shattered by this single and simple mission.
He shook his head and turned back to his work, his hands slipping out of hers. She knew she was losing him just there, he was closing himself off and she hated it so much and it was their fault. Tony wasn't to blame here, they were, because it was them who were destroying the team with their lack of trust in one of theirs.
"Don't turn away from me, Tony, please. It's me, Tony." He closed his eyes and nodded slowly. She held back a sigh of relief and took his hand. "Come on, you need to eat something." He let her pull him out of the lab and to their private kitchen on their floor.
She pushed him into talking about his last project while she prepared some pasta with bolognese for the both of them. He started talking and then quickly went back to his passionate self, moving his hands around, being loud and just the man she had grown to know and love.
And maybe for right now that was enough.
The next morning, Tony woke up to the gorgeous view of Pepper still sleeping in their bed, her head on his chest with one of her hands. He raised his hand and slipped his fingers through her hair, pushing it out of the way. He didn't know how he got so lucky into having her with him, by his side, no matter what. He flew his fingers over her cheek, smiling when she did.
He felt her body move closer to his and he caught her hand with his, bringing it to his lips, kissing it softly. Oh God he loved her. He didn't know how he could live without her. But that didn't erase how hurt he was that they would turn so quickly against him when something happened. They didn't even… They didn't doubt for a second that it was completely accidental. How could they think he would do it on purpose? It hurt so much to know he would put his trust in them and…
"Tony?" Her voice brought him back to earth and he looked down at her. Her blue eyes caught his and she smiled. She pushed herself up and kissed his lips softly before extricating herself out of his embrace. She sat up and looked over her shoulder at him, straightening the t-shirt she slept in. "Come on, up you go," she told him.
He groaned but executed himself, sitting up. He swung his legs on the side and put his feet on the ground. He stretched before standing up. He turned to her and saw she was rummaging through their wardrobe, looking for her outfit. "I'll be at the kitchen."
"Okay. I'm taking a shower real quick and I'm joining you." He headed for the door, barefoot, rubbing his eyes with his fingers to try and completely get the remnants of his sleep out of them. Pepper's voice made him stop at the door. "Which kitchen are you going to?"
"The one on the floor bellow. I'm out of coffee on this one." She nodded and he got out.
As he told her, he went to the kitchen on the floor under theirs and immediately set himself behind the coffee machine, turning it on. He put his hands on the counter, eyes fixed on the pot, and sighed. His mind wandered back to the dangerous territory that had become the Avengers. He still couldn't believe they would turn against him so quickly. He knew it was his fault they were hurt because he was the reason why they were hurt even though he didn't know his coming to them would bring the exact opposite chain of actions he was looking for.
He couldn't believe how little trust they had in him. Did they really think he was that much of a time-ticking bomb that he would just… just what, by the way? Do things that would lead to people getting hurt? Damn it, he created Iron Man to destroy all his weapons because he didn't want people to die because of those! Why would he now try to hurt his teammates, his friends, his… His family.
"What are you doing here?"
He froze when he heard those words, recognizing the cold voice. How could he be such an idiot that he forgot this was the commune kitchen where any Avenger could go at any given time. Like now for example.
"Having my breakfast?" he said, though it sounded more like a question even to his ears. He turned partway to be able to see Steve.
"Don't you have a kitchen upstairs?" He vaguely noticed that the rest of the Avengers were there as well, standing around Steve and looking just as pissed as he was. Great, just what I needed right now, he thought.
"I'm out of coffee," he answered easily, trying to act as relaxed as ever. They won't do anything to him. They couldn't. It wasn't… it was his fault but he never wanted this. They knew that, right? He wasn't so sure anymore and he knew if it came down to that, he wouldn't stand a chance. Just Clint or Natasha would be enough to deal with him. He didn't even hope to have a chance against Thor or Steve with their super strength and Bruce? He might, if he stayed Bruce. But seeing his tense stance, the way his hands were clenched into fists, he knew without a doubt that the Hulk wasn't that far.
"So you thought you could come here, like you own everything," snapped Clint, trying to cross his arms and failing miserably since one was in a sling.
Should he say that yes, indeed he owned pretty much everything in the tower or should he shut his mouth to try and calm them down slightly? He saw Pepper appear behind the Avengers and stop when she noticed the scene. She frowned and looked between the different people there, trying to know what was happening here. Judging by the way she straightened and narrowed her eyes, she had guessed.
And he had no self-preservation at all because his mouth didn't listen to his brain saying shut up, don't say it!: "Technically I do. The Tower is mine."
Wrong thing to say. Steve clenched his fists and stepped forward. "Everything's a joke to you. You never take anything seriously and you don't obey to orders. You just do whatever you want to."
Tony opened his mouth to protest but was cut by Natasha: "You don't deserve to be on this team if you can't work with other people." And that hurt. So damn much. But he hid it well behind a mask of indifference and arrogance. But he could tell he wasn't fooling Pepper.
And what hurt even more was how Bruce wasn't even looking at him, avoiding completely his gaze. He thought if one of them might be on his side or at least no side at all, it would be him. They were science brothers. They were friends, they worked together all the time, he knew Tony the most out of them all. He couldn't believe he would throw it all away like that. He felt so betrayed. And now he remembered why he never really let people in. To avoid this.
He always ends up the one being hurt.
"And wouldn't you know that, Nathalie?" he replied cheekily. He hated how good he was at this whole 'hide and counter back' thing. Maybe if he wasn't so good at it, they would notice what they were doing to him and would stop.
No such chance. "You're incapable of regrets. Do you even know what it feels like to feel remorse?" wondered Clint. He restrained a flinch. Pepper started forward, hands clenched tightly – so tightly her knuckles were white. He knew what she was going to do – what he wouldn't do.
"Now you all shut up and listen." They turned around, surprised, and looked at Pepper, who was standing tall, fists clenched, eyes narrowed and full of anger. They certainly didn't expect to see her there and even less to see her so furious at them. Tony winced for them – a furious Pepper isn't a good Pepper, it's a Pepper to avoid.
"This is not a conversation that…" Thor started, but he didn't know Pepper if he thought he could stop her now she had decided to speak.
"Did you even stop to think about what happened or did you let your anger cloud your mind so much you didn't even think for a second?" She shook her head. "Do you really think Tony would do anything that would hurt one of you?"
They shuffled on their feet (well Clint, Thor and Bruce did – Steve and Natasha? Not so much). Bruce darted a glance at Tony before quickly looking away, swallowing.
"No he wouldn't and you know that." She pursed her lips and looked at Bruce. "I certainly didn't expect this from you, Bruce, of all people." She looked back at the team. "He offered you a home and gave you everything you wanted, he let you in. You may not be aware of it but there aren't many people he lets in. And you're throwing all that away the first second you can?"
Steve, ever the leader and always with the best intentions in mind, decided then to cut in. "You're biased. You're his girlfriend, of course you would defend him. You can't see…"
"Can't see what? That he's arrogant? A work alcoholic? Sometimes selfish and narcissist? I know how reckless he is, I know how hard it is to make him listen or get something inside his thick skull." He raised his eyebrows. He knew all that of course and it could have hurt but… he also knew the long list of good things she gave to him again and again until he got it in his thick head that he wasn't the worst person ever. Far from that according to her.
"You… Why are you defending him then?" Clint blurted out. Tony winced because it was one thing from Pepper whom he loved and knew by heart now, and another from Clint. To hear he actually really thought that about him without knowing if there was anything good in his view of him… And when he saw the nods Steve and Natasha gave as well, agreeing with him.
It was too much.
Pepper saw it immediately – what would he do without her again? – and took a step forward, hand opened in front of her to reach for him – even if he was a few feet away and the whole team was standing between them. He practically ran from the room, avoiding the surprised and still disapproving gazes of the Avengers.
He can admit it: he fled.
He didn't stop until he was in his workshop on his floor where no one but Pepper could come in. He sat on the stool in front of the desk he was working at the day before and just stared into space, not really thinking about anything. His mind was blank.
It hurt so damn much to know what they thought about him, how they couldn't see any redeeming qualities. Was Pepper fooling herself, seeing something that didn't exist? Maybe he was every piece the man they saw. Maybe there wasn't anything remotely good in him. Maybe they were right.
Something bumped into his thigh and he looked down to see Dummy holding a welder. He smiled lightly and took it before moving his eyes to the components of the pad on the desk, waiting to be assembled. Maybe the only thing he was good with was machinery. Robots, computers. He could understand them, he was careful with them.
He knew how to deal with them.
He should have stuck to machines – they couldn't betray him, he could trust them.
They should have known better. Steve couldn't believe how narrow-minded and stupid they'd been. How could they have let their anger cloud so much their mind? Everything they had said the past two days to Tony, all the glares they had thrown his way, he had let it all slide, never defending himself. And now he felt terribly guilty. When Tony had walked away, ran away from them, the first thing that had come to his mind was coward but in fact, it wasn't that at all.
Tony had taken it all in stride, letting them tell lies upon lies, turn against him and he'd been ready to confront them this morning until Pepper arrived and decided to put an end to it. The only thing Steve could think of now was how brave and strong Tony had been.
He never felt so guilty before, and he could tell the rest of the team was feeling the same way. Bruce was probably the worst. He didn't remember exactly what had happened because he'd been the Hulk then and only remembered parts of the battle, but had followed the majority of the team, not really thinking twice when he heard their version.
And none of them had tried to hear Tony's version.
Now here they were, standing behind the see-through doors of Tony's private workshop, Pepper with them wondering if she should let them in. They could see Tony, still in the AC/DC shirt and the sweatpants he was wearing when he'd been in the kitchen, still barefoot. One of his robots was beside him. There was a mug of coffee on the desk he was bent over. There were screens above him displaying the holograms of Stark tech that Steve didn't take much care into trying to get to know them. Maybe he should have. That would have meant spending time with Tony and getting to know him and he wouldn't have done the terrible mistake they now had to rectify.
"I'm staying with you. Just… Do what he says. If he tells you to go, you go." She gave them a pointed look, hand on the knob, ready to push the door open. They all nodded silently.
And then they were in.
The music blaring from the speakers turned down until it was silent and then: "Jarvis, how many times do I have to tell you? Don't touch my music." He put his welder down and crossed his arms, making his chair spin to face them. "Pepper what…" He trailed off when he saw she wasn't alone.
Steve watched as sadness and hurt then anger flashed into his eyes before his mask slipped back on. If he hadn't been actually looking, he would have missed it. How many times did they miss it? He could see the others had noticed too – it definitively didn't help their guilt into fading away.
"They have something to say." Pepper simply stated, coming to a stop next to Tony – a constant and solid pillar on his side. He glanced at her with narrowed eyes and she raised an eyebrow. He rolled his eyes back and put his head on his fist, looking back at them. Pepper smiled a little and leaned back on the desk, putting a hand down on Tony's right one which was clenched on the armchair. Steve suddenly wondered how long and how much they knew each other to be able to communicate that way.
Steve glanced at the others who nodded. Of course, it would be him. He stepped forward and took a deep breath. "We're sorry Tony. We shouldn't have reacted the way we did. We should have known better." Tony's left hand twitched and the captain wondered whether it was a good sign. "We've let our anger cloud our mind when we should have let you the chance to explain. We were harsh, mean, awful, but above all, we were distrustful. You've done so…"
Tony raised a hand up and closed his eyes, leaning back into his chair. Pepper squeezed the hand that was holding tightly to the plastic of the armchair. When he opened them again, they were cold and hard and so… wrong, so not Tony. "I get it really, you were bad and I've done a lot of things for you, that's all great." He stood up, Pepper's hand falling limply to her side. He saw her bite her lip and knew she was worried. Steve vaguely wondered for whom she was.
"Stark, we really are," Clint insisted, taking a step forward. "I know this may sound hard to believe after…"
"After you completely made me understand that I was an arrogant narcissist selfish bastard?" Tony finished, voice curt and sharp. Steve flinched, as did Clint, Thor and Bruce. Natasha swallowed and looked away. "It's not hard. It's unbelievable." Tony shook his head and glanced at the robot that was still beside the desk, waiting dutifully. A ghost of a smile crossed Tony's lips as he remembered something. "You wanna know what happened the last time I let someone that wasn't Pepper, Happy or Rhodey in my home?"
Somehow he doubted he wanted to know. Then he saw Natasha wince and he knew he didn't want to.
"Well not the last time. The time before actually. Last time was miss Rushman over here – and what good did it give me, it was as much of a lie." He snorted a little, his eyes still on the robot. Steve wondered if what he was about to tell him had something to do with it. "Obadiah Stane – my godfather, a second father of sorts to me, you could say – he… He ripped my heart out. Literally. I mean he took the reactor out – almost killed me." Steve caught his breath as did Bruce and Clint. Thor's hands clenched instinctively and Natasha closed her eyes, knowing the story. "I trusted him too."
Tony's eyes turned sharply to them. "I let you all in because I wanted to trust you. I knew you wouldn't do something like that. I…" He shook his head. "I thought you trusted me too."
"Tony…" Bruce started, his voice pained, hands shaking.
"It'll come back, you know," Tony continued, pretending Bruce hadn't said a word. "I just… need time. I'll trust you again. But it can't work if it's a one-way thing."
"We'll make it work this time, Tony. I promise," Steve quickly said, insisting deeply on the last word.
"You have my word, Man of Iron, we will redeem ourselves in your eyes and never doubt you again." Thor put his hand to his heart, bowing his head slightly.
"Don't know how much my word's worth, but you have mine too."
"Mine as well," Natasha nodded.
Bruce looked up at Tony, who was watching intently Pepper's hand in his – Steve wondered when she had stepped forward to take it. "Tony, I… I promise you I'll try my best to never ever hurt you the way I did. Out of us all, I should have known."
"Thanks." Tony nodded, glancing at them. Then he turned to his desk and they knew he was dismissing them. Slowly, looking back, they made their way out, Tony's voice ringing clear in the silent lab. "You, make me a new coffee. Dummy, I'll need a screwdriver smaller than this one and – no, what are you doing?" Steve held the door, looking back one last time to see Dummy grabbing Tony's pants and pushing at his leg. "Yeah, yeah, I know, you were good, big boy, you saved me, thank you, now will you find me that screwdriver?"
Well now Steve knew how the story finished.
With robots that can be more trusted than them when it came to Tony.
Time. It'll come back. And I'll make sure it'll stay, Tony, silently swore Steve, closing the door behind him.
Love it, hate it? Tell me what you think !
And just for those who read my other stories: a big thank you ! Merci !
See you, à bientôt !