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Living is the Hardest Part

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Tony was definitely not have another panic attack while he polished the scrapes out of his suit by hand, his mind calculating the force with which he had to have landed to cause the depth of them, his mind calculating the force a human body can withstand before going into cardiac arrest, his mind replaying the images of the depths of space laid out before him like an army ready for slaughter, his mind – Dummy nudged him again with a glass of water, motor oil floating along the top, humming softly like a question as Tony patted the bot on the head and took the glass anyway, resulting in a happy purr before Dummy puttered back to the charging station.

He'd told Jarvis and Dummy that he was fine and they were both listening - mostly. Jarvis was silent, which was rarely a good sign since it normally meant trouble or Pepper or both. Just as Tony was working through the breathing exercises he definitely didn’t look up to help with these things, Jarvis’ voice came over the speakers, making Tony jump at his own AI for the first time in over a decade.

“Pardon Sir, but Director Fury is on the line and claims it to be urgent.”

Tony huffs, “The last time he said it was urgent I took a trip into space without a return ticket because someone above his ass wanted to nuke New York because aliens. Decline call.”

“He is rather adamant Sir.”

“Tell him I am busy with the alien bits he left me.”

“He apparently isn’t appeased Sir. He said he knows you can multitask.”

Tony snorts. “Well he isn’t wrong. But isn’t it my choice what I multitask on?”

“I would assume so Sir. Would you like me to tell him so?” “Sure, why not. Then if he still wants to talk to me put him on hold with the worst elevator music for exactly 11 minutes and then transfer him to Pepper to set up an appointment to speak with me at least 3 weeks away.”

“She won’t be pleased to play secretary again Sir. She is the CEO now.”

“She will be amused.”

Jarvis was silent again. That was never good. Tony went back to his suit and tried to put it all out of mind.

--

“I have to do what now?” Tony was borderline shouting, waving his arms about dramatically.

Pepper merely rolled her eyes, standing rim rod straight with her arms crossed, her no nonsense pose as she waited for Tony to get passed his dramatics.

“This is my tower. It is for my company. Not for a bunch of spandex wearing weirdos to hole up in waiting for the next apocalypse while braiding each other’s hair.”

“Tony, this is logistics. It makes sense for the Avengers to have a central hub. That way when it is time to assemble for any major or minor emergency, everyone is together and has the same ETA. You know that.” Pepper says calmly, not moving an inch.

“But I have already started the ground work on some of the new floors. It isn’t set up to be a superhero hotel, Pep.” Tony was pleading a little, messing with a bit of metal plating on his work table rather than looking her in the eye.

“You have only started on the R&D area. That can easily become Dr. Banner’s lab which you did promise him anyway. You liked Bruce, right?” She was using her ‘soft Tony’ voice, which he hated. It wasn’t the same anymore when she wouldn’t pet his hair at the same time. They were trying to work through going back to being friends and coworkers since they weren’t together anymore and rule one was less touching ‘at least for now’. Tony couldn’t blame her. He certainly wouldn’t want to watch the person he loved leave over and over again never knowing if they would come home or if they would receive nothing but an apology instead.

“I liked Dr. Banner, who is an amazing scientist. The rest of him is interesting for science but not for world saving.”

“Not even a little?”

She was smiling. He didn’t need to look up to know. She was smiling only with the left side of her mouth, her right eyebrow arching. She was teasing him and Tony knew right now that she was going to get her way. Which unfortunately meant Fury was going to also be getting his way. And Tony was going to have permanent house guests.

“Are all of them going to be moving in?” He whined, finally looking up to find the tail end of that smile fading into a soft peaceful expression that he always associated best with how she looked as he got off that plane bringing him home from Afghanistan. It meant she was hopeful.

She knew he was giving in because of her. Because they were comfortable today and he wanted to keep them there so very badly. He needed them to stay here, friends at least, or he wouldn’t make it through another mission, Avengers related or not. He knew now that he couldn’t just hang up being Iron Man. It was too big a part of him and too big a job to trust anyone else with. But he would sacrifice the whole world for her. And she knew it. But today, she only asks for this. So he nods whilst complaining about how he has to decorate apartments for spies and a God and a man out of time.

She laughs as they have lunch delivered and she helps him design the spaces so they are more than just numbers and angles and actually make sense for people who are enhanced beyond what his logic fueled mind can figure out. Clear sight-lines for the Russian spy and high spaces for the archer. Large balcony space for the Thunder God. The best views for the artist from the 40’s. Bruce’s lab is all him because a scientist’s space he could design in his sleep, and the whole green rage monster part of him is just a foundation layer and some joists.

She cards her hands through his hair just once when he asks her to have everything moved from the Malibu mansion to Avengers Tower, marking out a space for all his parents’ things just like he has them in California, with him but tucked away.

He waits for her to leave before the sobs take over, his chest rattling and cold as he clutches at the arc reactor – his blessing and curse all wrapped up into a glowing little package. He tries to remember that she left Iron Man, Tony was just the squishy human inside. She didn’t need to deal with this part.

Dummy brings him water and Jarvis is silent. He falls asleep crying at the same desk they designed at, waking up as the dawn breaks staring at post it notes in her hand writing and trying to not start all over again. He has a job to do now.

“Jarvis, you up?”

“For you Sir, always.”

--

There was a swift knock on his office door before it opened and the redheaded woman let herself in, already speaking.

“Director Fury, he is on board.”

“I am glad to hear it Ms. Potts, but why do I feel there are strings attached to your assistance in getting him there?”

She smiled and suddenly Fury wondered if Tony had made her too. She looked just like him, victorious and emboldened with the knowledge that she would get her way or he wouldn’t get his.

“Glad to know not all government stooges are as dumb as their bosses make them look.” She paused and looked him over like he was a stain on her blouse, irritating and replaceable. Fury wondered, not for the first time, if he should have recruited her.

“You would be correct. But these are, let’s say, mutually beneficial strings.” She left no room for negotiation as she moved forward into a chair opposite him at the desk, crossing her legs one over the other and settling in, hands resting on her knee. This was not a question of if he would agree to her terms but rather an informational meeting of her explaining what would be happening now.

She waited, without blinking.

Fury was a spy, a leader and considered himself a fearless man. But he wasn’t stupid. He nodded.

“What would this all entail Ms. Potts?”

She smiled and Fury thought of sharks. He made a mental note to keep her away from Agent Hill and Agent Romanov. He had no doubt they would take over the world if left alone for more than an hour.

“Think of it as a mix if public relations and rehabilitation. You have completely ignored that these Avengers are people that have been forced to handle something no one can honestly bear the brunt of. You have forgotten that they are people who have been through hell before you. I am here to make sure they actually become a team and a support system for one another since lord knows they need one that doesn’t have ulterior motives. And I will make sure they remember their humanity and the importance of it. They are superheroes Director. But they are people too. You will forget that. I won’t. So I have made myself a role on your team with SHIELD. It is all laid out in this. If you have any questions, feel free to call.”

She reached into her briefcase and pulled out a presentation folder, color coded and covered in heavy duty plastic and laid it on the desk in front of him as if he were a child she was explaining something simple to. He had no doubt that is exactly how she wanted him to feel and suddenly he couldn’t help but follow a hunch.

“Ms. Potts, by any chance did you ever meet Peggy Carter?”

Her mouth did a little quirk at that, she wouldn’t laugh in front of him yet. Interesting. But her eyes were pleased.

“Peggy and I have a weekly lunch. We have for years. Handling Stark men takes a very specific touch, as I’m sure you are starting to realize. She has been an invaluable resource.”

“She used to be Director here.”

She nods, “She was the first Director here for over 30 years. You only took over a little over a decade ago, correct?”

Fury smiled and nodded, “I think we understand each other Ms. Potts. You have carte blanche. The Avengers are your team too, you did technically develop their founding member after all.”

“Please call me Pepper.”

“Pepper. Feel free to call me Nick, although few people do.”

She stood and collected her briefcase, heading towards the door with a nod and a small smile. She paused at the door, hand on the handle. “Nick?”

“Yes, Pepper?”

She turned back to look at him, “Tony Stark was always Iron Man. I didn’t see it. Not really. I knew him to be kind and generous and a genius beyond what I think the world truly understands because I love him.” She paused to collect herself before continuing, “But a man named Yinzen developed his kindness and compassion, made it a supernova where there was nothing but darkness and pride before. My life’s work will always be devoted to making sure he doesn’t get lost in being a suit of armor for a world that is often more cruel to him than it is kind. Where I will stand will always be based on wherever he is. Do you understand?”

Her eyes left no room for argument. This was her laying her cards on the table and it would be the only time she showed them. Fury knew better than to waste the opportunity away on his own pride.

“Completely.”