Author's Note: Ready for more fun, boys and girls? ;) 4persephone and NeonDaisies present their next creation. We hope you enjoy this, because it's looking like a wild ride. And once again, NeonDaisies blames all of this on 4persephone…but thanks her madly too. This is so much fun!
Disclaimer: if I owned Iron Man or anyone associated with it, I'd probably still write fanfic, but then it wouldn't be fanfic. It'd be canon. Lucky for the Iron Man 'verse I'm on the outside looking in. Credit Stan Lee, Universal, Marvel, and whoever else for intellectual property. Credit Jon Favreau, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, et al for bringing them to life.
She disappears one night in December after the Stark Industries annual Christmas party.
He remembers the moment it happened, because it came out of literally nowhere. There was no hint or indication what was coming: not the faintest groans of a foreshock rumbling somewhere in the distance. In truth, the trauma of it was so great because, for once in his life, things had seemed to be going well – precisely in the way he'd dreamed that they could.
Stark Industries had been flourishing, and his 'other business' had fallen into a stable routine. It had a few months of idealism, and a chance for possibilities.
There had been nothing – not even a hint – that the ground was about to collapse out from under his feet.
He looks back on it now with a level of confusion that he finds absolutely unacceptable. There is no where and why…there is only what and when. There is her in absence. He has nothing to fill her empty space but suspicions and rumors and an empty office in his mansion that he long ago tore to shambles.
The world is full of puppetmasters and strings, and now he's hopelessly entangled. He's stuck in a play where the stage is infinite, and the act never ends…
All that's left of him anymore is the mystery, and the misery. Well that and a box that sits on his bedroom's antique maple desk.
'Sorry – I've been called away on family business. I'll be in contact soon...' He came back to the mansion that Christmas Eve with a present for her in his hand, and found her Blackberry on the table. He'd expected to hear from her within the week, at which point he was going to threaten to tattoo 'When I have to leave town suddenly, my boss owns a jet,' over the surface of her chest.
Still, he never considered when he first saw the message that she might not be returning. The gift he'd been carrying had gone to his bedroom to await her arrival with the obvious expectation. These days that same box is right next to the hand written note she'd sent on back with her computer on the day she'd resigned.
He'd crumpled that note up, and told Jarvis to find her. He had never imagined the task might be beyond the scope of his resources.
Six months gone she's lost to him though, and he's long out of breath.
'I'm away on family business.' He still sees the words in his head. He should just burn the notes, because he has them both memorized. Her explanation might have made some kind reasonable sense, except she'd had no one to go to, and she'd admitted it to him herself.
But her words aren't reliable. Or rather her history isn't. Her 'family business', as it turns out, hasn't been the kind that involved brother or sisters – just the CIA fresh out of high school.
He has more questions now than he knows how to answer, and a bum ticker in his chest that seems to hurt worse every day.
Savannah in June is a veritable tourist trap. The streets are crowded and the air is scalding in a way that can never really be escaped. It's a different kind of heat than he dealt with in Afghanistan, but somehow it feels every bit as much like the same purgatory. He has a beach house just southeast of the city, and two hovering bodyguards. Though he has his own private water front property he likes to drive them crazy by slipping of to walk on the nearby Tybee beach.
Some days he actually daydreams he might bump into her here, but then, according to his 'friends', that's just his way of escaping reality. He doesn't tell him that reality doesn't exist, hasn't existed in months, by his recollection. Not since he lost sight of her face.
This time of year the loggerhead turtles are coming in to make their nests. He likes to sneak into the area in the dead of night with his shoes off to watch them dig into the sand with patient flippers. He wonders sometimes, if somewhere Pepper has done the exact same thing – dug herself a hiding place and settled in for a long duration.
He wonders what kind of hell must have made her leave in a manner that he doesn't – can't – reconcile with the person he always sensed she was. He wonders if she's dead or simply hiding, and if the answer really matters.
He wonders why. Mostly though, he tries not to think about anything, except the sand and the sea.
He loves the beaches - loves the smell of the water. Loves the shells that wash in with the waves and that pull at his toes as the water retreats. At night he tiptoes down the catwalks that lead from the parking lot down to the shadow cast water and digs his toes in the sand just to stand there and feel.
The texture is silky, though the waves can be cold. He thinks that she was a little like that, to, and he misses her like he misses the ocean.
It's possible to miss what you have, when in every way that matters, what you have is basically out of reach.
Some nights he stays at the beach until sunrise, before heading back to his condo. He's given up looking for her, but not given up on the idea that like the waves, she may someday come back. The police don't like his loitering much of course, but money has its privileges. He made an obscene donation to the city's beaches and parks fund several weeks ago, and now the Mayor makes everyone just leave him alone.
One morning just as the sun pushes above the horizon, the tide finally turns again. He walks back up toward his car as the first rays of sun beckon.
Pepper Potts steps out of the parking lot's bathroom. She is tall and quiet and quite visibly pregnant.
She's always been an early riser. Pregnancy hasn't affected that. Yes, it seems like she's going to bed earlier and earlier every night, but the mornings are still hers like predictable clockwork. She rises before the sun and drives someplace where she can watch the light slowly spread over the ocean.
After six months she still finds the daily spectacle amazing. The sun's supposed to set over the water, not rise like it does on the East Coast.
It does what it pleases though, and she supposes that with enough time, she might actually get used to it.
Mick doesn't like her coming out here. He bitches about it every morning. This one however, he wasn't even out of bed yet, which she considers a needed blessing. She can't explain some things to him. Can't explain, that for her, seeing the water is the closest she'll ever get again to home.
So she comes here and she walks, because she's not used to standing still. She's used to having more occupation than she truly needs, and she's unused to idleness. She knows it's not healthy to stress herself too badly for at least another few months, though, so when the restlessness hits her she settles for strolls along the water if she can get to it and along the boardwalks when she can't.
After these walks she usually goes back home and makes decaffeinated green tea. It usually goes cold before she remembers to drink it because the mailman insists on delivering the paper and she's not strong enough to keep from searching each page for some sort of connection to the life she left behind.
He's never in the tabloids anymore. She knows because she spends ridiculous amounts every day scanning every copy of the LA news that she can get.
She's never tried to deny that she reads it in case Tony is mentioned in any of his incarnations. He's been pretty absent from the news, which she tells herself is a good sign – that he's obviously adapted well. The worry still lingers like a cloying sweat on her skin though, and she can't shake it off as she leaves bathroom just off the visitor center's marine parking lot.
As she searches the her car, she blames seeing Tony on the rising sun and a preoccupied mind. But when she blinks, his face doesn't change into the visage of someone else, and the shock written there on his face is too real for her to be imagining it.
The man in front of her is haggard and looks a hundred years older, but it is definitely Tony.
'He looks so tired.' Is her first actual thought. He looks hollow really – like something's taken all the fire from him and he just doesn't burn from within anymore. His skin is pale against the darkness of his hair, and his goatee has morphed into a full beard somewhere in the interim, but his cheekbones are sharp and sunk in.
His eyes, when he sees her, are like nothing she has the words to describe. She never imagined he could ever look that empty. She swallows hard, briefly considers ignoring him, then decides that after everything that's happened between them he deserves more than that. "Hello, Tony. Good morning."
There's no pretending in her voice, and not the slightest but of pretense. She makes no attempt to place them in a employer/employee relationship. All of that is irrelevant now. Had already been close to irrelevant all those months ago when she first learned she was pregnant.
He stands there a moment, doing nothing but blinking. Then he looks her up and down before licking his lips and forcing his mouth into a smile. The expression is a wry gesture that doesn't ever reach his eyes as he motions toward her swollen belly. "I 'd say you haven't changed a bit, Ms Potts, but it would seem like a fairly significant inaccuracy."
She rests her hand over her swollen belly. "Yeah." She doesn't really know what to say after that so she remains silent.
He continues staring and then he frowns. "Aren't you a little far along to be out here in this godforsaken heat?"
It was a valid question, though perhaps a vaguely startling one. Not only does she feel unsteady from the meeting, but also from the weather. It's barely six a.m. and already the temperature at the coastline has reached nearly ninety five degrees. "I was just going to head...back." She admits after a moment. "It's getting late and I'm getting hungry."
He raises an ironic eyebrow, and lets a hint of bitterness slip in. "Back? What, Potts – you're not going to really dig in the knife by calling it 'home?' " She's not sure whether he's mocking her more for her less than subtle diversion or what he must consider her blatant hypocrisy.
She looks away, because she can't take the pain in his eyes. "I don't remember my last home," she murmurs to herself. "Just places that I've enjoyed living." And it was probably true. The mansion had been the closest she'd known to home since she was a child, but it was lost now, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
Her fingers tighten around the keys in her hand. "Don't do this, Tony." She prays he won't say anything to break either of them in his anger. "Just…please say goodbye and let's part like unexpected old friends?"
His eyes trail down to the hand that just twitched, and she can swear he actually flares both his nostrils. His voice, however, is calm when he answers. He's a little hoarse. "Don't do what exactly, Pepper? Ask you why?" He shakes his head. "As for us being old anything…well I don't know what we were, but it has never been friends."
It's like a slap to the face and she feels it all the way to her aching back. The pain that flares is neither small nor unexpected, but it still steals her breath. "I can't do this, Tony," she pleads. "I just can't have this conversation, here, with you, like this...not after six months. I'm sorry for the way I let it all happen, but some things...well they just end."
He steps forward into her space, his form crackling with frustrated tension. "In order for things to 'end' Pepper, there has to be some kind of resolution." He leans in until his nose is nearly tip to tip with hers. His eyes are bloodshot and his breathing is a little shaky. "You never offered me even that." He straightens and squares his shoulders, "Not that it can't be corrected. How about we give that concept a shot by having you give me those keys you're holding before I take them. You can pick the restaurant, and then I'll buy you some breakfast and a big mug of coffee."
"No caffeine," she automatically replies before she remembers that she doesn't want to go to anywhere with him at all. No, that's not true. She does want to go with him because even in his anger he's familiar and comforting. Tony is a whirlwind, and he would solve all her problems for her if she'd just ask. But Virginia Potts is an adult now, and she doesn't ask others to clean up her messes.
She wants to let him of course. Who wouldn't want to be saved? But there is no way back here, and there is no way forward. There is only the here and now where they seem to be trapped, in some agonized parody of motion.
So she settles for a half truth, and one that will hopefully offset him. "I can't do that…I need to get back before Mick starts worrying. I'm late as it is." She's says it with self forced conviction – hoping he'll bend to the iron in her voice. It's the truth, of course, but she also uses it as a way to force Tony into a more comfortable distance.
"Mick can go to hell, Pepper." He says through clenched lips. "At least for another few minutes. I deserve one cup of coffee." He sounds deadly, like he's ready to explode. She can hear it in his voice – his tone is actually shaky.
He's a breath's distance away from …she doesn't know. But it's something that is very, very bad.
She's wondered, sometimes over the last several months, how he has coped with the way that she left him. The way he literally follows her to her car is a pretty frightening answer. The way he's slowly backing her toward the trunk is another clue as well. "Tony back off." She hasn't had to use that tone in ages.
It seems to work though. The man grinds to a stop. She can see him corralling his temper in the back of his eyes. She uses the pause to waddle over to the driver's side of her vehicle, but she's unwilling to unlock it. The heat is radiating off the gravel, and off the metal of the vehicle, and the sun reflecting off the windows is giving her a headache.
The baby in her kicks, a kind of internal act of derision. It's like she's a coward, and her own child is saying it. She makes herself turn around and put out a hand in warning. She hates that she feels trapped by him, hates him for being an asshole. Hates that she knows he followed, and she wants to turn and face him. She's almost starved for his face. "I could call the police and charge you with harassment," she tells him, seriously. "You have no right to demand anything from me. Get your head out of your ass…"
His mask of control slips just for a split second. What blazes from underneath is raw and rancid and agonized, and possibly desperate. "I've had two sources come to me and tell me you were dead in the last month, Pepper." He breathes the words out. "You owe me one damn cup of coffee. It's not too much to ask."
"No." She says again, though she wants to say yes. The look in his eyes is both siren call and warning. She can't let him rule her though, not if she's to remain intact. "You're not entitled to anything if you're going to bully me like some kind of fifth grader."
He draws in a breath and his fists clench at his side. Then, to her surprise the locks on her car actually spring open and the 2007 sedan thrums to life. "Miss Potts a woman in your condition should not be out in this heat. Nor should Mr Stark, for that manner," comes a familiar voice through the radio.
A familiar British voice is echoing in the air, and it makes her homesick. Tony smiles a little, with gritted teeth and taps a box that's clipped to his belt.
"Jarvis says hello. Just get in the car, Pepper."
She holds firm to her position, though it takes all her effort. She's missed Jarvis's calming influence nearly as much as she's missed the man in front of her. She isn't amused, and she isn't charmed, and refuses to be distracted, though. Not with this much at stake.
She tosses him her keys and leans against the car parked behind her. "It's just a car, Tony. Take it if you want. But I am not going to put up with your bullshit, and I'm not going to let you boss me around. I don't work for you anymore."
"Is that the case?" He asks too calmly. "Well, then all things considered I suppose that that really all I'm entitled to at this point is this."
Before she can blink he has stepped forward to deliver a punishing kiss. He's crowding her between the car and his body, making her feel more trapped than she even did before. He's kissing her, but not really – at least not completely, it feel a lot more like he's re-enacting a war.
There's heat there and passion between them, yes but also more rage than she can fully see. He's angry and lost and hurt and she gets the feeling this is more about him showing her that even if she doesn't work for him, he's still capable of bossing her around. The wave of male intimidation almost swamps her, and then the baby wakes up, moving and kicking inside of her in its own protest.
She's left a little dazed when Tony jumps back, and she almost laughs at the shock on his face before she remembers that she's pissed off at him.
"I'd like to kick you myself," she growls. "That wasn't an invitation for you to be a jackass." She shoves him in the chest and he impacts with the metal of her own car.
"I was in love with you." He sounds as shocked as her when the words come out, but he doesn't hold them back, nor does he try to deny them. It's like something inside him has imploded and there's nothing left of him but harsh breathing and scalding heat. "I was in love with you, you selfish shit. Then I though you were dead. Are you following me?! Is it so much, after all of that, to ask for a real goodbye and a damn cup of coffee?!"
He spins then and heads back toward the water on legs that are far too unsteady. She notes the deep line of sweat that's soaked through his shirt. "Tony I…" But the words won't come. There are no words her mind will let her lie with and the truth is just too fucking hard to say. She watches him leave, her mind and heart in turmoil. He's right about how she left. It was a shitty thing to do. And it was cowardly to never call and tell him that she was fine.
If he hadn't immediately become pissed off, she probably would have acted more agreeably. God, at least half of this is her fault.
"Tony." He pauses when she calls his name again. "We can't go get coffee if you have my car keys." He shakes his head with his back still toward her and makes his way toward the sand.
From the car Jarvis speaks again, causing her to blink. "He is not allowed coffee. Ms Potts, you both need to get in the car…"
"Excuse me?" She asks after a moment. She sticks her head through the door to make sure that she can hear.
"Milk, juice, cocoa or decaffeinated tea are acceptable, though I would suggest that you give him a moment to calm down first."
She's about to ask how in hell Tony ended up on a food plan, but the AI is already continuing. "He's tachycardic. He needs his emergency dose of nitrates…if I can convince him to take them."
"Nitrates?" she mimics the words faintly. She opens her car door so that she can at least sit down and be blocked from the sun. The blazing air inside the vehicle does nothing to help her, but there's no chance of her falling on her ass now.
"Yes. He had a mild heart attack about three months ago. The doctors told him he needs to reduce his stress levels, or he's going to have a worse one. I agree. He is having issues...moderating himself at present though, particularly when he gets this angry."
"Shit. Shit, shit, shit." That certainly hadn't been in the papers. Pepper hauls herself out of the car and yells at her erstwhile employer, "Anthony Howard Stark, you get your ass in this car now!" Then she turned the air conditioner on. The man only raises one finger in her general direction as he heads toward the beach. "Tony!" He ignores her, so she decides to play dirty. "Tony! I –" She leans against the car like it's keeping her up. "Ohh..." The baby kicks again. This is, without question the first time she's deliberately used her pregnancy.
Her cry sends him spinning around as Jarvis apparently shares something with him through a different microphone. "Take a seat Ms Potts. I'm hardwired to his left ear…and he'll be back shortly" Tony is climbing back up the path in a matter of seconds, in sharp, tired strides that do nothing to hide his frustration.
"Move over, Potts." He refuses to make eye contact. In a matter of a moments though, he's moved her into the passenger seat, and climbed into the driver's one, shoving the seat back with more than the necessary amount of fervor. Then he's jamming the keys he has into the sedan's ignition, clearly intent on turning it on.
He's sweating, heavy, dark beads of sweat, and his breathing is ten times harder than she knows it should be. She reaches to turn the A/C on to his side completely with the fans at full blast, then leans back into her seat, one hand moving over her belly as she takes in his appearance.
Before he can put the car into reverse she quietly says, "You're going to yell at me, but Jarvis says you need to take your nitrates. And I think I agree."
"Jarvis can mind his own fucking business, and so can you," he snaps out. "Just tell me where I need to take you where you'll be able to rest – I'll find a payphone after and make a call to Happy so he can come bring me back here."
She puts her hand over his, preventing him from turning the ignition. Her fingers are trembling, but then so are his. Their palms are cold. "Tony, it was never my intention to hurt you, but sometimes shit happens. If you're hurting yourself now because you're mad at me, I'd prefer you just turn back into the spurned boss from hell."
"I'm fine," he spits out again. "I'm just pissed off. I don't have my pills at present, and I'm sick of everybody trying to fucking nanny-goat me. I'm thirty seven fucking years old, and Jarvis is all but trying to bribe me with suckers..." He won't look at her...can't look at her maybe. The cool air seems to be helping a little though, because though he's still agitated his breathing has finally begun to slow.
"I'm a little old to be breaking old habits now, Stark," Pepper says in a dry tone. "It was my job to nanny goat you. Where are your pills?"
He sighs a little, thumps his head on the steering wheel, than leaves it there after the third impact while he stares at the steering column. "Tell me where to take you and I'll drop you off. Then I'll go home and take them. I'm not going to argue, Pepper. I don't have the damn energy."
She realizes that for him, at this moment, never seeing her again might be one time too many. He's just so raw, and there's no place for any of it to safely go…
In the light of that fact she gives him the truth. It's the only thing she has.
"I was scared." She blurts the admission, unable to think of an elegant way to offer her olive branch. "I was scared when I found I was pregnant, I was scared when I left, I was scared when I decided not to come back, and I'm scared now, okay?"
The man in the driver's seat wheezes in a breath like it hurts. "How wonderful then, Pepper. Then there's two in the party." He leans his head back against the seat and struggles valiantly to breathe.
"Jarvis where is he staying?" She bites the word out and prays the microphone Tony's wearing in sensitive enough for the AI to hear.
"1402 6th Avenue." Jarvis suddenly spits the words out the microphone. They both jump in surprise as the AI electronically starts the car, and turns on its full OnStar function. A map of the route appears. "You can not keep doing this, Anthony. It is not rebellious, it is passively suicidal."
A silence fill the car then, for which there is no appropriate manner of breaking. Her hand clenches atop his, and he simply keeps his eyes closed. "You have had it rough, haven't you?" Pepper asks as she lets go of his hand. She's almost reluctant to do so, but she wants him to be able to steer the car. "I don't know who to feel sorry for the most, Rhodes and Jarvis for having to corral you – or to try, at least – or you for having to put up with their bumbling." He must be going crazy.
Most people don't understand how to maneuver Anthony Stark properly. Hell, he probably doesn't know how she manages it himself.
"Rhodey and I aren't on speaking terms," he informs her after a moment, he opens his eyes and begins backing out of her parking spot. Pepper bites her lip and closes her eyes and she drops her head back against the headrest. She's unable not to ask.
"That my fault?" she asks, wondering just how much she's screwed up his life by trying to leave it as painlessly as she could. By the looks of it, far worse that she could ever have imagine.
"No." Tony's voice is like steel, "It's his fault for being a faithless jackass. He tried to convince me you were some kind of double agent for a foreign country's computer industry…"
The words hit her like a rock, and it's straight to the temple. Her head begins to throb. "Is that all there was to it?" She asks the question a little faintly. She's trying to force down the sour taste of betrayal in her stomach at the idea…but Tony isn't finished speaking…
"No, I also punched his lights out when he accused me of only thinking with my dick."
She's sure it's not the first time the good colonel has accused Tony of thinking with his dick, but she's pretty sure it's probably the first time her name has come into it. "Want me to call him? I don't have my phone with me, but then again it's about 3 am on the west coast anyway."
Tony shoots her a look that's almost panicked, than he shakes his head. He turns onto the side street as Jarvis instructs, then chooses his words carefully. "Call him and your ass is going to end up at the DOD, Pepper. Or worse. You're currently wanted for questioning."