It's difficult now, to imagine Tony without Pepper. Admittedly, Pepper's been part of Tony's life for far longer than she's been physically here, but there's still a difference. They're inseparable. Tony will spend all the free time he has with Pepper, without hesitation or ever seeming to get bored.

That's not to say Tony can't function without Pepper; he can, and he's proved that. But Pepper gives Tony back that spark that he hasn't really fully had since before Afghanistan. But this time it's accompanied by the maturity and understanding of the world that he was forced so harshly to develop. Pepper is literally the light of his life. They say it's only when you lose something that you realise how precious that something is. And Tony lost Pepper twice. It's obvious to see that he knows that what he's got is the most precious thing in the world. Happy never thought the day would come when Tony Stark learnt that lesson.

()

As for Rhodey, he sees the teenager from MIT who was so young and desperate for affection again. That was the Tony who was the reason Rhodey had stuck with him through his arrogant bastard phase. Their friendship, that had started to be based far too much around what Tony created and not Tony himself, was refreshed – because Rhodey can once more see the Tony who trusted easily (too easily) and who was still open to the idea of love. Tony with Pepper is the happiest Rhodey's ever seen the man. He can't imagine Tony without Pepper either, and he knows, that if Tony's got any choice in the matter, Pepper will never leave his side for as long as he lives.

Rhodey's only worry is that it might not be Tony's choice, in the end. And Rhodey knows he hasn't been the best friend he could have been recently, with the fiasco with Hammer, so this might make him a hypocrite, but he's damn well going to make sure that Tony's not left broken from this.

He finds Pepper one day, when Tony's out. It feels a bit cliché doing this, but that's beside the point.

"He loves you," is his opening line, and Pepper turns to face him, slightly startled.

She smiles at him though. "I hope you mean Tony," she replies, and Rhodey's almost satisfied already. He certainly can't help but grin a little.

"Yeah, I mean Tony." He shrugs. "You know that, right? That he loves you." Rhodey can tell Pepper knows what he's doing, why he's doing it, but she doesn't protest or tell him it's none of his business, or call him out on being a hypocrite. She simply nods. "Good. Because I've known him since MIT, and I've never seen him like this before, not with anyone. Certainly not with anyone who cares."

Pepper doesn't look surprised, but she looks sad. Rhodey knows that feeling: because Tony deserves so much more than the hand he's been dealt in life. If Pepper understands that, there's not much really for Rhodey to do.

Other people might add a threat on the end of this conversation, a promise if she hurts him. But somehow he knows she's not going to, not intentionally. Instead he just smiles at her trustingly. "Look after him."

She looks at him evenly for a moment, before nodding. "I'll do my best."

In the end, it's less of a threat, and more of a welcome to the team of looking after Tony. Because God knows the guy can't look after himself.

()

Phil hasn't known Tony all that long, but he understands how the man works and he has enough experience to see that Tony and Pepper could last a lifetime. He's seen Tony without Pepper, and Pepper without Tony, and they are so much more together. The easy, open affection that they have is telling – particularly for Tony "I don't like to be handed things" Stark. Phil's so glad that Tony's finally truly happy, the man's been through enough recently to deserve that. But Phil's also fast becoming friends with Pepper, and he's observant. Pepper and Tony have something, but while everyone knows what that something is, they don't seem to have made it official yet. And while they seem perfectly comfortable with it right now, Phil knows both Tony and Pepper want more. He watches them dance around it for a while before getting frustrated. Eventually he approaches Tony, using his exceptional manipulation skills (only Fury and Romanoff are better than him) to force Tony into action.

"Hey, Stark," he greets upon gaining entry to the man's workshop.

Tony glances up with a grin, does something to the hologram in front of him before he waves it away. "Agent! What's up?"

Phil makes some meaningless conversation for a while, discussing a SHIELD deadline and then moving on to find out if Tony's made any headway with the technology they'd recovered from the alien base they'd found Pepper in, or made any discoveries about what the two had experienced.

Tony shrugs and answers in the negative. He looks frustrated by his lack of progress with that.

Phil nods calmly. "Not that it's important. I left those details out of my report. And Pepper isn't exactly only staying for answers." It's barely a seed of doubt, but Phil knows that it's been planted – he sees the way Tony frowns minutely out of the corner of his eye. Tony will over think and over-analyse and panic and ultimately come to the wrong conclusion about Pepper. It feels almost cruel, doing this to Tony, but Phil's sure that if this works out, the billionaire will forgive him. If he even realizes what happened.

But Phil is keen to make sure this happens soon, that Tony doesn't sit stewing over this for months, so he adds something else. "I can't imagine what that must be like."

Tony makes a questioning noise, looking up at him.

"To wake up and have missed years like that," Phil elaborates, not quite looking at Tony. "Imagine all the stuff you must have had planned, only to lose so much time. There'd be so much you'd want to do."

"Technically, if you count the time spent as a hallucination or whatever, they didn't spend the entire time asleep and unaware..." Tony points out, though there's a shadow of uncertainty in his voice.

Phil nods. "I guess they owe a lot to that experience then." That's just the icing, making Tony think that Pepper thinks she owes him something. It might be a bit much, that, but Phil's certain Pepper will alleviate any fears he gives Tony now. If the genius isn't brave enough to speak up about them, then Phil will just point Pepper in his direction and let her get it out of him. Although really, she'll notice something's wrong with Tony before Phil needs to. He's certain of that.

Phil's plan works perfectly. It takes a few days for Tony to have really started to worry, to have come to conclusions in his mind that are ridiculous but he's certain they're right. It takes another day for him to work up the courage to talk to Pepper.

Tony's fidgety, he never knows how to start a conversation like this and he's kind of scared that this conversation will go completely the wrong way and he'll lose her. (Which, yes, is completely unreasonable. But hey, who can expect Tony to be reasonable about this kind of thing?)

Pepper, of course, notices that something is wrong almost instantly. She gives him an unamused look as he paces the kitchen behind her, waiting for him to say whatever's on his mind. She gives him five minutes. Then she turns, puts her hands on his shoulders to still him and looks him in the eye. "Tony. What's wrong?"

Tony only meets her eyes for a second before looking away nervously. "I..." He shrugs. "It's just something Phil said. It's nothing," he says, losing confidence. He knows that's not going to be enough for Pepper, he's not stupid, but he still doesn't know how to just say it.

"Phil?" Pepper sounds surprised. "You mean Phil's upset you again?" She sounds protective and Tony shakes his head quickly.

"No, he hasn't done anything. Don't go and attack him, he has bad-ass ninja skills. Seriously. I don't want you to get hurt."

Pepper sighs at his ramblings, pushing Tony down onto the stool behind him. "Then you're going to have to tell me what's wrong."

So what Tony needs to ask Pepper is simple: is she only staying because she feels that she owes him? Naturally, Tony makes a complete mess out of it.

Tony looks up bravely, meets her eyes, and promptly quails again. "Do you..." No, that's too direct. Saying the words like that is too scary and he shakes his head, tries a different tack. (He always starts at the back end of a conversation, apparently that's very confusing. He always attributes it to thinking faster than everyone else.)

"I mean, you don't owe me, if anything I owe you, right? So there's no reason for... If you don't want to... If you do, then that's fine, great, even, but I can't imagine..." He's babbling, avoiding the subject. He wants to just man up and say it, but apparently Tony Stark is not man enough for that.

"Tony..." Pepper starts, but Tony interrupts quickly, because he doesn't want to hear what she has to say, he's too ridiculously scared of rejection.

"No, really, it's okay, right? There must be, I don't know, a zillion other things you could be doing and I don't mind, really..."

Pepper tries again. "I..."

"...because I'm not... It's not like that, and I don't want you to feel obliged to- mmphh."

Pepper's covered his mouth with her hand, shaking her head in amusement and exasperation. "Please shut up, Tony," she says, and he glares at her for a second, before wilting and waiting. He has absolutely no idea what she's going to say; she's unreadable right now. "I wasn't thinking that I owed you anything..."

Tony opens his mouth again to protest, but she glares at him and he shuts up.

"If I owe anyone anything, it's Phil." Her voice is calm, almost amused. "He found me."

"Right." Tony makes a face at that, he doesn't want his angel indebted to anyone, even Phil, but it's not really an issue right now. Anyway, that's not the point. He's just still not exactly comforted.

Pepper just shakes her head again, lifting her hand to touch his cheek and waiting until he looks her in the eye. "Tony. I'm staying because I want to."

Tony's emotions war between disbelief and relief and disbelief wins. "Really? Because I'm kind of a first class jerk, I'll annoy you eventually and you're allowed to change your mind, y'know..."

"Tony!" Pepper interrupts, and she looks like she's trying not to laugh. "I'm staying because of you, you idiot."

It takes a moment for him to process that. Tony stares at her, unable to get rid of the besotted smile on his face. "I love you." He blinks as he realises that he's actually said that out loud, but it feels right. It certainly feels more natural than anything else he's said in the last ten minutes.
And the moment of uncertainty is worth Pepper's smile. She lifts her other hand to the back of his neck, pulls him close and kisses him softly and Tony practically melts against her.

"I love you too," Pepper murmurs in his ear as she pulls away, brushing her lips against his cheek.

Tony couldn't get rid of his giddy smile if he tried. He wraps his arms around her to hold her where she is. "Just warning you, I've never done this relationship thing before."

Pepper shrugs and grins. "Just do what I say and you'll be fine."

Tony huffs indignantly at that, but he's still smiling. "You know what? I think I will be."

Certainly, if the way Pepper kisses him after that is any indication, Tony's going to be absolutely fine.

()()()

So, that's all folks! I hope you enjoyed it.

I'm not making any promises, but there may be a sequel at some point. I do have some ideas, just not enough yet for a whole story, so if a sequel is happening, it won't be any time soon. Especially as I have other stories I want to try and get written.

I honestly loved writing this story and getting your feedback, so thanks for reading and reviewing, all!