Guys, I am so so sorry for delaying this as long as I have. I've had writer's block for quite a long time and had plenty of real life problems to deal with.
I'm gonna have to fix the whole "clean slate" thing from IM3 and, without giving away too much, I thought it was a little, well, dumb. Rhodey (accompanied with the President of the United States) was still in one, I doubt Tony would've blown War Machine up if Rhodey was still inside.
Reviews are always the best way to write faster ;)
As it turned out four was not a crowd, couldn't be if the latest assortment to that had a strong distaste for staying in a place for too long. Pepper wasn't all relaxed and peaceful personality either, no work usually made her uneasy, but Natasha was in on a whole new level in that. She'd stayed for exactly one night and then stole away into the night like some criminal, and Pepper wasn't entirely sure if Bruce's snoring had been one of the most dominant reasons for that (given that their rooms were pretty close to each other). Natasha reminded her of her when she was like 20, without the spying thing of course.
Pepper didn't hold any grudges, though, the only thing she knew about Natasha was their mutual disgust for incompetent people (which was actually kind of sad) and she still had a hard time calling her her real name instead of Natalie Rushman. She just wished she'd stay longer, become the second female person that this house so greatly needed.
Bruce and Tony spent most of their time in the workshop, working on either fixing her or doing stupid things like blowing up one of their cars, again (and again because "It's not like we have few cars, honey, and plus it's for science" and "Oww, why are you hitting me, baby"). It wasn't like last time, though, Tony didn't miss one date night, got into bed with her whenever she asked and actually had company this time around. Poor Bruce had to work as a therapist more often than not and every time she got a glimpse of them, it seemed like Bruce eyes were glowing dangerously green. She tried not to snicker or linger too much.
Pepper still didn't set a foot into any of her company's offices for the next two months, just checked her emails and called in on a few occasions. She felt awful for neglecting her job so much, but the uneasy feeling in her stomach didn't seem to go away every time she handled more serious business.
She even convinced Bruce to give her lessons in calming herself every Friday. Thanks to him she learned all about calming teas, breathing exercises and the best way not to toast your boyfriend. It worked pretty well so far, Bruce had finally settled in like he was supposed to and didn't try to ask her permission every time he made himself some coffee. And he was able to keep an eye on Tony when she couldn't.
The phone startled her more than she let on, partly because she was currently sitting next to Tony watching cheesy soaps and partly because it's a goddamn phone, it's supposed to ring. Tony made barely a sound of acknowledgment when she stirred next to him, put the arm that had been before lazily squeezing her shoulder on his stomach and stood up from the couch. It was date night but neither felt like doing it today, Pepper had been in her office for the first time in months and had felt like an intruder (she really, really needed to go back to work) and Tony had found some complications with fixing Extremis, something to do with her blood. So they just decided to do it some other time, and just enjoy each others company on the couch, which wasn't so bad in her mind.
She picked up the phone and went into the bedroom, to not wake Tony (he really needed all the sleep he could get). When she made a "hmmm" voice into the line, there was no reply other than heavy breathing and that suddenly startled her awake enough to recognize that the caller was female. And that she knew that number, that it was one of SHIELD's many employee's numbers (they always ended with 0019). There was only one person she could think of that had any reason to call. Her voice was shaky when she whispered: "Natasha …?"
"Pepper, are you alone right now?" came the reply. Not as unusual with Natasha, she usually had a problem with normal greetings. It was the tone that alarmed her, the 'I'm-very-sorry-for-your-loss' voice. This wasn't good.
"Yeah, Tony's sleeping," she said, figuring she might as well tell the truth. "Why?"
"There's more of them." Silence. "They have a new head."
Oh, thank god, nobody died, she thought. Her brows furrowed. "Natasha, who do you mean by 'them'?"
"AIM." She'd dreaded it, yet hoped it wasn't true. Apparently it was. Pepper felt like throwing up right there and then, her breathing already uneven. Memories flooded her with such violence and pain that she felt dizzy for a moment and had to steady herself on the wall. The Extremis part in her was screaming 'DANGERDANGERDANGERDANGER' so loudly in her head she could barely whisper out her next words. "Tell me."
Natasha was back in their home in only 30 minutes, she apparently had already been driving to them while she'd phoned Pepper earlier. She'd just wanted to give a heads up. There was no heads up good enough to protect her from this.
Her breathing was barely there and her body shook from every in- and exhale. Her hands were tightened so hard on the soft couch that she could see her knuckles getting whiter and whiter and felt her muscles ache. The memories were still there, flooding her head with words like 'trophy' and '3 % chance of surviving' and painpainpainpainsomuchpain. She'd already thrown up, which in return had woken up Tony and now they both were sitting on the couch and neither of them seemed too comfortable right now.
'Don't worry, Pepper.' The smile that follows looks like a sharp's. 'Weaker women have survived this.'
"We had first thought that AIM wasn't as crowded – given the whole illegal thing –, but the more we looked into it, the more it became apparent that this was a group project," Natasha went on. Pepper hadn't even realized that she'd started talking, her mind was so full that it was hard concentrating on the present. "And it seems that the remaining part of AIM is working really hard to keep it all going without Killian, or his assistant. The new head of it all is still unclear, although he or she must have founded the whole thing for a while and was climbing the ladder while we weren't noticing." She willed herself to think that this was all business. Before the next words slipped out and hit her so hard she choked out something between a gasp and a sob (which Natasha gladly tried to ignore, giving her some control back in the process). "They experimented on children in some poor village in Afghanistan. It wasn't all that covered well but apparently the village had made a contract with AIM to keep quiet about it. The explosion killed the entire village and it took us 2 days to put out the fire."
The silence that followed was oppressive enough as it was, even without both of them staring at her like she was some circus freak. God, couldn't this just end?!
"You think they'll come after Pepper," Tony said next to her, rubbing her back absently. It wasn't even a question and somehow the coldness in his eyes made her uneasy. Tony didn't have that many loved ones, but he was very protective of the few that he had. Pepper didn't want him to worry himself sick, or to have a relapse. She wanted this all be a huge, cruel joke. "Somehow get her adjusted version out of her and reproduce it."
Natasha's eyes didn't leave hers, even when she was nodding her head slowly. "Yes, but we're onto it." That didn't sound too reassuring. Natasha sighed and rubbed her forehead with her thumb. "Look, I know you'll just give me shit for saying 'Don't worry' but we've really got this. SHIELD bodyguards will be following both of you 24/7, and don't even think of weaseling yourself out of this one, Stark. I can send you the files and all the information we have right now and keep you posted, but SHIELD thinks it's best if Iron Man is staying out of this." She gave Tony an apologetic look and waved her hand through the air. "Emotionally compromised and all."
The thought of bodyguards made her skin crawl. A particular painful memory came to mind with her in 'Phase Two' of the injection, begging and pleading with the guards to give her some painkillers, anything. At some point she'd even begged to be killed and they'd just laughed and ignored her. But this was different. Wasn't it?
"Can you teach me?" The words blurred out of her without her mind catching up on it, already seeing the corner of Natasha's mouth twitch a little – great, she was still the trophy, the girlfriend, damsel in distress and damn she didn't want to be. "The basics and everything, I mean. I can still fight pretty well while Extremis is taking over, but I want to be able to hold myself without it as well." I want to take control again. Please help me.
The little twitch turned into a heartfelt smile, something totally weird to look at on Natasha's face. In all the moments they'd shared together, Natasha had never smiled, not really. A few dimples here and smirks there but it was always slightly detached. For a moment she thought she'd imagined it, but there it was. "Of course I can train with you. We can't meet every day and we certainly can't train here, but I could make up a plan and call you with the info if you want." Pepper nodded so hard she felt dizzy when she stood up and escorted Natasha to the exit (the door, not the window this time).
Both of them weren't huggy persons, but the look she gave Pepper was enough. Their hands met in a hand shake, which stopped midway through. "Call me if you need anything," she said before turning to leave and shutting the door behind her. Pepper didn't even have time to turn around before she heard it.
"Fuck, fuck, shit, fuck, goddamn, fuck!" Tony was loud that he'd probably woken Bruce up, clenching and unclenching his fists in a manner that made it look like he was just itching to punch something. This was the first time she had ever seen him like this, with his guard completely down, shaking as hard as her. "Perfect fucking timing!"
Her voice was barely audible in the whole 'fucks' and 'shits' that Tony let out of his mind. He also screamed some thing that were way too obscene, even for him, so she tried not to dwell on them. She took his hands in hers instead and kissed him so hard they both needed to stop soon after to breathe. Breathe, just breathe. You're not dead yet, you're not dead, you won't die, you won't, you won't …
His eyes were strangely wet when he pulled away and put his forehead against hers. "Sorry," he whispered. "I'm kinda freaking out right now." This feels strangely like a panic attack. Neither of them needed to say it aloud.
"I know," she just responded and forced a smile into her face, even if it was a grotesque one, covered with her own tears. She hadn't even noticed when she'd started crying and if it was any other person she would be embarrassed out of her mind, but this was Tony. She didn't want to hide a single thing from him, not anymore. "It's okay. We'll figure it out."
"Will we, though?" His voice was still bitter and shaky, if a little better. "I don't know, seems like I should've figured it out a long time ago. I'm sorry, god, I'm so sorry, you deserve better than tha-" She shut him up by kissing him again, because he really needed to stop apologizing or she could promise nothing. They broke off again before it became too heated (and not in the literal scene because, strangely, her temperature was perfectly normal, even if Extremis was rebelling inside her).
"Even you can't predict everything, Man of Iron," she whispered barely an inch away from his lips, his breath tickling her face. There was bitterness in his eyes, but also something else, something rooted way, way deeper in his mind. The burning desire to protect and destroy in the process, cemented in his mindset until it was all there was in his expression. It made her stomach roll and she wondered if she really was the only one that could possibly die from the fallout of this.