Title: This Is How It Works

Author: AntipodeanOpaleye

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: Everything you recognize from any other source either doesn't belong to me or is a purely coincidental occurrence. Anything that you've never seen probably belongs to me. I write for enjoyment and no copyright infringement is intended.

Summary: He finds her doubled over, sobbing into her newly manicured hands, and it hurts, because she really is all he has, and the only thing he really knows is that this doesn't work. Movieverse.

A/N: And while I should be doing a million other things, I've decided to write Iron Man fic instead. This is stream of conscious to a very large extent, and I therefore apologize for any confusion the style might cause. Also – massively huge run-on sentences abound in this piece; you've been forewarned. For the pepperony100 Prompt #82 – Work.

This is how it works:

He wakes around noon on some days, around two hours past midnight on others; always the latter when he's had company – always. He likes to skip the accountability part; he doesn't like accountability, because accountability inadvertently leads to guilt, and guilt leads to the irrepressible drive towards change, and the drive towards change can only ever be silenced by a disgustingly endless supply of alcohol, which is something he already indulges in more often than he should (contrary to popular belief, he is well aware that it is a problem; he just simply doesn't care). So he pawns the accountability off on his trusty PA, and in his more lucid moments of drunkenness, he rationalizes this tendency as logical, because accountability sounds an awful lot like accounting, and she is really, really good at accounting, so it really only makes sense that it all evens out in the end and it makes everyone happy and then he loses track of things before waking up with an empty bottle of something blurry-labeled on his stomach and a throbbing headache and the vague inclination that he'd made a really, really bad decision the night before, but the nameless, faceless brunette has been taken care of, the tits with blonde hair have been shooed away, and the natural carrot-top who'd been flaming everywhere as proof has already gotten her car home, and all is right in the world of Tony Stark so he shrugs off the unease as unnecessary and swallows the pills so thoughtfully laid at his bedside by the Hangover Fairy with an entire bottle of Figi before dismissing the whole recollection a pointless drivel that he's better served ignoring.

He tinkers with his robots, his engines, his special side projects that serve no higher purpose, that aim for no higher goal than his own childish amusement – he knows he's juvenile in the worst possible ways, and he isn't ashamed of it; on the contrary, he defends it to the bitter end (at his worst, he bitterly cites his immaturity, his irresponsibility as justified by the fact that no boy genius could ever really have relished his youth, and he is only making up now for what was stolen from him then – and even he thinks that it's a hollow argument). He flirts and smiles and primps and likes it best when they powder him for photo shoots because he thrives on the attention; he wonders how much he'd have to up her salary to persuade her to dab a bit at his nose before he leaves the mansion in the morning… or the afternoon, depending on the day. He drinks and laughs and plays with dice (unlike God) and is perfectly content with the fact that there is nothing constant, nothing solid, nothing stable and concrete and sure about his existence except for the light and lilting accent of his security system and the lethal click of unfathomably high stilettos when they hit the smooth surface of his stairs.

This is how it used to work.

Maybe it was fate, maybe it was karma, or maybe it was the universe's twisted sense of humor. Frankly, he thinks it's probably because he was first in line when the bombs went off, because fun always leads the way while the rest of the humdrum population follows along with their dicks between their legs. But maybe, just maybe (and he's willing to concede some credence to this one) it was inevitable, the old adage proving true: 'with great power comes great responsibility' and all that bullshit. He is rich and famous and powerful beyond reckoning, the poster boy for irresponsibility, for the idea that actions don't have to have consequences, so long as you know the right people, pay the right men, and fuck the right women. Yet platitudes aside, he is a changed man, and that more than anything scares the hell out of him.

So he builds the suit because it makes him feel invincible, because it makes him feel stronger, it makes him feel above and beyond the limits of mankind, a veritable god in his own right, and it makes the guilt over Yinsen seem duller in the waking hours than it does in his dreams – and really, that's enough for him. He paints it in colors that remind him of the only two things that hold him back, for reasons that any psychologist would sell their left lung to dissect, and blows things up because he wasn't lying when he told her that it felt right, so fucking right, in the heart he'd never paid any attention to until a nice chunk of metal decided to set its sights on lodging itself in his left ventricle (or his right, what did he know?) He feels remorse when he's a moment too late, he feels euphoric when he's just in time, and he feels just plain bad when he slips and calls her 'Miss Potts' like she's dispensable, like he doesn't give a damn.

This is how it no longer works.

He finds her doubled over, sobbing into her newly manicured hands, and it hurts, because she really is all he has, and as such, finding her in this sort of state feels distinctly like a failure. He's never taken kindly to failure.

It also hurts because she's still in those heels, crouched next to a filing cabinet in one of the rooms he often forgets he even has, and his ankles are killing him by just looking at her.

Her tears run through her eye shadow, though not her mascara, and there's a significant pool of moisture on her white dress shirt that's tinged with the mulberry of her makeup, bleeding and transparent so that he can see the almond shade of her bra strap underneath. She doesn't see him, not yet, and that's strange to him because he knows that if she's anything, she's observant, and he won't admit (at least, not yet) that her distraction worries him more than the fact that she looks about to topple over, that she's shaking almost convulsively, that her throat sounds raw with her gasping and her heartbreak.

Her tears sparkle in the fluorescent blue glow that drowns out the moonlight where it glitters off the walls, displaying the weather, his stock options, the news, playoff results, traffic reports and every other supposedly important tidbit of information that suddenly seems so painfully inconsequential now with her crying her eyes out at his feet. He feels powerless and inadequate, and with his heart in his throat he only really knows one thing among the myriad of things he used to think he knew: this doesn't work.

And it's simple, really – unlike the equations and the reactions and the measurements and the mechanisms – it's bare bones and primitive and it makes more sense than anything he's ever taken for granted as the truth; suddenly it's clear, it's really fucking clear.

This is how it should work:

He walks closer to her, his bare feet suctioning quietly to the glossy flooring as he watches her, and he tenses a bit, starts with the rough, primal sounds of agony quivering through the air that separates them because it's worse than any whistling weapon or supersonic fighter slicing through the atmosphere; and frankly, he's uncomfortable with that. He has the sudden urge to fall down next to her, to run his callused fingers over the sharp peaks of her shoulder blades, to pull her face into the crook of his neck, just to the left of the awkward ring of glowing metal so that he can feel the warm, wet intimacy of her teardrops soak through his shirt down to the beat drumming hard beneath his skin. He wants her to melt into him, because he thinks it will help them both, and he knows that he'd rather shoulder her burden, whatever it is, than see her in so much pain. He wants to help her, to hold her, and he entertains the possibility of maybe kissing her, just to see if he can taste anything except salt when he does, because he's a superhero, goddamnit - and he should be able to make this right.

This is how it does work:

He walks closer, but she hears him before he can get very far. She looks embarrassed, and he imagines that he resembles a deer caught in headlights because he's lost and confused and he can't really think straight with those bloodshot eyes staring up at him; it kills him that her gaze is almost fearful, and he tries to convince himself that there are other things that might case her to be scared in this world (and he ignores the voice in the back of his head telling him that there's more than one reason why those 'other things' aren't to blame for her apprehension). She jumps when she sees him, losing her balance and tumbling in a tangled and undignified lump of limbs to the floor, snapping her right heel in the process, and he watches the solid icicle of black spin with the force of its detachment, only turning back to her when it stops still somewhere in the far corner of the room.

He's hovering over her before he can remember taking the steps to make it so, on his knees in the space between her inelegantly sprawled legs, and he's utterly helpless as she fumbles pathetically to dry her eyes, to regain some semblance of composure, and it's in her desperation to hide her grief from him that he gives in to his own, a sorrow he hadn't known he was feeling until that very moment when he takes her wrists and draws them to his chin for reasons even he can't identify. He thinks that the scar near the cuticle on her thumb is probably his fault, somehow; and that the nick in her left ring finger looks the part of a significant defect as he enfolds her hands in his, stroking them idly against the bristle of his beard. He tastes aged carbon and the smear of ruined lipstick when he licks at his mouth after firmly clasping her hands around his neck. He leans her torso against his, to his right alongside of the arc reactor because he's too much of a fool to share his heart with her, to let her get that close, but it doesn't matter because the tears are dried by then and now she's just grasping onto him as she shakes in a drought and avoids eye contact and says nothing, absolutely nothing, to help him figure out what he's doing wrong. And he panics, because he loves his freedom and hates his responsibility and suddenly the two are inextricably forced upon him in the form of a living, breathing woman who somehow means the world to him pressed tight against his chest, and by then it doesn't matter which side she's on because his heart's pounding so fast that she'll hear it either way, and all he can do to keep from drowning is cling back, return the hold she has on him, and close his eyes until it passes, until it's just the two of them, until nothing else exists.

And he knows that, unfortunately, while he may be able to fly and shoot flares from his shoulders and lift tons and save lives, he can't just fix this with a wave of his metal-clad hand; not this, not her. But he wants to, more than anything, and that's why he drops his lips to her tousled hair, the frizzing strands that have slipped from her bun tickling his nose, scented of honeysuckle and lavender and the ocean and sweat and the buttery grease from the takeout that fed them for lunch; and it's beautiful, it's blissful, and he knows that regardless of anything else, this is what he wants. This is everything – everything – and he has to fight for it, because it's not a weapon of mass destruction, it's not atonement for his sins, it's not daddy issues or a guilt complex or compensation; it's quiet and subtle and all-consuming and filled to the brim with hope. It has more potential than anything he's ever known (and a larger capacity for failure than approximately 78 of even his most outlandish schemes), and it's bold enough to make him want to give it everything he has.

This is how he will make it work, even if it kills him.