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Under the early morning sun, Pepper thinks she may be dying. It's not quite noon yet, the horizon still a bright blue line against the sea, but the thick air chokes her with every breath she heaves. The baking asphalt sends rippling mirages up the pathway, up her arms and legs, burning into her fiery hair. Pepper has experienced this nightmare before, but never quite like this—it's an odd throwback to the day that began it all, when she chased Tony down on his hunt for Venom and her four-inch heels drummed a beat into the pavement. That day had ended for her in pain even worse than this. Like then, on the day when her blood had blossomed across the sidewalk, Pepper is hot and rasping for air beneath the stabbing sting of her ribs. The difference is that now, three years later, her sneakers hit the road and Pepper keeps on running.
Hopefully today's soreness will yield a more pleasurable outcome.
Pepper drags her sweatband across her forehead and checks her pace. A week ago when the weatherman smilingly reported record heat for today's road race, Pepper had almost thrown her coffee mug at the television in her office. She had only ever trained in the heat, but running before sunrise was hard enough even with the average temperature hovering around "uncomfortable". Never mind an 11a.m. race under the scorching sun. Her lungs are ready to burst in their cage.
A whirring sound from behind catches her ear, and a moment later a golf cart zips up the road to meet her. Happy Hogan is at the wheel, unbothered by the heat in his suit and sunglasses. To his right, with his feet propped up on the mini dash and a clipboard in his lap, sits Tony.
"My dearest Pepper," Tony begins, and she lets out a preemptive groan of annoyance, "I know you said to wait at the finish line, but I wanted to be the first to personally congratulate you on breaking the second kilometer."
"Kill me," Pepper rasped.
"No time for that, Potts. I'm afraid you've got three more to go first! No, wait for it—" his eyes turn to the pedometer on the dashboard, "two point nine kilometers. Or twenty-nine hundred meters, whichever you prefer."
"I thought spectators weren't allowed on the roads."
"Well it's my race, so I'm more of a supervisor. In fact, I was just checking for pot holes, actually. Completely coincidental that I should happen into you here, of all places!"
"Am I in last place?" says Pepper.
"Technically not—the tail end of the golf cart's about two feet behind you."
Pepper doesn't mind being last, but she'd sort of hoped that—given Tony had insisted on putting her name all over this 5k benefit run—she might be able to offer a bit more competition. But no matter. Now that the burning of lactic acid has crept its way up her shins and into the spaces between her ribs, Pepper's glad that it's a no-pressure scenario. Were it an aggressive race, she might need a lot more than congratulations at the finish line (an ambulance, namely).
Completely disregarding Pepper's huffing and puffing, Tony casually taps a finger against the clipboard propped up on his knee.
"Hey, listen, once this shindig's all wrapped up, you've got an interview with Malibu Surfside. And then after that it's just an hour jet ride and we're gone for the week. But don't worry; the cruise ship's got a track on the upper level."
The look that Pepper shoots him only tugs his smile broader. She asks if he's got any water, and behold, he does. Tony pulls a bottle out from the space between him and Happy, twists off the cap, and hands it across the space. Pepper takes a sip and pours the rest over her head. When she hands it back Tony stands up, grasping the bar tight in one hand, and leans over to kiss her damp cheek.
"Will that be all, Miss Potts?" he murmurs, right into her ear.
She presses the empty water bottle into his free hand and sets her eyes on the road ahead. Her flushed face and ragged breathing indicate a vicious fight, her ponytail marking each footfall with a sharp slap against her neck. It's the smile that gives her away.
"That will be all, Mr. Stark."
"Remember: in through your nose, out through your mouth. Only two point two-five-three-eight more and you're free!"
"Please go away."
Tony spares her one last look before he gives the word to Happy, and the cart goes zooming off along the path. Pepper watches it go, watches until it turns the corner and the dust settles back down. Tony says that he's only been planning this cruise to an unidentified location for a few days, but she first raised a brow two months ago when paperwork from the Virgin Islands came across her fax machine by accident. And just three days later, when balancing their personal budget she discovered the purchase of an alarmingly expensive diamond ring (fair trade, platinum band, just her size). Old habits—the occupational hazard of dating your personal assistant. She admires his efforts at independence, if nothing else. And anyhow, she's seen this moment coming for a very long time.
Since the day Tony sank down to his knees and pleaded that she stay with him, their relationship has been a work in progress. Like all couples they've had to work on gaining equal grounds in decision-making and communication. Pepper never wanted to be the tearful house-ridden girlfriend who paces and weeps until her lover's safe return. So after some serious talking, Tony gave her an outlet from which to funnel her anxiety into something tangible and productive—he designed a system in the mansion so that they could communicate live on missions. Pepper sees what Tony sees, feeds him reports from the area, keeps his vitals on her blackberry so that even when she's not home, she can know that he's alive and safe.
The road runs both ways. Now that Pepper has seen the staggering reality of his work, her nightmares have become more vivid but manageable. Tony in turn has a dependable someone who understands his drive and experiences. The burden, then, is shared like a bad memory between them. Not as hero and assistant, but as equals. As partners. Pepper believes that this above all else is what helps him keep sober when he'd much rather get drunk and forget.
Up ahead, Pepper can see the 3-kilometer mark. She knows that she can make it. She knows that they, for all of their flaws and fears, are going to make it. Pepper straightens up, loosens her shoulders, lifts her knees and marvels at the strength of her pounding feet. This is how she knows. When the world seems hopeless and despair beckons them closer, she has proof that there is reason to hang on.
Which is why, when tonight Tony drops to one knee and offers up his heart forever, Pepper will know exactly what to say.
"Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty" – Albert Einstein