f: MCU/Captain America: Civil War
c: Pepper; Rhodey, Tony, Vision
ch: 10iloveyou - 7. not enough
s: Pepper tries to smile. “You know me,” she says, “always putting out Tony’s fires.”
n: CIVIL WAR SPOILERS, YOU GUYS. Pepper is my favourite person in the MCU, as I'm sure many of you may have noticed, so my first tie-in fic was always going to be about her. I actually made myself cry writing this, so, if you're looking for a Tony/Pepper fix-it, it's not this one, dammit, I'll have to write another one. As for the other subplot in this, I blame Steve for mentioning it in the film in the first place.
All the telephone lines at Stark Industries are jammed.
Pepper has already made it clear that anyone giving a statement of any kind to the press, whether it regards her or not, is going to be immediately fired. She hasn’t bothered answering any of the emails clogging up her inbox. What is there to say? Stark Industries actually has very little to do with what Tony Stark gets up to nowadays. And Pepper won’t take to the newspapers and the gossip blogs to praise or condemn anything that Tony does.
“He’s doing this for you,” Happy remarks, nodding toward the muted TV in her office, where information about the Sokovia Accords ribbons across the screen.
Pepper looks up from Candy Crush Jelly Saga, wonders how many cups of coffee is too many cups.
What she wants to say is: he’s doing this because I’m not there anymore. Because he wants to be accountable to someone, and I can’t be that someone anymore.
“Well,” she sighs, “maybe the UN will have better luck than you or I ever did.”
Happy shrugs a shoulder; he looks a little mournful, a little tired. Don’t they all, these days.
“They say it takes a village,” he says at last. “Maybe a hundred and seventeen different countries might be enough to make our little boy grow up.”
Pepper’s stomach twists just a bit at little boy; her last period was three months ago.
“Maybe,” she echoes, and watches the phone lines flash away to themselves, a dozen little warning lights.
Natasha sounds exhausted; more exhausted than Pepper has ever heard her.
“You need to get here,” she says.
Pepper’s been watching the news feeds; the cameras are all a distance away, but when a group of superheroes tear apart an airport in their attempts to tear apart each other, it’s big. The visuals are quite something. She’s been alternating watching and puking into a trashcan, tracing the tiny flying figures with her eyes and her fingertips, trying to figure out which one is which.
She’s not Tony’s keeper anymore, but she can’t turn her feelings off. A cruel part of her wishes that she could.
“You know I can’t,” Pepper says, instead of the myriad other things she wants to say, to ask, to admit. On the live feeds, no new explosions have occurred for a couple of minutes.
Natasha lets out a long breath. “It’s Rhodey,” she says.
Something in Pepper goes cold and hard; her fingers are numb.
“Pepper?” Natasha asks; despite the fact she’s the one in an active battlefield and she’s probably injured to some degree or another, she sounds worried. “Pepper, are you okay?”
Pepper closes her eyes, swallows, takes a breath. Some part of her has always been ready for Tony’s fall; this, this is unexpected.
“I’ll call for the jet,” she says, and hangs up before Natasha can say anything more.
She should’ve asked after Natasha; she should’ve asked after Tony. But there’s nothing there; her tongue is bare, empty, and for a moment she can only sit and shiver. And then she gathers up all the pieces of her armour, the one that isn’t shiny and explosive like Tony’s, isn’t ostentatious, but which has gotten her through day after day and disaster after disaster and will let her keep walking long after everything else has broken.
Tony’s gone and Rhodey’s in surgery by the time Pepper makes it to the hospital; her head is pounding and her stomach is churning and she feels like she’s shaking right down to her bones.
She’s shown to a waiting room and she sits and puts her head in her hands and breathes in the hot dark little space hiding her eyes behind her fingers affords her.
It’s a familiar voice, but it isn’t, and her whole body tenses. Not now. Not now.
The Vision is wearing slacks and a sweater, and he looks ridiculous, incongruous. Pepper places her hands carefully on the arms of her chair, nails sliding against cheap varnished wood. She’s kept her cool in worse situations than this, though, right now, she can’t think of any.
“Vision,” she says, dipping her head a little in greeting.
He sits down in a chair across from her, and even distracted as she is, Pepper can see that something is wrong with him; there’s none of his usual slightly inhuman grace, none of his easy purpose. He moves like one who has forgotten what his limbs are for.
Pepper knows the details by now, of course; the flight was long enough for her to find out what’s happened and what hasn’t happened and who was shooting who at any given point. Natasha’s on the run and Captain America and Bucky Barnes lit out of the airport just before everyone else was arrested, and Tony was here and Tony has gone.
Pepper is relieved. Pepper wants him to be here so bad she can taste it against her teeth.
If she was feeling kind, Pepper could talk to the Vision about all that she’s learned about friendly fire. But she isn’t feeling kind, and she stays silent.
“I know you don’t like me,” the Vision says at last. He isn’t looking at Pepper, his head bowed, and his hands folded in his lap. He looks so human, and so alien, and the cuffs of the shirt he’s wearing beneath his sweater are so sharply starched.
“I don’t know you,” Pepper replies, and her head hurts, and she won’t know anything about Rhodey except for the word paralysis until he gets out of surgery, and they have hours and hours to wait here.
This isn’t the time and it isn’t the place and in all truth, Pepper was hoping to avoid this conversation forever.
“But I know you,” the Vision says, in that voice, and Pepper screws her eyes closed against a sudden flush of tears.
“You have a set of memories that don’t belong to you,” she says, and wishes her voice was sharp and crisp and clear, not blurred and a little pleading.
“They are a part of me,” the Vision presses, and Pepper wishes she had something she could throw at him and that it would feel better if she did.
There’s a rational part of Pepper that knows she can’t hold the Vision responsible for something that isn’t at all his fault – that it’s mostly Tony’s, like so many other parts of her life. But there were a lot of days in her life when JARVIS was Pepper’s best friend, or he felt like it, and then one day he was gone. Yes, he was a computer programme – Pepper was there for his inception, when he was little more than a talking calendar, and she mockingly reminded Tony that that was what he hired her for – but he evolved to be more than that, to be something that knew to turn the lights down when Pepper had a migraine without her having to say anything, that kept her company through long hours of work when Tony was locked in his basement expecting her to keep the world spinning for him, that cut off her caffeine intake when he deemed it too high, that complimented a new pair of shoes when no one else did.
Especially in that middle period of working for Tony when Pepper had no other life and a hopeless crush she half-hated herself for and it sometimes felt like she knew more about Tony than she did about herself, JARVIS was her best friend and her boyfriend and her therapist all in one, company in an existence that felt very empty.
Real, flesh-and-blood people have died, and Rhodey is lying on an operating table with his entire life in pieces and this was neither the first or last betrayal Pepper’s suffered at Tony’s hands, but still. JARVIS was there, a constant, and then he was gone, replaced by this whole other being who sounded like JARVIS and apparently was set to save the world or maybe just keep Tony from trying to save it, but he wasn’t JARVIS and no matter how many AIs Tony installs into his home or his bases or his suits or Pepper’s computers, none of them are JARVIS, none of them are the computer programme who Pepper quietly loved.
She knows he knows all of this when he looks at her, and there was a brief window of time when she thought she might talk to him, try to become his friend, but then she was furious with Tony and furious with the state of the world and the Vision got caught up in that and hell, Pepper’s life is too complicated these days anyway.
After a period of time that means nothing and Pepper can’t even begin to measure, the Vision gets up and walks past her; then he’s gone and the door hasn’t even opened. A minute or two and he’s back with a bottle of water, which he places on the table next to Pepper.
“I see congratulations are in order, Ms Potts,” he says quietly.
She lets that sit, silently, because of course he knows. It’s not really even his fault; he probably can’t help knowing, probably scanned her the moment she walked in.
“I don’t know if they are,” she says at last. “I… I haven’t decided yet.”
The Vision inclines his head, gently, and he looks as though he’s prepared to listen, and for a moment, Pepper is prepared to blurt it all out, to this being with kind eyes and synthetic skin and the voice of someone Pepper once trusted.
“Look,” she sighs, “people make mistakes. No matter who you are, no matter what you know, no matter how smart you are or how you should know better, people make mistakes. It’s a part of being human.”
She takes the water bottle with her when she leaves.
The break-up’s been happening, and happening, and happening, a slow ugly splintering that felt like being torn apart. Pepper still hasn’t established how much of herself got left behind; which pieces of Tony she took away with her.
Well, aside from the obvious.
Nearly four months ago, give or take, Pepper has been crying and Tony has been crying and maybe both of them have been begging a little, pushing and pulling and I can’t do this anymore hanging between them like a knife, and Pepper slides off the couch to lie on the floor and shut her eyes and wish for just five minutes that maybe the last handful of years never happened, or happened differently, or that she isn’t still so in love that it makes her ache with it, a hundred thousand tiny pains.
It comes down to Sokovia in the end, it comes down to Ultron in the end, but there’s so much more before then, so much more, and Pepper is trying to be at least twenty people these days and none of them are enough to carry Tony Stark.
Nearly four months ago, give or take, Tony lies down beside Pepper and he looks ruined, and when she looks at him she sees a killer, and she sees a hero, and she sees the man she wants to sleep beside every night and wake up next to every morning, in a parallel world where that might be possible, and she sees the man who loves her so much he’d die for her but she’ll still never be enough for.
Tony wraps a lock of her hair around a fingertip and looks at her with everything in his eyes, and he doesn’t learn and she doesn’t either and Pepper kisses him first.
Later, later, so much later, Pepper puts her shoes on and leaves and Tony cries, and she finally remembers that sex for Tony has always meant too little or too much, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which until it’s too late.
They should probably make access to hospital roofs a little less easy for members of the public, but Pepper sits on the cold concrete and sips her water and shivers a little in the cold air that whips around up here, and thinks about Rhodey.
She thinks about him as Tony’s best friend, his vague absent smile at yet another PA Tony wouldn’t manage to keep as he made his way into Tony’s office. Thinks about how that changed too; how Rhodey started calling her to check in on Tony when he was away on active service, and then he just started calling Pepper to check in on her, and how their lives slowly entangled and in the end weren’t about Tony as much as they used to be.
She thinks about Tony’s last birthday, about the part that went on all night, and how it was finally left just the three of them and the confetti on the floor, Tony half in her lap with his mouth smushed into her neck, his legs draped over Rhodey’s, and she held on tight and laughed and laughed and laughed.
She thinks about holding onto him, tight, fingers buried in his shirt, and telling him that he shouldn’t take Tony’s spot on the Avengers; that all it would do would get him killed. And Rhodey hugged her back and promised her, promised her that he would be okay.
Pepper’s crying, but it’s fine; she cries a lot these days.
When she turns her phone back on, she finds her voicemail is full, and she has thousands of emails chiming away, and there’s more texts than she could ever read. Even with the storage boost Tony gave her phone, it’s too much.
Tony’s still off the grid, but she’s sure he’ll turn up sooner or later; the smoke from the fires will turn up sooner or later.
Her phone rings and rings and she’s about to block the call when she notes that it’s from Christine; there are worse ways Pepper could do this.
“Pepper,” Christine says.
“Are you seriously doing this?” Pepper asks.
“You have your job, I have mine,” Christine responds.
Pepper likes her, despite everything; maybe because of everything.
“You want a statement?” Pepper asks.
“I’d kill for a statement,” Christine says. “You know that. But I heard about Colonel Rhodes, and if you don’t want to talk, I get it.”
Pepper nearly believes her. But everyone has their preferred journalists, and she’d rather do this than wait around for an anonymous asshole to call.
“Okay,” she sighs, sips her water, swishes it briefly around her mouth. “Here you go: Stark Industries is affiliated with Tony Stark as an inventor and creator, but his actions as Iron Man have nothing to do with Stark Industries, and we support world peace and the protection of human life.”
Christine makes a vague humming sound. “What about a personal opinion?”
“Don’t push it,” Pepper responds. She feels sick; she can’t remember the last time she didn’t feel sick.
“Hang in there, Pepper,” Christine tells her, and hangs up first.
Rhodey looks so small in his hospital bed, too small, and Pepper doses in and out of an awful sleep in a chair beside it while she waits for the anaesthetics to wear off a little. She doesn’t sleep well these days, too many things piling up in her mind.
“Pep,” he croaks, finally, thick and raw, and Pepper jumps to his side, curling her fingers through his.
“Rhodey,” she whispers, and he stares up at her with drugged, sluggish eyes.
“So, I’m not dead, then.”
“Not this time,” Pepper says, bites her lower lip for a long moment, forcing herself to swallow over the lump like strangulation in her throat.
“See? I keep my promises,” Rhodey tells her, and manages something like a smile, and Pepper thought she could do this but maybe she can’t.
She sinks back into the chair and squeezes Rhodey’s hand and she doesn’t even realise that she’s sobbing until Rhodey says: “oh, Pep, don’t-” and abortively tries to move before he remembers that he can’t; right now it’s splints and drugs, but maybe later he’ll discover that it’s actually just him.
“Sorry,” Pepper says, swiping at her cheeks with her free hand; her face feels like sandpaper, feels windburned and skinned. “I’ve had hours of promising myself I wouldn’t do this.”
Rhodey squeezes her hand back, and Pepper thinks, well, at least he can do that much, she was scared at one point that he wouldn’t.
“Don’t you have about a hundred things to do?” he asks, managing something that’s almost a shadow of his usual facial expression. His voice slurs a little from the drugs and Pepper suspects he won’t remember any of this later. It’s probably for the best.
“Two hundred,” she corrects him, light, “but none of them are as important as being here.”
Rhodey blinks a couple of times. “Now I’m gonna cry,” he warns her. “I thought you were mad at me.”
“I am mad at you,” Pepper tells him, “but that doesn’t mean I wanted to lose you. I’m mad at the suit and I’m mad at the Avengers and I’m mad at Tony but none of that meant you were supposed to stop calling me.”
Rhodey’s mouth lurches into a sheepish half-smile. “So, I fucked up,” he says.
“We all fucked up,” Pepper replies, pressing a kiss to his knuckles. “Go back to sleep,” she adds. “I’ve got you.”
Rhodey’s eyes are already closing, but his smile doesn’t fade. “You’ve got me.”
“I’ve got you,” Pepper repeats softly, and doesn’t let go.
Happy looks at the Vision in much the same way Pepper does, though he hides it better, or maybe feels it less deeply. The Vision is still here in the hospital, which she wasn’t expecting, but either his guilt sits so deep he can’t think of leaving, or he really has nowhere else to go. Pepper could ask him, but she isn’t ready to hear the answer. Perhaps that’s selfish, but Pepper has been not being selfish for so long that she thinks she’s probably due a whole bunch.
Happy brought her clean clothes and her tablet and they make a weird little set of people sitting around in the hospital waiting room; the silent robot, staring into space, Pepper’s bodyguard-cum-BFF dozing in a chair in an ugly sweatshirt, and the CEO of Stark Industries rearranging her calendar.
The news informs her that Tony’s not dead, which is a relief; Pepper feels weak with it, actually, and wants to run to him, bathe his wounds and tell him she loves him so much that it doesn’t matter what he does and who he hurts.
But it does, and instead she checks her deaddrop email from Maria Hill to find that she’s relocated Clint Barton’s family and hopes Rhodey is doing okay.
Pepper replies in a sparse handful of words, tells her that she’ll send news soon.
There’s nothing from Natasha in that inbox, and Pepper hopes she’ll get in touch in the end.
Instead, she sits and cancels meetings and probably gives her own PA a migraine sorting everything out, and postpones her next OB/GYN meeting and her next manicure, and books herself a hotel suite a couple of blocks away.
“The foetus seems healthy,” the Vision pipes up, quiet, once Pepper’s sent these last few emails.
Pepper considers her options very carefully in the moment of stillness that follows. Happy lets out a soft half-snore.
“Thank you,” she says softly. Tries to smile. “And don’t tell me you can tell the baby’s gender already, it’s too early.”
“I wouldn’t tell you,” the Vision says, with JARVIS’ voice. “I understand humans like the element of surprise.”
Pepper covers her stomach with her hand: the movement isn’t unconscious yet, but it’s instinctive. “If it’s a boy, we’re probably going to have to call it Howard,” she says dryly, “I might want some time to get used to that.”
She watches as the Vision’s forehead creases a little, then smooths again. “You’re joking,” he says carefully.
“Only a little,” Pepper replies. “But JARVIS was never sure either.”
She types a memo on her tablet to go and deal with that incredibly young teenage boy Tony recruited to his army and then provided with thousands of dollars’ worth of tech, because Tony has great ideas that he doesn’t actually follow through on and then he forgets to go back and check if they’ve managed to get themselves killed. The kid was already on a fast-track to some kind of terrible death anyway, but Pepper’s not sure that Tony’s input will have averted that at all.
The Vision tips his head when Pepper next looks at him. “Does this perhaps mean that you’ll one day forgive me?”
Something bites in Pepper’s stomach that has nothing to do with the baby at all.
“There’s nothing to forgive you for,” she replies. “One of these days I might even remember that.”
It’s been a long week; no one knows where Steve Rogers is. Pepper’s been losing things faster than she can count since Tony first encased himself in metal and kicked off into the sky, and it’s funny how for a while she even thought that they might get away with it all.
“Tony’s on his way,” she tells Rhodey, sat at his bedside. His eyes are sharper today, and there’s a TV on mute in the corner of his room with Tony’s bloody face splashed across it. Pepper looks and looks until she can’t look anymore. He looks like the man that she loves and he doesn’t.
“Please don’t leave,” he said to her, amongst other things, “I can’t do this without you.”
“So far, everything that you’ve done has been without me,” she replied, the words stinging her mouth as she said them, but they weren’t lies.
“So I see,” Rhodey says, waving a hand toward the TV. “Are you going to avoid him or are you gonna sit on either side of my bed and not look at each other like you’re my divorced parents?”
“I haven’t decided,” Pepper admits. “I might avoid him for a while: I’ve still got to try and check in with Natasha, make sure Peter Parker isn’t raising his profile too quickly, and probably delete a few files regarding some of Steve’s favourite ex-SHIELD safehouses before the government subpoenas us for them.”
Rhodey looks at her. “You don’t have to do any of that,” he says.
Pepper tries to smile. “You know me,” she says, “always putting out Tony’s fires.”
Tony promised that he could make her love him again, the second or maybe the third time Pepper walked out; thickets of mascara clogged her vision as she told him that that wasn’t the problem.
“You can’t stop being you,” she told him. “I need to figure out if I can make my peace with that or not.”
It was brutal, but Pepper is trying to stay the course; she’s been there for every single one of Tony’s aftermaths, but they’re getting harder, and the blood on his hands followed her around their apartment, clambered into bed with them, and when he looked at her she wasn’t sure anymore what he was seeing, but it frightened her a little.
“Not that I’m getting involved,” Rhodey remarks, “but he loves you so much, Pepper. So much. I took him out for the tequila after you left.”
“That was a relief,” Pepper replies, deliberately flippant; if this is her defence mechanism or Tony’s, she’s not even sure anymore, “I was starting to be concerned I’d have to do it myself.”
“Tony can function without you, you know,” Rhodey tells her.
“And after all those years I spent convincing him otherwise,” Pepper sighs.
“I love you,” Tony told her, “nothing works without you.”
“I love you too,” Pepper replied, “and nothing works, Tony, this has never worked. We just hoped it would.”
He laughed, bitter, brittle, and swiped at his eyes. “Hey,” he said, “we made it longer than anyone thought we would.”
“We did,” Pepper agreed.
Tony’s smile was crooked, the one she loved and hated on him in vaguely equal measure. “So, hey, I guess Rhodey owes me several thousand bucks.”
“You bet against us?” Pepper asked, and it should’ve have hurt, but at that point, everything did, what was one more sting. “Why?”
Tony shrugged. “Past precedent, I guess.”
In Rhodey’s hospital room, Pepper scrubs her hands over her face and thinks about how a few years ago, the only thing she ever really wanted was six hours of solid sleep a night. That must’ve been nice.
“We’ll figure something out,” she decides aloud. “One way or the other.”
“For what it’s worth, you’ve been good for him,” Rhodey tells her.
“Not good enough,” Pepper replies, and the bitterness spills out without her intention, sharp enough to hurt.
“Please,” Rhodey says, “I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to stop Tony from lighting himself on fire, and I’ve only been successful maybe sixty percent of the time.”
Pepper laughs, even though she doesn’t want to. “Yeah,” she says, “yeah, I guess there is that.” She swallows, leans over to squeeze Rhodey’s hand for a second. “Anyway,” she adds, “you don’t need to think about me and Tony, you need to focus on your recovery.”
For the most part, Rhodey has managed to stay upbeat and cheerful and determined, but every now and then he seems to remember that he’s got a long long future ahead of him and none of it’s going to be easy, and his mood slips. It’s that shuttering in his eyes that makes Pepper say: “you need to get your strength up, you’re going to be a godfather in a few months.”
She watches the shock and delight and a half-dozen other emotions she can’t read flit across Rhodey’s features. “Holy shit,” he says, and: “does Tony- no, of course Tony doesn’t know.”
“That’s a work in progress,” Pepper admits on a grimace.
“Holy shit,” Rhodey says again. “Congratulations! Shit, is that… is that the sentiment right now?”
Pepper shrugs. “It’s a nice word,” she offers. “I mean, nicer than some of the others.”
A tiny part of her thinks that if JARVIS had still been around she might’ve remembered to take her goddamn birth control, but, well, would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.
Rhodey flaps his arms at her until Pepper gets the hint and clambers onto the bed to hug him; for a long moment, she lets herself wonder if this might be alright after all.
Tony looks pulverised; Pepper’s seen him bad and worse and worst, and this isn’t screaming night-sweats with New York spilling out of his mouth while he tries to punch her face off, but it’s not far above that either.
“So,” she says, ice-breaker, “you’ve been busy.”
Tony turns around fast enough to make him stagger a little; the look on his face cuts through her like a knife, and for a long moment Pepper isn’t sure what to do. She wants to take back the last two years, maybe the last three years, and just love him like she used to, when it was easy to do that, when her love didn’t come with the word despite.
He makes a half-step toward her, then seems to realise that he can’t do that, isn’t sure whether he can do that, and it breaks her heart a little more.
“Come here,” Pepper says quietly, voice cracking, and Tony launches himself into her arms hard enough to make her stagger this time, wrapping her arms around him and holding on tight, breathing him in, because Tony might sometimes act like he invented suffering, but he really fucking didn’t.
He breathes against her collarbone and Pepper buries her face in his hair and all of the things she wanted to say die.
“Pep,” he says at last, pulling away, “Pep, the Winter Soldier killed my parents.” His eyes rake over her face; Pepper isn’t sure what expression she’s wearing, or which one she’s supposed to be wearing. Their poor kid is definitely going to end up being called Howard, a small hysterical part of her brain muses.
“Okay,” she says at last, slow, and at least a dozen of those bruises on Tony’s face make a little more sense.
“You guessed, didn’t you,” Tony says, flat.
Pepper shrugs a shoulder. “It seemed plausible.”
Tony sighs, and seems to fold in on himself, sinking down to sit on the floor against the hospital bed he’s been refusing to get into, from what the nurses have been saying. Pepper isn’t surprised.
“It never occurred to me,” he says, looking at his hands, all scabs and broken nails. “I mean, it really never did. Cap figured it out, not that he said anything, and I bet you all did, but me, genius, IQ higher than God’s, it didn’t cross my mind once. Does that make me naïve?”
Pepper considers this as she sits down beside him, close enough for their shoulders to touch. This wasn’t the conversation she was expecting to have when she came in here, but, hey, that’s Tony: never what you predict, and you try and keep a step ahead of his idiosyncrasies until you can’t anymore.
“I think,” she says carefully, “that it might make you an optimist.”
Tony snorts, the amusement tempered with something thicker, like he might yet cry after all. “Well, that’d be a first.”
“I think you’re always an optimist,” Pepper replies. “Otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing what you keep doing.”
“Fucking up, you mean?” Tony asks.
Pepper considers it, dodges the question. “Your intentions are always… always great.”
“Yeah,” Tony mutters, “and you know what they say about the road to hell.”
“I do,” Pepper agrees.
She rummages in her inside jacket pocket for the envelope with the ultrasound she acquired yesterday, all in a neat envelope. She’d like them to have a rational discussion about this like adults, not sitting on a hospital floor while their friend tries to come to terms with his paralysis three doors down and the world condemns Tony for things that are mostly his fault but also sort of aren’t, and half their friends are on the run, but the time for something rational and grown-up was probably several years before Pepper ever met Tony, and it’s too late now.
“I don’t like being handed things,” Tony says quietly, looking at the envelope.
“I know,” Pepper replies. “But take it just this once, okay?”
“Okay,” Tony replies, and does.