|The True Meaning of Love
Author: Magnusrae PM
Years after they had parted ways, Pepper Potts receives an unexpected letter from an old friend, which leads to a surprising revelation. A Pepperony one-shot as written by a vegetarian.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama - Pepper P. & Tony S. - Words: 6,358 - Reviews: 9 - Favs: 7 - Published: 04-07-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5878849
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Inspiration for this story provided by the following: Soap Lady's "Petticoats and Powersuits", the novella "A Perfect Waiter" by Alain Claude Sulzer and a spirited discussion with a co-worker about Iron Man: Armored Adventures fan fictions' predominant theme. Much like 'A Perfect Waiter' this story has a lot of time jumps, but if you pay attention, you should be fine.
The characters portrayed here are sort of amalgams of those presented in the cartoon and those presented in the movie. It is rated 'T' for dramatic themes. Enjoy it… or not, your choice. Just make sure you chew thoroughly before you decide to spit it out.
Disclaimer: Iron Man Armored Adventures, its characters and properties belong to Marvel entertainment, which in turn is owned by Disney. It is aired by Nicktoons Network in the States. Nothing but the story is owned by me.
The True Meaning of Love:
At first Pepper ignored the letter, not out of spite, but simply because it failed to attract her attention. Contained within an austere white envelope, it blended in with the proliferation of paperwork that congregated in her in-box, the same pile that took advantage of her every distraction to multiply by leaps and bounds. And on this particular day, Pepper Potts was rightfully distracted.
Not that it was anything she couldn't handle, of course. No, with practiced ease she rescheduled Max's pertinent appointments and informed other, lesser people that they would have to reschedule on a later, as yet to be determined, date. While she spoke on the phone, her hands flew over her keyboard, correcting a presentation submitted by one of their sales reps. Multitasking had ever been her specialty.
The reason for this controlled chaos was a medical emergency involving Max's wife Helen, who had woken up with chest pains. The CEO and President of Sturbridge Inc. had immediately dropped everything to accompany her to the hospital. Pepper's morning had begun with a frantic phone call, chased by several text messages, before she had even finished her first cup of coffee.
That was okay though. Maxwell Sturbridge's devotion to his wife and family was one of her main reasons for accepting the job as his personal and administrative assistant.
The illicit behavior her professional colleagues spoke about in hushed whispers punctuated by raucous laughter over cocktails was not a part of her world. It was a deliberate deletion on her part; once she had set upon her career path she had researched prospective employers with the same thorough diligence that she now applied to every aspect of her life. It went without saying that his name had never even been on her list.
However, her youthful pursuits on his behalf had served her well in this regard; she hacked with ease both FBI files and even SHIELD's computers in order to conduct her research. Maxwell Sturbridge had not only met her stringent criteria, but had exceeded them. Convincing him that she could easily surpass his expectations as well had been more challenging, but an ultimately fulfilling quest.
Secure in the fact that her employer and his wife were actually, truly in love with one another freed Pepper from any dark reminders of her past; of him and his wanton, womanizing ways.
With Max, she never had to worry about having to ward off untoward behavior, never had to wonder if hidden meanings lurked beneath his turns of phrase or facial expressions. When flowers appeared on her desk, they were most likely from Helen, who was a good and kind person in her own regard. She never questioned what went on behind his closed doors when a female client came to call, never had to make excuses on his behalf, never worried about a reveal-all exposé being run in the paper. There was truly nothing to report.
Their relationship was strictly professional. Oh she might be 'Pepper' and he 'Max' when they were alone in his office, but otherwise it was Ms. Potts and Mr. Sturbridge, thank you very much.
Pepper was quite satisfied with her lot in life. Her job suited her; she had finally found an outlet for the spastic energy that had driven so many people crazy in her high school years. She did her job efficiently and well and was rewarded with significant financial compensation. If she found time to stop and think about it, she would probably claim to be happy.
Of course, this was before she discovered that one of the envelopes in her pile was not as innocuous as it appeared.
"Ooh, have you seen him yet? He's got the prettiest blue eyes. He's so cute!"
"Cute-smute, I hear he's rich; a bazillionare."
The two girls twittered.
"Tony Stark, right? Actually, he's only worth about a billion, which is held in a trust fund until he turns twenty-one. Roberta Rhodes, that's his legal guardian and his father's lawyer, until he died that is, is in control of it. The rest of his wealth is Stark International, which he can't inherit until he turns eighteen. Obadiah Stane runs that; did you know the FBI is investigating him? And Tony is coming here starting today, which I guess you already know; I mean since you saw him and all. Oh! And bazillion isn't really a number…"
Pepper Potts trailed off, her audience had long since lost interest and wandered away, probably to somewhere they could gossip and giggle in peace, without interruption. Probably this time about her.
With a sigh, she turned back to her locker. Alone again; the story of her life. That was fine; who needed friends? Oh, it might be nice if someone listened to her every now and again, but for some reason no one wanted to associate with the girl who had gotten three people expelled in ninth grade.
The Tomorrow Academy was a private school; she wasn't bullied so much as ignored, which was cruel in its own way. She didn't come from money, like so many of the others; academically she did fine, but didn't stand out. Sports weren't her thing. Although she did enjoy watching, it got old to sit in the stands and have the seats nearest to her clear out.
She'd never be considered a beauty; freckles that were cute in grade school rapidly lost their luster in more advanced years. Her hair was rebellious and her chest remained depressingly small. She combated her teenaged body's unattractiveness by pretending not to care about her appearance at all. She wore pink, because pink clashed with red, and often spent hours deliberately choosing clothes that made her look as if she had simply thrown on whatever was on hand.
"Take that, shallow people," she'd mutter to herself while fastening a necktie around her neck. "I don't care what you think." The problem was, of course, that she did; if anyone had bothered to get to know her at all, they'd discover an extremely lonely person who really only wanted a friend. But that wasn't going to happen.
As it turned out, Anthony Edward Stark was in most of her morning classes. She kept her mouth shut and sat away from him. He was doing enough talking of his own anyways: asking for harder books, solving unsolvable problems and taking over a class to lecture.
"Nerd," Happy Hogan declared loudly, rolling his eyes skyward. And despite Tony's good looks and amiable nature, that seemed to be the general consensus. Even James Rhodes, with whom he was living, scooted his desk away from him at one point.
Pepper passed no verbal judgment; no one wanted to hear from her anyways, so she kept her thoughts inside. There they grew and multiplied, congregating in masses before splitting off to form new conclusions. They filled up the space between her ears until she thought she would burst. In desperation she retreated to the rooftop, where even if her brain gave her no peace, at least everyone else would. Imagine her surprise when he showed up there too.
At first he didn't notice her, his gaze was captivated by the tall ivory Stark International building clearly visible in the distance. Pepper, free to observe unseen, spent a few blissful moments enthralled by the sight before her. Slightly tousled brown hair neatly framed a handsome face. But what really caught her attention was his eyes. In class they had been bright, open and inquisitive, but now… now they looked sad, lost and alone.
Her heart panged with sympathy and a new, fledgling feeling was born. And, in a moment of unguarded carelessness, all the words she so fervently wanted to keep inside came bubbling out from her lips.
"Your dad used to work there. You're Tony Stark, I mean Anthony Edward Stark. You worked there too because you never came to school before. You were privately tutored after your mom, uh…"
She took a bite of her sandwich, hoping against hope it would dam up the thoughts that were so stupidly falling from her lips. Shut up, shut up, shut up, she thought fiercely. He knows who he is; he doesn't need you to remind him of his mom's death. For once in your life, just stop talking! But the tide refused to be stemmed.
"You live with James Rhodes' family; they're your legal guardians now and you've got about a billion patents on file and you were missing for a week after the plane crash. How do you survive a plane crash, anyway?"
Inside, a tiny bit of hope curled up in a ball and died. She had done it again, spazzed out and spewed her unwanted thoughts on an unsuspecting person, thrust her presence on him unwillingly and generally made a complete and utter fool of herself. It was over, another potential friendship wrecked by her obsessive-compulsive need to express herself.
But while obviously bemused by her recitation of his history, Anthony Edward Stark did not run away from her. He remained and listened as she described what she knew about the FBI's investigation into Obadiah Stane. Perhaps not the perfect beginning, but it was a beginning all the same.
By the time Max came in, it was past noon. Pepper took one look at his haggard face and immediately down-graded the priority of several messages. She handed him a cup of his favorite blend while filling him in on the pertinent stuff. He, in turn, shared with her that Helen's chest pains had been diagnosed as angina. She knew that already, of course, but she let him talk because that is what he needed to do.
He wanted more tests done; Pepper had already compiled a list of the most prominent doctors and hospitals, organized by rank. She did not share them until asked though, and even then, not until a moderate amount of time had passed. Hers was a delicate balancing act; she had to be efficient without being overwhelming, competent without emasculating her employer, unobtrusive but omnipresent.
Daunting efforts, all, but Pepper enjoyed the challenge. These were skills garnered from being a superhero tagalong, honed as only time, observation and practice could do. She was now the ultimate accessory, the utility every non-powered hero wished he could have on his belt. The fact that some considered her position to be that of an adjunct did not bother her, so long as Max knew the truth. Every ship needed a Captain and every Captain needed a First Mate, the one who made sure everything got accomplished as it should be; that was her role.
So confident was he in her abilities to keep his ship afloat, Maxwell departed shortly after his arrival, her neatly organized list of doctors in his hand. Pepper watched him go with a smile and a nod. She tucked a strand of her long hair behind an ear and sat down to tackle her own work. She took her dinner in the office, sorting through the last of her mail as she ate, efficient even when on her own time.
It was then that she spotted the letter.
Puzzled, she stared at the return address. She flipped the plain white thing, a number ten, over and over in her hand, staring at one side, then the other, as if she could decipher the contents through will alone.
Why would he be writing to her after all this time? Why would he write at all? If he wanted to talk, why not call or use e-mail? Writing seemed out of character for one so invested in the technological advancement of society.
Her brain, never one to slack off even during her down times, easily provided an answer. An e-mail or text message could be easily deleted and forgotten; a phone call would allow her the opportunity to speak back. He knew her too well; that was why he chose this particular method of attack. She threw it down on her desk in disgust; her name, written in the same careless scrawl he had employed in high school, stared back at her.
Pepper leaned back in her ergonomically designed chair and considered, her mind abuzz with the possibilities.
Pepper hadn't been expecting it. Certainly nothing had happened to warrant Tony's sudden invasion of her personal space, one arm casually draped over her shoulder, fingers playing through her hair as his lips claimed hers.
It was a Saturday afternoon, Rhodey had retreated to the house for some snacks and Tony Stark had taken advantage of the fact to kiss her.
He was earnest about his endeavors, although perhaps a trifle clumsy. As bold in this as he was in everything, Tony apparently had no fear of being rejected. He claimed her mouth without hesitation, tongue invading unimpeded. Needless to say, Pepper returned the kiss as ardently as she had received it. It was her first real kiss and its power was such that it shifted her rather gloomy perspective on life one hundred eighty degrees.
Almost one month to the day had passed since Gene Khan's rather unexpected defection from their little group. Up until then, Pepper had been the happiest she could possibly imagine; she had two real friends, she had been trusted with a very important secret and with Gene, she had believed herself to be on her way to having her very first boyfriend. Oh, how that had all gone up into smoke.
Dreams destroyed, trust shattered, Pepper had been a shade of her former self. Was it sympathy for her plight that had caused Tony to act upon his baser urges? The red-head didn't know; didn't care. Tony, who had withstood her many verbal barrages without running away, had been her first crush anyways.
Their first kiss seemed to last forever, but in truth was over after a few blissful minutes. Pepper felt flushed and giddy, her manic brain was oddly silent, her heart making up for it by pounding away in her chest. She leaned forward again, wanting more of this sweet elixir that silenced her ever busy mind and eased her pain.
Tony dodged away. "Rhodey shouldn't know," he muttered, cheeks flushed bright red and breath short. "It'll be our secret, okay?"
She found herself nodding; if Tony in that moment had suggested that the Earth was flat and the sun revolved around it she would have gladly written an essay expounding on the subject. Only later, after weeks had taken the edge off her euphoria, would her brain raise its eyebrow at the seemingly unnecessary secrecy. But in the interim, Pepper was too deliriously happy to question Tony's motives. If anything, the fact that it was a secret made it even more fun.
They would walk side by side in the halls of the Tomorrow Academy, just as they always had, hands occasionally brushing against each other, eyes meeting then darting apart, twin blushes staining their cheeks. If Rhodey had noticed anything, he was kind enough to play along with their game. Tony rewarded Pepper's decorous behavior in public by stealing kisses here and there, pulling her unexpectedly into an empty classroom or appearing up on the rooftop for a few delicious moments during her free period, when he was supposed to be in class. It was heaven.
Tony's behavior had yet to give her cause for suspicion and alarm, and Pepper was so blissfully happy that she thought she would burst at the seams, exploding into so much confetti right there in the hallways.
When Pepper Potts finally finished up for the day, the letter still remained unopened. With a disgruntled sigh, she transported the unwanted thing home, tossing it carelessly on her coffee table as she passed by on her way to the master bedroom. It was her secret hope that it would somehow get misplaced. But her house elves, those irksome creatures who occasionally lost her care keys, cell phone and T.V. remote, were apparently taking the night off. The white envelope remained exactly where she had tossed it.
Determined not to allow Anthony Edward Stark to control her evening, Pepper went about her business as if the intrusion had never taken place. She bustled about her luxurious apartment in her usual manner. She fed her fish (the only pets she had time to care for), checked her personal messages and e-mail, prepared her outfit for the next day and called her father to confirm that they were having dinner on Sunday.
Virgil Potts sounded relieved to hear her voice. He had accepted a desk job several years ago; now Pepper was the one far more likely to cancel their 'dates'. They chatted for a while over inconsequential stuff. She did not mention the letter. Although her father did not know the whole truth in regards to Tony Stark, he knew what everyone else knew: what was published in the papers. And that was bad enough.
They never discussed exclusivity. Perhaps that was her fault. She was so deliriously happy that the thought never crossed her mind that he might want something more or someone else. And by the time the subject painfully arose, it seemed far too late to put qualifiers on their relationship.
He refused to take her to the Spring Formal. "Rhodey will feel left out if we go together. Besides, I already asked Mina Dubois. I didn't think you'd be interested. Dances and dresses just don't seem to be your thing."
And then he kissed her, his hands roaming over her body, hers over his and the dance became the first of many things they did not share. The silky off-shoulder dress she had scrimped and saved for remained safely ensconced in her closet.
It didn't matter, she told herself, if he took someone else to a dance or out to a movie. It didn't matter if he went to parties without her, or if no one outside the two of them knew of their special relationship. The other girls didn't know the real Tony. They weren't privy to his secrets. They weren't a part of Team Iron Man. They weren't the one he had chosen to sleep with.
"Look, Pepper, if I date just one girl, she'll become a target for anyone who wants a piece of Tony Stark. So as long as I don't favor one over another, every one remains safe. You don't want someone like Ghost after you, do you?"
When his arms were around her, holding her close in the middle of the night, everything he said became believable. But in the harsh light of day she spent hours playing with image altering software, eliminating her freckles, changing her hair and eye color, increasing her bust size. When the picture on the computer no longer resembled her at all, she'd burst into tears and delete it. She should have talked to him about it, should have put her foot down. But after her lonely first two years of high school, she didn't want to rock the boat.
What did she care if some of the hottest girls in school wanted to drape him over their arms like the latest fashion accessory? They were the fools, not her. She was the one who had his heart. She loved him, and love would conquer all, right?
"I don't understand," Virgil Potts said as he sat across the kitchen table from his college-aged daughter. "You've done nothing but talk about SHIELD since you were twelve years old. Your grades are plenty good enough; you've been on the Dean's list every year so far. What do you mean, you don't want to apply?"
The red-head took a sip of her tea, her eyes locked on her father as she did so, shrugging a shoulder casually. "I'm not a little girl anymore, Daddy. I've done some research. SHIELD mostly recruits its active operatives from Special Forces. I don't have any combat skills so even with my grades the best I could hope for is to be a paper pusher. I can do that in the public sector."
She paused. She could not tell her father that her desire to join SHIELD had been greatly diminished by her long term association with Iron Man. Through Nick Fury's interactions with the armored hero, Pepper had learned that his 'the ends justify the means' way of doing things were distasteful to her. She cocked her head to one side, her hair, which she was growing out, slipped out from behind her ear and partially obscured her eye. "You're disappointed," she stated.
"What? No, baby, I'm… I'm relieved." Virgil, who had risen from his chair in agitation a few moments ago, settled back down in it, his broad hand turning his coffee mug this way and that. "SHIELD is dangerous, dangerous work. I'm glad you decided against it. But Pepper, honey, why turn down Quantico too? I always thought being an Agent like your old man was your second choice." He gave her a half-smile as he spoke, his eyes still fixated on his cup. Then his gaze hardened. "Is this Tony Stark's doing?"
"No, Daddy, of course not." Pepper rose from her seat. She circled the small kitchen table and took one of his hands in hers. "Daddy, you've always been my hero. And I think one of the reasons I've been fixated on a law enforcement career is because I admire you so much. But that's the problem. I can't base my life on what works well for others. I don't want to follow in anyone's footprints. It's time for me to be my own person, to discover what's right for Pepper Potts. It's time for me to find my own way."
So much said and so much left out. Her dad had never really been comfortable with her friendship with Tony. She didn't want to tell him what had happened to inspire her bout of introspection. The words she spoke were meant for two people, but only one of them was in the room.
"It's time for me to move on."
It seems like it's been ages since we last spoke. I hope you are well. Do you ever think of the 'good old days'? You, me, Rhodey, high school and all that went on? Now Rhodey is in the Air Force and Stark International keep me busy all the time.
I hear you're doing well. Max Sturbridge is a fine man by all accounts; I hope he is a good employer too.
Pepper, I find myself in a bit of a fix. I hope we can talk soon. You know how to get a hold of me.
The woman sat back on her couch, eyes staring off into space. Frightfully devoid of pertinent information, the letter told her nothing. She briefly considered, then rejected, the notion that it might be Iron Man related. Surely if New York was facing some kind of imminent doom, Tony would have picked up a phone. No, this was something personal, she knew it.
But why so vague? Why the mystery? Because it was the only way to be sure she responded; Tony Stark had obviously learned a thing or two since becoming a CEO. She re-read the letter, searching for clues, a subtle hint, anything.
"Pepper, I find myself in a bit of a fix. I hope we can talk soon. You know how to get a hold of me."
Well, wasn't that nice? Tony Stark had smacked the ball firmly onto her side of the court. Now she had no choice but to return it. If she failed to respond, he'd just contact her again. He'd probably go for something less subtle next time; he might even be bold enough to show up at her place of employment. The CEO of Stark International was used to getting his way.
Anger filled her. They were adults, not children. These games were beneath them. Besides, if Tony found himself in a fix, why not ask whatever latest supermodel/starlet/playboy bunny bed warmer he was currently dating to help? Hadn't she made it abundantly clear that he was no longer welcome in her life?
No, Pepper realized. She had not.
Pepper Potts looked down at her book in disgust. She had grabbed the wrong one. She needed her advanced French book and notes, not her Psychology book. The red-head resisted the urge to scream in frustration. This was all her stupid roommate's fault. Savannah had some sort of 'hot' date coming over and had rushed Pepper out of the room. She needed to ace this test too; everybody knew SHIELD favored the multi-lingual.
She drummed her fingers on the offensive book, hazel eyes narrowed in irritation. She could probably go to the library and borrow what she needed, but that's not what she wanted to do. Whirling around in an abrupt about-face, the determined girl stalked back towards her dorm, muttering under her breath the whole way.
"Stupid college and stupid tests and stupid Tony for being busy tonight and stupid pushy roommate…"
So worked up was she that she didn't even bother knocking on the door first. She unlocked it and walked right in, flipping on the light as she entered. "I'm just here to get my notes," were the words she wanted to say. Unfortunately, they died in her throat. For the person Savannah was in the midst of 'entertaining' was one very, very familiar to her.
The moment seemed frozen. She felt like a mole shoved into the light, shocked blind and stupid. There were no words.
She walked in, grabbed her books and walked out, closing the door behind her. What could she say? She had ignored the rumors, the tabloids; she had given her unspoken permission when she refused to question, when she had accepted his lame explanations as to why they couldn't be together publicly. This had probably been going on since high school.
She emptied the contents of her stomach into one of the girl's room's toilets. The rest of the night was spent wandering the campus, thinking about him, thinking about herself and thinking about how things had come to this point. By the time the sun had crested the buildings to the east, Pepper was exhausted, but she had come to a conclusion. It was time for her life to change.
On the way to the Stark International building, Pepper composed a nice little speech in her head. She wanted to be blunt and succinct, the fewer words the better. She wanted Tony to hurt, as she had been hurt.
She was going to tell Mr. Stark that he had made his choice all those years ago and now he could just live with it. If he needed some sort of help he could enlist Bambi or Trixi or whoever he was currently dating. She was a smart, successful, independent woman with her own life now and she most certainly did not want him and his high-rolling lifestyle to interfere with it.
The problem was, the drive to Stark International took too long and the nice, succinct speech she was preparing kept growing in her head. The sentences multiplied and merged and grew lengthy with adjectives and modifiers such as 'selfish, rotten jerk' and 'philanderer' and its many synonyms. She tried unsuccessfully to edit down to her original lecture; it seemed this unwanted contact with Tony was bringing the old spazzy Pepper to the fore.
All the words that had gone unsaid over the years bubbled up in her, emerging from the dark nooks and crannies of her brain, warring with each other for a place of prominence in her speech. After being suppressed for so long, they wanted to be heard, demanded to be acknowledged.
There were too many. If she tried to recite them all, to air all those ancient hurts, the true message would be lost in the flow. She needed to be brief, to only choose the best, most direct words to convey her thoughts. Why was it so impossible?
A foul-tempered Pepper Potts, brain still abuzz, stood in front of the security guards. They checked her I.D., buzzed the penthouse to make sure she was okay, and scanned her for weapons. It was far too late to turn back now.
Scowling, she entered the elevator. She was wearing one of her power-suits with her long red hair tied back in a simple tail. Make-up was virtually non-existent. If she had walked into one of Maxwell Sturbridge's offices dressed like this, the employees would be quaking. But Anthony Edward Stark was a force of nature in his own regard. That was why it was so important to get it right: to walk in, say what she needed to say and walk out.
Whatever little problem was troubling him, she didn't want to hear it. He needed to be shaken, to be knocked off his high perch down to earth where the real people lived. He needed to know what kind of pain his blatant, callous womanizing had caused. And then she was going to leave; she was going to return to her life which she had created for herself and forget all about him.
The elevator pinged; the doors noiselessly slid open. The face that so often grinned at her from the front page of tabloids looked at her now, the only thing missing was the eye candy usually fastened to one arm. Pepper wondered idly if there was a naked woman even now in his bed. She hadn't called in advance; she had taken the bull by the horns and tackled the problem the very same night. Efficiency was her middle name now.
"Pepper! It is so good to see you!" he greeted enthusiastically.
He approached with open arms; she shot him a death glare and his smile faltered. His face looked haggard and drawn, she realized. The bold blue eyes that used to captivate her now sported bags underneath them. Although they were the same age, he appeared to be at least ten years older. Was this just a bad night or were they Photo-Shopping his pictures that much? Pepper decided she didn't care.
"I got your letter," she stated tersely as his arms fell limply to his sides, attempted hug abandoned. A space of three feet was between them but the chasm seemed insurmountable.
Blunt. Be blunt. Don't drown him with words; you aren't that person anymore. Be succinct.
"Look," she said, arms crossed in front of her, "I don't know what your little problem is but…"
"Pepper, I have AIDS."
Silence. Her brain emptied; her speech forgotten.
He ran his fingers through his hair, a nervous gesture left over from childhood. His eyes darted about, refusing to meet hers. "I mean I'm HIV positive. It hasn't developed into AIDS yet. They, um, they have me on a lot of drugs."
Pepper snatched at the few remaining thoughts in her head, searching desperately for something relevant to say. 'How did this happen?' came to mind, but it was dismissed just as quickly. It should be no surprise that Tony's skirt-chasing lifestyle had finally born consequences outside of the occasional paternity suit. A condom had probably been forgotten in the heat of the moment. Perhaps he had stopped practicing safe-sex all together. No, the 'how' wasn't important. It was the 'when' that mattered.
Her former love sat down on the arm of an Italian leather sofa, slumped, defeated. He still wouldn't look at her.
"I never thought it would happen to me," he muttered with a shake of his head. "I mean, I'm Tony Stark. I'm Iron Man. Things like this… I guess when the media is constantly pumping you up, you forget that you're human after a while."
He shook his head again. Lost and lonely, he looked so much like the boy she had encountered up on the Tomorrow Academy's rooftop that her heart ached. Despite her previous anger, Pepper wasn't cruel or spiteful enough to think that this was the punishment he deserved for his promiscuous ways. In fact, she was beginning to realize that she had gotten over the hurt he had caused her long ago. It was just because she had never been given a chance to air her grievances that they had been quietly festering for so long.
After all, if Tony hadn't cheated on her, repeatedly, if she hadn't been forced to take a step back and reevaluate her life and her priorities, then what would she be now? Tony's number one fan-girl? The permissive wife? Wasn't she a far stronger, better person now because she had freed herself of external influences and followed a career path of her own making?
"When did you find out?" she asked, filling the silence between them. Her brain was beginning to function again. Time was the important factor here. When did it start; how long did he have? Of course, with Tony's money he'd be able to afford the highest level of treatment, a potpourri of drugs that might keep the HIV from developing into AIDS for years. Tony was fortunate that way.
"A couple of weeks ago. It's been awful, Pepper. I'm going to have to build the hospital a wing, just to make sure nothing leaks to the media and then there's the girls…" he trailed off, shooting her a guilty look as he did so. "I know you probably think I deserve this but… you and Rhodey are the only family that I have, aside from Roberta. And I wanted it to come from me and not some tabloid. I just… I just thought you should know…"
No, that wasn't it. Pepper, now an expert at reading people, could see the truth in a glance. Tony was scared out of his wits. Life had knocked him off his crystal pedestal in a major way. He needed her, not as a sidekick or a fan-girl or as a warm womanly body in his bed, but as a true friend. Was she a big enough person to let go of her anger and accept that role?
The red head closed her eyes and thought. She didn't have to consider for long. This wasn't just Tony Stark, her first love, the one who had broken her heart; this was also her very first friend, the one who had accepted her and her overly enthusiastic, chatty ways. The one who had protected her from Mr. Fix. The one who had sat up all night holding her hand as her dad underwent surgery to remove a bullet from near his spine. She had let the blinding power of infatuation and subsequent crushing loss hide the truth from her for too long.
Tony Stark was, and would always be, one of her very best friends, a member of her family and someone she cared deeply about. He might not have been her Mr. Right, and his behavior in the past years still disgusted her, but she could still love Tony. She could love him without being in love with him; and that was the difference that allowed her to finally forgive and let go.
"Tony," she closed the gap between them and took his hand. "Tony, you know that no matter what happens, I'll always be here for you. I'll always be your friend."
One month later…
"Stark International… one moment, please." The caller was put on hold. The CEO was leaving and a few last minute instructions were in order.
"Don't forget, your meeting with the Emir has been moved to three. A press conference will be held immediately after; keep it short. Rhodey's plane flies in at six-fifteen and we're having dinner with Roberta …"
"At seven," the flustered man finished, still struggling to adjust his tie.
She fixed it for him. He flashed her a dazzling smile. "What would I do without you, Ms. Potts?"
"Probably forget to take your medication." She handed him his pill organizer.
Tony nodded seriously, then kissed her cheek. She shoved him out the door with a playful frown. Then Pepper Potts, administrative and personal assistant to Tony Stark, returned to the phone.