Title: Blinding Heights
Author: Sare Liz
Disclaimer: These character do not belong to me.
Continuity: Movieverse. Tony/Pepper overtones
Rating: T for language.

Note: Inspired by the theme to Casino Royale, "You Know My Name" by Chris Cornell. Not only does Mr. Cornell's voice sound a bit like RDJ's, but the song just fits a certain Introspective!Tony I've got in my head at present. CR is a bloody and violent film, (I could have lived a happy life without having to watch a young James Bond being tortured, really I could have) but I highly recommend the song, which switches pov from M to James to M to James... It's intriguing, I promise.

If you take a life, do you know what you give?
Odds are, you won't like what it is.

--

"I just finally know what I have to do," he said. He meant it, too. And if he could just keep focused on that, everything would be okay.

Pepper had just left to get the shipping manifestos off the SI mainframe, wherever Obi had squirreled them away. Tony sighed when he thought about that – just how deep was Obadiah? He'd thought of him for so long as a loving uncle that it still twisted his brain in half to think of what he'd done with the board, how he'd been selling weapons and illegally arming the enemy, during wartime, no less. How he'd insinuated that Tony's long held set of moral values were nothing more than childish illusions borne of naiveté.

That Stark Industries was going to be facing the wrong end of a congressional hearing was the least of his worries, and yet no small thing at all.

The day he'd arrived back, nearly three months ago, now, Tony had ordered the press conference that had started the ball rolling, announcing the reorganization of SI. Because he'd taken Obadiah's advice, that reorganization hadn't yet occurred, but it would. Tony knew himself to be a damn fine businessman, beyond his talents in engineering. He knew what he had to do, he only needed the time to do it. Tony was going to have to get on the ball, talk to each of the board members separately, sound them out, share with them the proof Pepper was retrieving, and so turn the tide of the board in his favor. He knew he could do it, it would just take a little time and a little finesse. Also, Tony needed a meeting with Rhodey, the FBI, possibly those secure homeland defense people that Agent Coulsen represented, and an appropriate member of Congress, and he needed that meeting first thing in the morning. He'd tell Pepper when she got back from the office with the proof.

Tony sighed, walking up stairs and sitting down heavily on the sofa. He didn't bother turning on the TV, he just sat in silence for a moment, thinking. Uncle Obi was going to be rotting in jail for a very, very long time. Possibly a great number of people at Stark Industries would be rotting with him. Hopefully, Tony wouldn't be one of them.

And yet, like it or not, he had been responsible for the deaths of so many people. Innocent and guilty, enemy and ally, indirectly, and of late, directly as well, Tony had killed people. Even after shrugging off the mantel of Merchant of Death, just a few days ago in Gulmira he'd killed – directly, between his missile targeting system, brute force and the flight stabilizers – he'd killed no fewer than ten men.

He sighed again, and scrubbed his hand over his face, as if he could so easily rub off the invisible film of blood. He felt a bit like Lady Macbeth, but had no desire to rant about it. He was just tired. And he felt somehow, inexplicably, defeated. He'd wanted to stop killing people indirectly, and he had. And somehow in the process he started killing them outright. In the moment it felt good, and right, defensible and All-American. And he would do it again, and again, and again – as many times as necessary to get his weapons off the market. But right now, just in this moment nothing felt right.

Tony sat for a moment more, melancholy and frighteningly aware of the power he held in his hands – and in his workshop – before that melancholy was broken by the ringing of his phone. It was Pepper, and hopefully she had some good news – she could have come and gone by now, so he hoped that she hadn't met any resistance.

It was just as he was in the act of answering the phone that all of his muscles froze and refused to respond – even for a brief moment, his eyes. It was an unnatural state of physical affairs that instantly kicked his body into shock, slowing his brain down to a crawl.

He could hear Obi's voice, but couldn't quite process what he was saying, and he wouldn't, not for several moments later. Then it was like his brain snapped back like a rubber band, only to have the horror of his impending death and Pepper's planned murder laid before him, concepts that sent him reeling once more.

And then Obi had done the last bit of damage he could in the life of Tony Stark, artlessly ripping the arc reactor from his chest, and walking away. God only knew how long he had before the shrapnel, no longer held in magnetic stasis, happily worked its way through his heart and he died of internal bleeding. Possibly, this was going to happen just slightly before the paralysis wore off.

--

"Tony! Tony!"

He could hear her quite clearly but just at the moment he had no energy to move. His mouth was dry, and he had to croak once or twice before intelligible sound emerged, but eventually he was able to call out her name, softly. Tony flexed his right hand, bare as his head was, and managed to wrench himself up to a sitting position, which enabled him to watch Pepper half run through the obstacle course that had become the roof of the Arc Building. She picked her way around the hulking and somewhat charred remains of Obi's monstrosity, which Tony noted still had a steady blue glow coming from the center hull – a good sign, as he was currently running on borrowed time.

He watched as she landed by his side and for the moment, just basked in her concern. After assuring her that he was largely unharmed and requiring her to help him get to his feet – a feat, considering the fact that the suit was offline and in neutral, so he was moving its weight with his own tired and strained muscles – he sent her to go retrieve his crushed helmet from across the way. For reasons he wasn't prepared to examine just then, he didn't want her to have to watch what he was going to do, what he was about to steal back.

Tony made his painful way to the monstrosity and looked at his mentor encased within, lying there with no life in him. It struck Tony just in that moment as an awful way to die, though he didn't linger with the sentiment for long. He popped open the chassis with only a bare moment's hesitation and told hold of the reactor he'd crafted with his own hands, twisting and pulling. Shifting the reactor to his gauntleted fingers, he reached up with his bare right hand and popped the safety release at his shoulders. It took some time for the bolts to release – almost another twenty seconds, but the chest and back plates falling away took him by surprise nonetheless. With nothing to anchor them on, the armor on his right arm slipped of with just a little shake, and he nearly dropped the arc reactor when the armor on his left arm started to sag and shift. He sloughed off both, juggling the reactor between hands before he stabilized himself, completely armored from the waist down, and in nothing but black neoprene from the waist up. He twisted the old reactor out and quickly secured the one Obi had stolen.

"Mr. Stark," a vaguely familiar voice called him from behind. He twisted his bare torso around to see Agent Coulsen just slightly closer than Pepper was, several steps behind him.

"Oh, good. You're just in time to help get this stuff to the car. Pepper," he said, addressing her now, "You have a car here, right?"

He watched her nod mutely, looking a bit stricken while holding the red and gold helm that had been crushed as if it had been made of papier-mâché rather than a gold titanium alloy.

He beckoned her to him, and when she stopped a few feet away, he murmured, "You probably should know about this." The quiet nature of his voice called her closer and he focused her attention to the side of his hip he now had his fingers tracing. "Safety release here and on the other side," he whispered very softly, not necessarily wanting to share this moment with the government agent. "It takes a minute, and you can't put it back on the same way, but you know, just in case. Same thing was on my shoulders. Works even when the suit's offline. You open this lever, like so, then push this here. Now you go do the other side."

He shared a look with her before she moved to the other side, and in that look was everything. This was the person who was going to need to know how to get him out of his armor in an emergency. This was the person who was going to be around for the long haul. This was the person he was fond of, in more ways than one. This was the one he wanted, he'd finally and just now figured it out, and he was fairly certain he didn't remotely deserve her.

Tony swallowed back his momentary doubt as bits of the lower exoskeleton dropped away. He bent over to pry open the boots and was not entirely surprised when a heart beat later, she was prying open the other boot. He quietly instructed her to hold that boot tightly down and he put a hand on her back to steady himself as he stepped out of the piece of machinery, reflecting that the process was much smoother when Jarvis was in charge. When he was eventually free of the suit entirely, he stepped back and stretched.

He paused mid stretch and relaxed back to a normal posture when she put a tentative hand out to touch the arc reactor.

"So, you're okay, then," she said softly.

He nodded and took a good look at her. "And you?"

She swallowed harshly and forced a smile. "I'm great."

"Liar," he said, impulsively reaching out to pull her against him. Tony was gratified to find her easily taking the step and a half toward him even as he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her. Her body was tight with tension, but she held on.

"He wanted to kill me," she murmured against his shoulder.

"I know," Tony replied, more pain leaking into his voice than he thought strictly necessary.

"He wanted to kill you, too," she added without moving, and he could hear the tears shading her tone.

"I know." Tony took a deep breath and filled his lungs with the smell of Pepper. He was starting to relax and could feel her muscles softening as well.

"How did he get your arc reactor?" she asked, pulling back just enough so she could lift her face and look at him. Her tears were making slow tracks down her face, though her makeup refused to run.

Briefly, Tony considered lying, but decided that it would cost too much of him in the end. "He ripped it from my chest," he replied softly, feeling the tears gathering in his throat, the tears he didn't know how to cry.

As their eyes met, he knew that she was there with him, in that unnamable place of misery and compassion, that place of grief for the closest call than nearly took him. Then she held him tight again, no longer meeting his eye, but cleaved to him completely, her head beside his own.

"You're going to live to a ripe old age, Tony – you got me? None of this premature dying shit, okay?" Her voice was muffled once again by his shoulder, but her words drew a smile from him.

"From your lips to God's ears."

A throat was politely cleared before they both heard, "Mr. Stark? Miss Potts? It wouldn't be wise to linger any longer. There are news helicopters on their way, and the local police have already arrived."

Without fully letting go of Pepper, Tony turned slightly and indicated the rest of his armor. "We need to get this into Pepper's car."

"Of course, Mr. Stark. We're on it. Might I recommend holding a press conference tomorrow morning? Say, 10 A.M. at your office? We'll deal with this tonight and brief you on the situation in the morning – we'll have a statement prepared for you. Why don't you go home and get some rest? You, too, Miss Potts. We'll see you at 9:30."

He'd just been handled, but he couldn't care less. With his hand at her back, he walked across the roof next to Pepper, following the agent down the utility stair, through the wreckage of the building. Reaching Pepper's Audi, he took a moment to check the trunk, and there was the Mark IV in all its disassembled glory. An agent shut the trunk, but Tony was already on to the next thing.

"Are you okay to drive?" he murmured to Pepper, having walked up to her as she waited, watching him from the driver's side. She nodded, but he pressed the issue. "Are you sure?"

She raised an eyebrow. "I'm fine. Get in," she replied, nodding to the passenger seat.

Tony meekly did as he was told, largely ignoring the agents who were trying to hurry them up.

For the most part of the trip back to the house he sat back, trying to relax, but his system was still on full throttle, probably with more adrenaline than was healthy. When they finally arrived after a silent drive to the front of the house, he murmured for her to pull into the garage. For the first time, just before she cut the engine, he noticed the time. It was late, but not scandalously so. He looked over to her and asked it anyway.

"Why don't you take the guest suite tonight?"

The few times before he'd had to push and wheedle before she would even consider it as a feasible possibility. Tonight they shared a long look before she acquiesced with no further comment.

They walked upstairs in silence, leaving the Mark IV in the trunk of the car for now. Jarvis was quiet and Tony was grateful. He wasn't sure how much sleep he was going to get tonight, but he certainly wasn't in the mood to talk.

"Don't forget; the drycleaner delivers with a 90 minute turn around," he said in lieu of goodnight.

He watched quirky smile bloom across her features. "I haven't forgotten, though maybe they've forgotten about you."

He had nothing to say that wouldn't strike too close to home. He wanted to point out that the only drycleaning he was planning on having delivered from now on was his own, and possibly hers, but he found himself unable to tease. He wasn't entirely certain the odds were in his favor when it came to being in a responsible and balanced relationship. He wasn't sure he wanted to test his theories tonight on the one woman with whom he didn't care to fuck it up. So he left her to it, retreating to his bedroom, a hot shower and a soft bed, there to wait for sleep to claim him.

--

He'd been much more himself in the morning, less melancholy, more zippy, and flirting with Pepper had seemed like the best idea in the world. In fact, he engaged in it, on and off, from their shared breakfast in his kitchen all the way through to the moments just before the press conference at the office. She was slightly more receptive than normal, which Tony found incredibly encouraging. His head was filled with light and energy and visions of his new moniker, 'Iron Man' – erroneous, but catchy – when he stepped before the press corps, stuck his foot in his mouth, and decided to spit out the truth, just because he could.

--

The End.