Chapter 9: Breathe in. Breathe out.

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“How much longer now?” she asked.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“28 minutes, Ms. Potts.” JARVIS, always helpful answered in her ear. She couldn’t believe Tony would be so accidentally cruel as to not tell her, his youngest, most beloved AI — his child, they never called it what it was, but JARVIS was Tony’s child— had died. She understood grief. Understood the need to block everything out in the event of a deep, heartbreaking loss. But this wasn’t Tony in grief. Tony, her stupid, slightly broken Tony, loved too deeply not to fall into pieces when that love was lost. Rhodey had told her of what had happened when Jarvis — the original, Tony’s father in all but blood— had died. Their friend had pretty much shut down. And then, he had thrown himself into the arms of everything that had legs and offered him alcohol. After that, he had locked himself into his lab, three years of nothing but work, until finally JARVIS — and wasn’t the name enough to understand what he meant to Tony?—  had been born and taken over Tony’s life. 

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This Tony, the one to speak with her after Johannesburg — that had been a colossal disaster that she still didn’t quite know how to process—  hadn’t done that. He hadn’t shut down, drunk himself into alcohol poisoning or locked himself in the lab. 

This one had joked with her when she mentioned giving a press conference and then gone “to play Avenger” —those were his exact words.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Now he was hiding out in some farmhouse in Missouri when he had perfectly secure safe houses in every single state, that only 4 people on this planet knew of: her, Rhodey, JARVIS, and Tony himself. Not to count the sheer number of random unsecured properties. This farmhouse, from JARVIS’ explanation, didn’t seem quite secure. If anything, Ultron’s interference had made it considerably more so. 

“Ms. Potts?” the AI roused her from her thoughts.

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“We arrived?” Three hours and here they were. She didn’t need an answer, she could see the farmhouse, the only building amidst miles of nothing. Finally. She needed to get Tony out of here. They needed to talk. He wasn’t the best at it —he was an utter horror at communication, even disregarding the severe trust issues— but he had promised he would try. And he had broken that promise. She didn’t need to hear all the gritty details of the Avenger business as they happened —Tony always explained later— but JARVIS was not Avenger business. Tony’s bots and AIs never were. This was family they needed to talk about. Hurt family. 

“ETA-30 seconds, Miss.”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“Thank you, JARVIS.” He drove the automated car that Tony had tinkered with less than a month ago. Tony had become bored, —although rather than boredom, Tony had probably started focusing on creating Ultron around then, — so it hadn’t been connected to the mainframe yet and had been spared from Ultron’s influence. Also, she didn’t want to bring a driver to what was a supposed safe house for Barton.

They stopped before the house. Barton awaiting them seemingly alone. Perhaps, he was being overconfident, if he thought the arrivals potential enemies. Perhaps, he thought a SHIELD agent was coming and wanted to greet them. It was too difficult to hide the sound of an engine coming down an empty road.

She got out of the car, driver’s seat, appearing to be the one driving, —JARVIS had been cautious about revealing his continued livelihood— and put on a business smile for the archer. 

“Potts?” Barton sounded surprised. 

“Hello, Mr. Barton.” she said, ever polite. “I am here for Tony.”

To his favor, he moved on from the surprise pretty quickly. “How did you know about this place?” He apparently wasn’t as polite as her. That came out fairly accusing. 

“Just like Tony knows. Background check.” she answered. She didn’t have the time for this. 

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“Background check?” he repeated, disbelieving. 

“A comprehensive background check.”

His fingers twitched, one hand reaching for behind his back. Grabbing a knife, perhaps? 

“Stark didn’t know about it.” 

She made certain her expression was purely unimpressed. One must be careful of suspicious assassins.

“Tony apparently didn’t read the background checks JARVIS prepared. Like usual.” A bit of a lie by omission. JARVIS hadn’t known about the farmhouse being the Barton family home until today, but… details. 

Like expected, Barton calmed down at the mention of JARVIS. Most people thought artificial intelligence to be more overpowered than it was. Even omniscient, really.

“This house is completely off the books.” he persisted, although he was no longer reaching for the possible knife.

“You would have to ask Tony about the details, however, if I were to guess, is your phone off the books as well?” 

JARVIS had assured her —although she had no doubts to begin with— that he had been perfectly capable of tracking SHIELD mandated phones through their GPS before Ultron had done something to the ones the Avengers owned. She ignored the archer and walked into the house where Tony was —there was nowhere else he could be.

As she passed what she assumed to be a kitchen, she heard voices.

“Do we have an ally?” that sounded like Romanov. Tony was likely inside as well. She could hear Barton’s steps down the hallway. He was quiet, measured, what she had learned assassins to typically be. She shouldn’t be able to hear him. He probably thought no one did. But she could. She had been able to since… 

Breathe in. Breathe out. 

“Ultron’s got an enemy, that’s not the same thing. Still, I’d pay folding money to know who it is.” 

She went in through the open doors that led to a living room/kitchen combo, just in time to see Tony beside a dartboard say, “I might need to visit Oslo, find our ‘unknown.'”

Oslo. Wasn’t that where JARVIS was hiding out?

“I came just in time then.” she announced her presence, being behind them. Fury, Rogers and Romanov has noticed her, though. Fury and Romanov were trained. Rogers… probably the serum.

Tony turned around so fast, she was sure JARVIS would have said something snarky about ‘standing at attention’, if he had been able to see it. 

For a moment, he looked guilty before it was replaced with a large grin and open arms. “Pepper!” 

He hugged her. Definitely not in grief then. She was grateful JARVIS had agreed to wait outside. He would have drawn the wrong conclusions, if he had seen Tony like this. While he was amazing at understanding most human emotion and Tony’s especially, JARVIS hadn’t yet learned how irrational his own emotions could be. Insisted in fact, to her and Tony’s utter amusement, that as an AI he was incapable of being irrational.

“How did you find your way here, Ms. Potts?” Fury ordered an explanation, although it was disguised as a question. 

Barton entered the room behind her. Perfect timing.

She looked Fury in the eye before speaking. Always look a man who thinks he is in charge in the eye. “I am not going through an interrogation a second time. Barton, here, can answer in my stead.” Then she turned to Tony, who wasn’t touching her any longer, although he was too deeply inside her personal bubble, to appear as anything but intimate.

“We need to talk.”

“Relationship issues, Stark?” Barton joked as he sat on one of the island chairs. 

“What? No.” Tony answered, confident, although his eyes immediately reached for hers, checking over her face as if her expression would reveal the answer he was supposed to know. Trust issues. Insecurity.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“Yes,” She said, and Tony immediately reached for her hand, holding them close behind their backs, away from the view of the others. Crippling insecurity. He knew she never spoke of private affairs in front of others. He knew she had to be lying. Yet still… his hand tightened around hers, worried. 

She continued. “It is private. But we need to go.”

“Ms. Potts, Stark is needed here. There is a world emergency—.”

“Hulk in Johannesburg.” she interrupted him. “And robots around the world. I watch the news.”

“Pepper, maybe—,” Tony started, sounding like he always did when he tried to negotiate with her. Rarely did it ever go in his favor.

“Private family emergency.” she stressed. Then addressed both Tony and the room. “You are not doing much here. Keep brainstorming. If you come up with a plan, do call Tony to tell him all about it later. For now, we need to go.” Thinking of the comment she had heard as she entered the room, she continued, as she looked at her partner. “We’ll talk on the way to Oslo, it seems you have something to do there anyway.”

Then ignoring what appeared to be Rogers preparing some patriotic-sounding disagreement, she pulled Tony out of the room. 

“Pep, what’s going on?” he asked as he took her hint and followed her outside. His eyes took in the car, recognizing it for what it was and looked at her in question.

“A moment.” she said, before letting him enter the passenger side, taking, herself, the driver’s seat.

“Pepper, my armor’s at the farmhouse.” he told her, but made no move to get out. She nodded, not wanting to explain while they were still here. Starting the car, she drove, manually this time, and as soon as they passed a mile, she asked him for his phone. 

“Why?” He asked even as he handed it over. His mouth opened and closed several times, surprised and not knowing what to say, as she rolled down the window and threw the phone out.

“Anything else on you?” 

“Pepper, are we in a spy thriller?”

“My question first.”

He seemed to want to argue but took the path of least resistance. “No.”

“Good then.” she said, and then addressed the AI who had been quiet until now, in case Ultron was listening through one of the corrupted devices. “Say hello.”

“Hello?” Tony repeated, slowly.

“Hello, Sir.” JARVIS’ voice came from the car’s audio. The change in Tony’s expression was so immediate, that it was funny.

“JARVIS!” he shouted. “That you buddy?!”

“I did not think it possible that you could forget my voice, Sir, in just a week of no interaction. Should I schedule an appointment with a neurologist for any memory-related conditions?” the AI snarked and Pepper smiled as Tony’s eyes softened, before he continued their banter.

“First Ultron, now you. Will I never be rid of children reminding me of my age?” 

She turned completely toward Tony at that. JARVIS had taken over the driving. 

“You have spoken with Ultron?” she asked. JARVIS had appeared both apprehensive and worried about the AI, but hadn’t been that informed himself.

“You know about Ultron?” he asked in return.

“I spoke with Ms. Potts, Sir.” JARVIS said. 

“I am wondering what you know about Ultron as well, JARVIS.” Tony said.

This was a good moment to reassure JARVIS that Tony wasn’t as cruel as to think him not important enough to talk to Pepper about his wellbeing. “JARVIS assumed you thought he had died.”

“What?” Tony’s surprise was reassuring. “No. No. I checked the servers. I knew JARVIS had to have left for somewhere, or something, but I was quite sure you were alive, waiting for me, buddy.” He, then, rolled his eyes. “Although the team is convinced Ultron ate you or something ridiculous like that.”

“Oh.” Again, JARVIS was not aware of his own feelings most of the time but that had definitely sounded relieved. “In Johannesburg, didn’t Ultron—?”

“Ultron’s a kid.” Tony said, and he appeared prepared to fight them on this. “Just a kid, with some huge misconceptions about peace and this weird thing about getting U.S. nuclear codes. I mean, Russia’s are much simpler to hack, and no one would stop him, probably, like they did for U.S., so I have no idea what he is thinking about that.”

Tony thought of Ultron as a kid. Was JARVIS right about there being someone else in control then?

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“Is that what going to Oslo is about?” she asked.

“Yes. I considered it might have been JARVIS, but if he could stop Ultron from hacking, he could give me a phone call, so I thought that it wasn’t you J.”

“It was me, Sir. I was unable to contact you because Ultron has taken over all Stark systems and made me unable to connect to them.” 

He looked at the car. “So that’s why you are driving this. And the whole ‘private emergency’ turning Pepper into a badass spy.”

“Badass?” Pepper smiled.

“Fury has nothing on you and he knows it.” Tony said, sounding utterly serious about it. Maybe he was. 

JARVIS coughed, politely, disengaging them from each-other’s eyes and back on topic. “Sir, in light of recent events, I would like to discuss with you a… theory I have in regard to the powers of the scepter, and its effect on…”

JARVIS stopped speaking as both he and Pepper saw Tony bury his face in his hands and groan. Loudly.

“I have become stupid.” he said. “How did I not see this before?”

Apparently, he had just made the same connections JARVIS had. 

Pepper became exasperated by his theatrics. “You were busy playing Avenger, Tony.”

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