Notes: Yeah, I was gonna do the 100 Challenge in order, but I...um, got off track. :) And this is an attempt at a different POV, so I hope it doesn't fail. Huge thanks to ardvari for the beta work. :)
Title: Moments in a Year
Theme #74: Years
Summary: A year in Pepper's life.
You arrive back to your apartment exhausted. Time away from work is a rare and precious commodity—especially on your birthday—and it's always spent to the fullest. Because you know when your brief moment away from work ends, the antics of your child minded boss and his raging ego await attention. So when you finally got Tony back on schedule (three hours late, however), you dressed up, went out and possibly drank more than you're used to.
Every muscle in your body aches as you kick off your heels and slip out of the backless green dress you wore. Trading style for comfort, you don a pair of sweats and a tank top and finally sink down into the mattress and give your poor feet a break. But just as you're about to allow yourself to lay back and succumb to sleep, your phone rings.
Sighing, you push yourself out of bed and fish through your purse for your Blackberry. You expect to hear Tony's enthusiastic voice bragging about yet again another successful business trip. And, why yes, he does realize it's two in the morning.
Instead, you hear the two words that shatter your world to pieces.
The words ring in your ears and surge through your bloodstream. They worm their way into your aching heart and you fall to your knees with a choked sob.
Rhodey's voice keeps talking, explaining details of the mission—the caravan was ambushed; most of the people involved are dead; Tony's blood has been found among the ruins—but you've stopped listening.
The details don't matter.
At this point, you're not sure anything does.
The first week seems to fly by and every media outlet, magazine and newspaper in the world boasts headlines of Tony Stark's disappearance. Coverage is nonstop and despite trying to remain calm and collected, each inkling at his death chips away at your resolve.
So, you throw yourself into work.
Entering his office, you blow out a deep breath and sit in front of the computer. Efficiently, you answer the seemingly endless string of emails as completely as you can. You call every scheduled appointment and cancel them for at least the next few months. You clean the clutter out of his desk and yours.
Pausing, you pour yourself a glass of Tony's finest scotch and gulp it down in one swallow. The burn works its way down your throat into your stomach and you wonder why he even drinks the stuff. But regardless, you pour yourself another and sit back down at the computer.
In the short time you took to clean, nearly two hundred new emails appear in your inbox, waiting to be answered. Forgetting about lunch and not even contemplating dinner, you start to respond to each one.
You work because there's nothing else to do.
You work to keep yourself sane.
You work to keep up hope.
You work because you know if the work runs out, Tony's dead.
Four weeks later and you find yourself standing in front of the Stark mansion, unsure of whether or not you should enter. It's absurd really. This place is your second home, having spent more time within these walls than your own apartment.
Entering the security code, the door opens and as you enter, you're suddenly grateful Jarvis can't technically see. The past weeks have brought little sleep, resulting in dark bags under your eyes, dull and flat hair, and skin that would rival a teenager's.
The house is eerily silent, everything is still and calm. The silence grates on your nerves and you ask Jarvis for music. He complies and plays the last song Tony listened to before he left.
You barely make it to the bathroom before emptying your stomach.
You rarely eat.
Sleep is something you'd give an entire years salary for. Dreams plague your subconscious, disrupting the little sleep you manage to get. Images of sand, blood and death flash behind your eyes and you force yourself to stay awake just to avoid them.
Your downslide from calm, collected and professional into irrational and pathetic is startling.
You've been living in Tony's house for almost a month and Rhodey visits often, bringing meals he forces you to eat. As he enters, you always hear his sigh of disappointment when he finds you curled up on the couch staring blankly at the Pacific Ocean.
"Pepper, you need rest," he says softly. "You're not finding it here."
You ignore him. You don't have the energy to argue that you can't find rest anywhere; you've tried.
"He's my best friend and I miss him, too. But this isn't healthy, Pep."
You continue to push around the Chinese he brought you. Sighing you shove the plate away. "Just find him."
"We're trying." He sighs. "We're trying."
That night you wear one of Tony's shirts and sleep in his bed. In the back of your mind, you think of the previous women to have slept between these sheets, to have shared Tony's love in one form or another. You think of how you'll probably never be one of those women.
Burying your nose into his pillow, you inhale.
His scent is almost gone.
At that, you cry.
Two and a half months.
Two and a half months of phone calls and emails and constant reminders from Rhodey that the search is not over, that Tony is the most stubborn man he's ever known, that Tony wouldn't let himself get captured and killed by a ring of terrorists.
You're not so sure and you briefly consider looking for a new job. But after ten years, you're not sure you know how to do anything else. So, you continue waiting.
For the first time since he went missing, you enter his workshop. Tools and parts of his latest project lay strewn around, creating a walking hazard, but you resist the urge to clean. Instead, you walk around and allow your fingers to skim the various surfaces—the smooth leather of the couch, the cool surface of the counters—and you can almost feel Tony's energy surge through you. Everything around you seems to live and breathe Tony.
You pause and look around you, wondering if he'll ever come down here again. Your emotions being to overwhelm you and you quickly make your way back up the stairs and are surprised to find Happy standing there, waiting.
He clears his throat nervously and it's then you realize he's holding your Blackberry. Handing it to you, he says, "Urgent news from Colonel Rhodes."
Your stomach lurches and you feel your pulse quicken. "Good or bad. That's all I want to know."
There's a deafening silence on the other end and then, "Hey, Pep." Tony's voice is weak and raw, like he's been swallowing gravel, but to you, it's the most beautiful sound you've heard in three months.
"Oh, my God," you whisper, willing yourself not to cry.
On the other end you hear shuffling and Rhodey's voice telling you when and where they're going to land. You look up at Happy while Rhodey says his goodbye and you smile. He nods slightly and smiles, too, and gives a halfhearted apology for answering your phone.
"You don't tell Tony I was in his workshop and I'll let you off the hook," you say, half jokingly.
Happy just smiles and leads you to the car. The ride is silent and you're grateful that Happy doesn't say anything when you start to cry. With a sympathetic gesture, he hands you a box of Kleenex. You blot at your eyes and pray you'll look halfway decent by the time you arrive.
When you finally get to the airbase, you wait. For three months, you've been waiting but at least now you know it's only for a finite amount of time. Happy stands silently behind you on the tarmac and you rock back and forth nervously on your heels, waiting for the plane to appear on the horizon.
An hour after you arrive, you finally see the plane in the distance and have a hard time standing still. Nervous energy runs through you, dancing along your spine and you never take your eyes off the slowly approaching plane. As it lands, you unconsciously lean forward and bite your lip to keep from smiling.
The back of the plane opens and you see Tony holding onto Rhodey's arm for support. When he spots you, you can't help but smile as he straightens outs his back and puffs out his chest slightly. Your smile threatens to stretch across your entire face and you resist the urge to wrap your arms around him as he approaches you.
Tony regards you for a moment and says, "Your eyes are red. Few tears for your long lost boss?"
"Tears of joy," you say, looking down briefly, "I hate job hunting."
"Yeah, vacation's over."
You don't tell him it was anything but a vacation. You don't tell him how the past three months have been your personal living hell. You don't tell him how relieved you are to see his face and hear his voice.
You don't tell him any of these things. Instead, you order his cheeseburgers and set up his press conference. And for once, you're happy to comply with his demands.
You walk down the stairs to his workshop, fully expecting him to be hunched over some part of his suit, toying and tinkering with it until it's reached Tony Stark perfection. A slight frown tugs at your lips as you find him instead sitting on the couch in front of the TV. The shadows of the images dance across his face and you quickly realize there's no sound coming from the speakers.
It's been a few months since his return and things have begun to resemble normal again. Or at least as normal as things can be with Tony now masquerading as a superhero. Because your job wasn't complicated enough, you now need to play nurse when he waltzes in, sporting the injuries of flying around in a metal suit.
But you rarely find him in front of the TV.
You approach slowly and you're not even sure he's aware of your presence. As you get closer and finally get a clear view of the screen, your eyes widen in shock and your hand flies up to cover your open mouth and muffle your gasp.
Black and white images of yourself grace the screen and you instantly recognize them as security feeds from the months he was missing. The present image is of you standing in front of Tony's closet, staring at the racks of clothes. You watch as you reach out and touch the sleeve on one of his shirts and bring the fabric up to your nose. Even though the picture is from a distance, you can see your body shake as you remove your shirt and replace it with Tony's. Turning around, you slump back onto the bed and bury yourself into the sheets.
You don't realize he's paused the video until he's turned around to look at you. You stare at the paused image of yourself on his bed and wipe at the tears lining your eyes.
"I…you…Oh, my God."
"I'm sorry, Pepper," he says, sighing slightly, like a huge weight has been lifted off his shoulders.
You finally meet his eyes and notice the puffiness and redness lining them. Moving around the couch, you sit and Tony leans towards you slightly. Something has sparked between you both. You felt it when he asked you to change out the reactor and he confessed you were all he had. And you feel it now.
So, when Tony slowly wraps his arms around you, you don't hold back and allow yourself to meld into his touch. A few hot tears roll down your cheek, landing on his shirt and he traces his fingers along your spine.
Pulling back, he wipes your eyes with the pads of his thumbs and smiling, he kisses you. It's sweet and innocent and nothing like you could have imagined.
You smile against his lips.
Something has definitely sparked.
One year later and you're hoping he forgets your birthday. Not only does it signify approaching old age, but now the remembrance of the worst three months of your life and his.
Leave it to Tony to not only remember, but also try his hand at cooking. Walking into his kitchen, you find him hunched over a three-layer cake he obviously made himself. Each layer is a different thickness and lopsided, giving the cake a slanted appearance. The same concentration he devotes to one of his projects is displayed on his face as he starts spreading the butter crème frosting around the edges.
"I'm impressed," you say, sitting on a stool across from him.
"What can I say? I'm a man of many talents," he smiles, looking up at you. "Although, you weren't suppose to see this."
You smirk. "Sorry to ruin your surprise, Mr. Stark."
Tony stops working, running the back of his hand across his brow and braces his hands on the counter, leaning towards you. He grins and then, "Pepper, you said when we started sleeping together you'd call me Tony."
"How romantic," you snort.
"I love you," he says seriously.
Wiping frosting from his cheek, you smile. "I know. I love you, too."
Something behind his eyes sparkles and he continues frosting the cake. You watch him work and know at the same he's watching you. Despite your changed relationship, there are still some things Tony's never revealed about Afghanistan. And you accept it, because regardless of his knowledge of you living in his house during his absence, he doesn't know everything you went through.
"You okay, Pepper?"
"Are you okay, Tony?" you ask, quirking your eyebrow.
He waves his hand dismissively. "Well, technically, with the time zone change, tomorrow is act—"
He smiles and dots your nose with frosting. "I'm okay."
And you can't help but smile with him.