Author's Note: well, here it is, the end of the story for the time being. However, do not be dismayed. 4persophone and I have started a new collaboration, which should be appearing soon. :)


He laughs till he hurts. He laughs because it hurts. He laughs because she's there in his lap and she's speaking the truth, as ironic as it might seem. He laughs because for the first time in his life he might have actually managed to get something that's this important right.

The woman in his arms is strangely silent. He wants to raise his hands to her breasts but they are "having a moment" and that might be inappropriate and he doesn't want to fuck it up. Of course for some reason he wants to inexplicably cry. He's guesses that that proves he's more than a little fucked up.

He can feel her entire body expand and relax against his chest as she sighs out deeply. "We were pretty much living in each other's pockets already, you know," she informs him as she runs her fingers through his hair. Given the absent look in her eyes he's guessing it's a thoughtless motion and yet an incredibly meaningful one just the same. "At least you spend time in your garage, so I suppose I'll get breaks now and then." Still, he knows she's wondering how much all of this is going to change their lives.

"We've been lovers for months now, Pepper," he informs her a little ironically. "In my mind all this changes is the fact that I intend to leer openly in private, instead of always having to cover my damn hard-on."

That earns him a smack to the back of the head, though it's not a particularly hard one. "You are such a pig," she sighs, teasing him a bit as she smoothes back the hair she's just ruffled. "You're going to be absolutely impossible, aren't you?" She asks almost whimsically. He's hard underneath her, and she can feel the way his hands are tensing and relaxing against her sides but she forces herself not to react.

'Women come too easily to Tony.' Not that she's the exception, really but still, a girl has a right to be wooed, doesn't she?

He finally gives up and cups her breasts in his hands, running his thumbs down along the crease near her armpits, watching in fascination as she shudders.

"Hey for the record, I'm only a half pig. I'm trying to let us have a moment here, but you're kind of distracting. It's not my fault you're the most god-damn beautiful thing that I think I've ever seen."

"Really..." She links her hands behind his neck and leans in to start nibbling on his jaw. His skin is rough with stubble and for a moment she rubs her cheek against his face. "You really love me." It is a statement of amazement that in no way doubts her worth. Instead it sounds like she's amazed that he'd finally recognized the fact.

"No shit, Sherlock." He leans in to kiss her, letting his tongue snake out to trace the line of her bottom lip. His right hand plucks at her left nipple, slowly, watching her face to see how much he can get away with.

'Quite a bit, apparently,' judging by the way her tongue chases his own back into his mouth. The woman had far too much of a 'tops' disposition, if you ask him sometimes.

He shifts uneasily beneath her, groaning in discomfort, and curses himself for picking this particular set of pants. He's going to have to push her off him just to get himself free, and he's loathe to move and give her that much advantage.

Pepper, predictably, seems to read all these thoughts in his eyes, because a wicked sort of grin is taking over her perfect features. "Tell me when you figured it out and I'll give you a hand again," she offers with just a twinge of evil delight.

'It serves him right to be uncomfortable after what he'd been about to do.' After all it hadn't been her who had been dumb enough to try leaving.

He slaps her hands and shifts her off his lap before he shifts to the side of the bed, "I can get myself out this time...thank you very much. After last time I'm not inclined to trust you to help with ambushing me."

She looks a little bit disappointed, but at least she acquiesces. He gains his feet with a single shove upward, and then he's reaching for his fly. She watches, with what can only be described as a predatory level of interest, and he almost misses the next question she asks."

"So when did you figure it out? I'd really like to know."

"Figure out what? You're going to have to be a little more specific, I'm kind of distracted at the moment."

Her grin is wicked as she watches him shimmy out of his pants, but her curiosity when she asks again is sincere.

"When did you figure out that you were in love with me?" She's staring at his waist, but it's more because she's still a little uncomfortable talking about these things than anything else. That, and though he knows she'd deny it, she's the most naturally curious person he's ever met.

He shucks his pants and tosses them to the floor, sighing in relief as his erection pops upright in position, free of the prison it had been in.

She licks her lips and he has to clench his fists to not give up on answering any question.

"I figured out I loved you when they shoved my head under water." He realizes a moment after he's said it that that might not have been the best way to put it, even if it was the truth. He jerks his eyes to her face and prays she doesn't freak out completely.

She's not overreacting, but she has to look away from him to keep a level head. They don't talk about Afghanistan. Hell, they barely even talk about the arc reactor. In fact, they don't talk much about anything that has any connection with him being Iron Man.

His erection deflates a little as he reaches forward to cup a soothing hand to her face.

"So...the whole life passing before your eyes thing is true? Or...?" She leans into the touch and tries to keep her voice casual, though she doesn't manage it completely.

He shakes his head. "Just your face. Your voice. I considered it something of an epiphany."

Her eyes rise to his face, the worst of the shock finally passing. She searches his features carefully, though he's not sure what she's looking for. He tries to keep from being overwhelmed by the intensity of it, but the depth of her looking makes him shiver just a little.

"You know, I thought you were going to tell me that day we switched your chest piece." She smiles as she reaches out and raps her knuckles on the metal surface.

He shakes his head and reaches out his hand. "No, Potts. That's when I pretty much confirmed to myself in my head that you were in love with me."

He then he takes her free hand and the one she just tapped him with, tugging her gently in a silent kind of order. He waits until she climbs off the bed to stand in front of him, before he kisses her again – methodically and wetly.

When she's limp from this exchange of eager tongues, he turns her around so she's standing facing away from him. The position means that he can reach around her front with both his hands, which pleases him greatly. She leans back against him, resting her head on his shoulder. She looks like she finds it a quite comfortable position.

"I guess mounting it gave me away, did it? Because I'm pretty sure I wasn't thinking anything romantic while my hand was actually in your chest. That was utterly disgusting, by the way." He chuckles and wraps his arms around her front to cup her breasts.

"You only babble when you're vulnerable, Pepper, all I had to do was figure out why. The dance we shared was a pretty clear hint...I'm a genius remember?" His right hand traces her flank from the edge of her shoulder all the way to her hip. When he gets to waist level he wraps his other arm around her middle to hold her in place. Then he pushes his thigh between her own to spread her open to his touch.

"I don't...babble." She protests. Her eyes flutter closed and she squirms a little in his grasp as his fingers tease her sleek belly.

She wants to turn – he can sense it in her body language. In the way her fists clasp in impatient fists before she tries to spin and face him. His arms tighten around her in warning. She moves experimentally and is met with the same reaction.

He chuckles low in his throat. "There's no up or down here, Pepper. We're vertical. Which means I get to lead for once. Such novelty…"

He finds her clit and circles it then, maddeningly light. Yes he intends to give her exactly what she wants, but he doesn't mean to hurry.

"This time," she warns him, as his hands reach her wet folds. He spreads her open with his left hand and dives in with his other. He feels it then as she tries to relax - tries to let go of the thoughts still racing through her head.

He lets his touch give silent reassurance as they stroke the core of her body. He's not running, he won't let her run; she'll have plenty of time to get her questions answered later.

He slips one finger into her heat and captures the groan it causes with his mouth.

Then he commences a silent conquest of her body.

This dance is familiar. He's done it a thousand times before. It's something about his makeup which he's never felt the need to apologize for, and that goes doubly now. He'll never understand why he finds this process almost more satisfying than the act of coming, but he loves pushing the barriers and seeing this side of a woman – spread bare of pretense, diluted to their raw purity.

With Pepper it's something more elemental. He's learning her nature. He wants to know...will draw it out until she's finally begging.

It's not just about watching her fall, it's about being the one to catch her when she finally glides back down to reality.

"Tony..." Her hands move to his, one wrapping around the arm at her waist and the other around the wrist of the hand between her thighs. Her grip is tight, but in no way controlling. Her breath is shallow but steady, as if she's willing to actually accept what he's offering and not fight for more. The only sign of impatience she shows is how she turns her head towards him with a little grimace, "You're such a god-damn tease!"

He makes her hover there at least another half hour, till her limbs are shaking, then he lifts her up and turns her around in a single fluid motion.

"Oh...fuck." Pepper buries her face in his neck and holds on tight. He settles her on top of him with one long, slick slide.

She comes, then almost immediately, before he begins the climb once again.

When Tony collapses back onto the bed, Pepper stays where she is. She likes the feeling of him under her, of his arms around her, of her head moving up and down with the motion of his chest. Likes feeling him inside her after the fact because she's certain she's the only woman he's allowed to lay on top of him once passion is spent.

She shifts so that she can kiss his shoulder, and then she's lapping at the sweat that coats his body. His skin is smooth under her tongue except for the occasional scar. She doesn't know where the scars came from, just that they're there. Part of him. Imperfection in an otherwise smooth plane. Kinda like his personality. Smooth at a distance but covered in scars...some of them small, some as glaringly obvious as the reactor in his chest.

"You're hell on my stamina, Potts. I'm going to have to find a way around that." His voice is a low purr of contentment.

She snickers against his shoulder, "'s not unheard of for doctors to prescribe things for problems like that, Mr. Stark..."

His eyes pop open and he takes in her smirk, "You do realize I'm probably going to spank you for that comment when I can move again, don't you?"

"You wouldn't." It's nothing short of a dare.

"Watch me." And he's flipping them even before she can even get out a squeak.

Two hours later he's lying on his back beside her. There's two more bottles of water on the bed stand, and a half empty jar of macadamia nuts, which he's been scavenging his way through. The clock beside the bed reads 4:47, and he's become uncharacteristically quiet as the hour progresses.

Pepper's pressed against his side, her fingers moving idly against his hip. She's drowsy, content and boneless. He really knew his work apparently. Out of her many fantasies of Tony she never dared let things go this far. The quiet intimacy of laying next to each other is a pleasure she hadn't looked for.

"So when did you know, Pepper?" His voice is strangely soft.

"Know?" She yawns and tries to focus her usually clear mind with only moderate success. "When did I know that I loved you?"

"You got to hear my side, it seems only fair. I'd also like you to lie and tell me your immediate reaction wasn't to go out and get drunk. Something comforting like that…"

"My immediate reaction was to quit. But then I realized either you were completely oblivious to me or I was much better at hiding it than I felt I was."

He goes still at that admission. Involuntarily closes his eyes. Cracks one and speaks through pained lips. "Yes, well I think we've already established I've never been the best at noticing what I should see."

She lightly smacks his hip, "Are you going to get all angsty on me, again? Because if you are then I'm not going to be able to tell you when I fell in love with you."

He forces himself to relax and nods his acceptance. "I'll hold off on the nervous breakdown, yes. Please just continue."

Because she's not sure if he's kidding about the nervous breakdown or not she wraps her arms around him and then entwines one thigh around his for good measure.

"You probably don't, but I'll ask if you remember that night you showed up blindingly drunk on my doorstep anyway."

He blinks. "I showed up where?" He isn't sure he's hearing her correctly

"On my doorstep, soaking wet - I never got an explanation for that out of you - and you were so drunk you fell on your ass when I opened my door."

He shakes his head in bewilderment. "When was this exactly? Month and year, Potts, if I need to try and dig it out of my memory..."

For a moment Pepper wants to lie. She wants to protect him. Because she knows that as soon as she tells him the truth he's going to recognize the date and she might not be able to salvage this. But in the end she can't lie about something this important.

"May 5th, 2005. It was mid afternoon."

He closes his eyes again, and his jaw wobbles a little. "The anniversary of my parents' car crash." He mutters after a moment.

She doesn't bother confirming. "You sat there, on my front porch, and you just looked up at me. You didn't try to explain anything, didn't ask for anything. You just sat there and looked at me like I was the only thing between you and a unchambered bullet. I hadn't realized until then how much you'd come to depend on me."

He looks relieved. More relieved than she really understands. She's puzzled by his expression, but finishes her story nonetheless. "I went to pull you up, and I could barely get you on your feet. But I managed to walk you into the house and get you onto the couch. I kept waiting for you to say something - anything - but you never did. You just watched me until you passed out. Eventually I called Rhodey and between the two of us we got you back to your house, but I stayed until I could see you were capable of functioning again. Which was two days later, in case you don't remember that part either."

He did remember, albeit through a think haze. The memories are foggy, and he supposes that it's probably a good thing. "That was a bad year." He acknowledges quietly. "I was a bigger prick than usual, I'm afraid. For a multitude of reasons."

That was the year he'd finally had to stop fucking every redhead he could find, because he'd realized there was something very, very wrong with the fact he couldn't take them back to the mansion like all the others.

The why of that particular revelation hadn't been exactly stunning, but it had absolutely bowled him over with shame.

"What do you mean?" Pepper shifts so that she's propped up on the pillows. It's easier to see his face this way. He shakes his head.

"I just had some… clarity about things I hadn't seen before. Please don't ask me to explain because I'm not sure I can put it into words."

To be precise he wasn't sure he could put it into words without giving himself yet one more sin to atone for, and the list he had was probably already longer than he was going to manage in his lifetime.

Pepper seems to accept this, though it's a little surprising. "Well, if it's any consolation, I loved you despite the fact you were being a bigger prick than usual."

"I'd feel better about that if I didn't know my routine in those days." He makes a face and she gives him a look that demands the whole truth.

The words are bitter and more than a little sour. "I used to spend my parents anniversaries getting as drunk as I could and then hitting the brothel, Pepper. Call it my own twisted version of tradition. If I was that drunk and all I did was come and sit on your steps, forgive me for saying that I'm terribly grateful."

Her smile is a little sad, a little sweet, and too knowing for his comfort. "You usually let me leave work early on that day, and you usually took Rhodey with you. But something came up that night and he couldn't go. So it was just you." She gently closes his open jaw. "Tony, when I came to work for you, I did my research. I knew the date of your parents' death. And I watched that first year. It didn't take me long to realize that it wasn't going to be a one-time occurrence."

He sighs deeply at that, running a hand back through his hair. His next words are full of more than a little self loathing. "It doesn't make what I did forgivable, Pepper. I was a shit. My father would have tanned my hide if he could have done it from wherever he is now."

" can't change the past. It sounds trite, I know, and it's probably going to get worse, but bear with me. You're learning. You're finally growing up. And your choices, while extreme, are exactly what everyone expects of you, or should expect from you if they spent any time thinking about it." He was looking thoughtful, and just to tease him a little further out of his funk she added in a very confidential tone, "I'm not sure if anyone's ever mentioned this, Mr. Stark, but you do tend to go a little overboard over anything you decide is worth doing."

He snickers at the comment, acknowledging it's truth. She was right about the past, too - it was the most useless of captors.

"I figure I may be accused of a lot of things, but I'll never be unoriginal." The clock on the bedstand reads 0458. He watches it with wary eyes as the number blinks one minute more.

'Time to crap or get off the pot, Stark.' He turns her chin gently to look at what he is. "Five a.m., Pepper. Time to figure out where we're going from here…."

She blinks and then looks back down at him. "Well, I had wanted a nap before work, but it's a little late for that. Unless you want to take me back to my car where my Blackberry is and I can cancel all your appoints for today and then we can both get some sleep."

He gulps. "What I want, Pepper, is to go home. And I want you to get your Blackberry and come with me." He wants this world to exist in the real world, where it couldn't fade away.

"Well...I thought that was a given. And I have to cancel all your appointments or that Blackberry of mine is going to be ringing off the hook."

Her voice is patient, but she waits for his answer.

He knows she doesn't get it, as he sits there and looks at her. Knows it because he is shaking, just a little, and he isn't sure he's going to be able to stop. The last nine hours have been jealousy and lust and anger and desperation all in one large, chaotic heap, and it's getting overwhelming. Looking at her, he's suddenly breathless, and not in a good way. He feels like a man who'd been running for his very life only to come to the edge of a cliff.

There was a plank bridge over that cliff, but it was almost too good to be true. Experience proved that there had to be something wrong with it. And yet there was no way back, only forward into what only god knew how to face.

It seems to him they have always been running. He doesn't know when exactly it started, but it had been dangerously easy habit for the whole time that he's known her. It was the rhythm of their entire dynamic. Confrontation on the other hand, is absolutely terrifying. The opposite of every instinct he's ever had.

He'd had to risk everything last night, though, on the threat of losing everything, and now it's only by desperation that his plan has even worked. That they're not both in pieces. Now that he knows – knows beyond any shadow of a doubt – what was possible for him to have with Pepper, the thought of losing it is exponentially more terrifying.

It's all so fragile, and he's not sure he'll manage to not somehow break it.

She's the only one who has never walked away from him because she thought he was deficient in some way. The only time she's threatened to leave him was because she'd half-thought at the time that he'd been trying to kill himself. Just hours after that she'd helped him follow through on a plan that should have killed him, because she'd heard him speak truth and chosen to accept it.

She's the first smile he sees every morning, the hands that organize the chaos on the edges of his life, the voice in his head calling him back every time he gets lost.

'Which is the problem: so much that is fundamentally irreplaceable rests on shoulders accustomed to carrying so little.'

He feels inadequate on some fundamental level because winning in the face of all odds should have set them both free. He doesn't feel free right now, though. He feels trapped by all the ways it shouldn't have worked, and by all the ways this could still go wrong.

Such painful truths, and he's forgetting how to draw air. She gathers him up. "Shh…

shh…Tony, breathe." It's clear that she doesn't know what to say, has no clue what's trigged this sudden attack. When her offer of comfort seems to make things worse, he can feel her dismay. Still, she is undaunted as she brings her knees up against his back so that he's completely cradled by her body. "Shhh… Breathe for me."

She's surrounding him in a way that's entirely feminine. One hand moves down his spine in soothing strokes while the other cradles the back of his head. Her mouth is right by his ear and her voice along with the thud of her heart is all he can hear over the racing of his own heartbeat. Her body blazes with heat against his own suddenly chilled skin. Her arms are tight around him, her body folded around him offering all the protection she has to give.

This is Pepper. This is the heart of Pepper. Giving, loving, big enough to envelop all of his shit and hold him together until he can do it himself.

"That's it," she croons, and her voice is becoming clearer. "Shhh…" He opens his mouth and sucks a deep breath in. When it causes no pain he exhales and tries it again. It doesn't last long really, at most two or three minutes. He's shaking at the end still, but now it's from cold. There is sweat dotting his forehead and his chest, it makes the sheet clammy against his skin.

When he finally speaks it's with wry sort of humor. "Boy that kind of sucked...remind me never to go two days without any sleep again."

She's silent for several minutes as she processes that admission. It isn't until he stirs in her arms that she releases him and lets him pull back. Predictably, she's frowning at him when she does. She's stark naked in bed with him, and that face is all it takes for him to realize that this is "business!Pepper" come to call.

Then the frown eases and relaxes into something more...tender. "It's a good thing I love you, Stark. I'm probably the only woman who's ever rushed you home to tuck you straight into bed for some sleep."

In her eyes he can see her ranting, though. 'Two days? I'm working for an idiot!'

He grins a little, just at the normalcy of her implied indignance. "Can we at least stop at Burger King on the way back home, please? I'm also starving…." The nuts on the bed are the only thing he's eaten since the club late last night.

"They don't have cheeseburgers this early," she tells him sourly as she climbs out of bed and begins searching for her things. The dress is easy to find, but the shoes are a little less so. He has no idea where his socks are. "I'm warning you now that I'm not going to put up with this kind of negligence, Tony. Not after tonight."

He shrugs a little, helplessly. "It's not deliberate, Pepper, it's not like I do it on purpose: I just got a little distracted. I'll have you know that I actually went to that all meeting you had scheduled Friday, and there were several redraws requested by the design team." Not to mention that phone call she'd gotten that from now on would be referred to as the conversation that "shall not be named."

She's not buying a word of it. "Get used to taking naps, Mr. Stark." She holds up one stocking, but can't seem to locate the other one.

"Only if you take one with me, Potts. Not to call you a kettle or anything but I'm not the one who ends up driving home after two am at least three nights every week."

"Whose fault is that, Iron Man?" She lets him take the stocking from her hands, though now she's eyeing it like it might come in handy if she follows through on the impulse to strangle him. Secretly, Tony's always loved that grumpy look. He goes in search of his own pants.

"How about this Pepper...we make a deal. I'll start getting eight hours a night the day you let me hire you a secretary."

"How about I just screw you senseless every night and keep at it until you pass out out of habit." She's slipping into her heels and not paying much attention to him despite her comeback.

He grins at that one. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed her bitchiness. "Fine. But I reserve the right to use the same tactic whenever you refuse to take your lunch break."

"I always take a lunch break, Tony."

"It's not a break when you bring your computer with you. Well, unless you're watching internet porn."

The look that comment earns him could fire a kiln. It doesn't change the absolute steel he lets slip into his voice. "We're going to be renegotiating certain parts of your work schedule, Pepper, and I'm fully prepared to be a bastard to get my way."

"As if it helped you so much in the past..." Finally she's as ready as she's going to get. It's not like she had much to put on in the first place. "I'm driving," she informs him as she snatches his keys from the bedside table.

He's still looking for his shoes. "Go ahead and tell yourself that, Pepper. Whatever gets you through the day."

"I'll show you how I get through the day...after we get some sleep."

He thinks about this a moment, before he snickers. "Fine…after I take care of a few things in the basement. And fuck you at least one more time."

It's a challenge, and a clear one at that. She turns and regards him with a deadly kind of sincerity. "Tony? I apologize for not making myself clear earlier. Let me say this more plainly: You're not the only one who can threaten spanking. And unlike with you, no one on the board would blame me."