A/N: Yeah, yeah, I know, I said it was "complete" before. And it was. Until Tony popped up and said, "What about writing this from my point of view? Because you love me, right?" And, well, I can't say no to him (who can?), and this is what came out. It's basically (exactly) the same story, only with a thing at the start and a thing at the end that sort of tie it all together, and is, as I said, Tony's POV rather than Pepper's. A ver 1.5, if you will. Anyway. Onward:
"Mr. Stark, I really must insist," Jarvis said. "The human frame is not designed to take this sort of punishment."
Over forty hours looking for survivors in an Afghanistan earthquake had taken its toll on Tony, even in the suit. The tiny village had been so hard hit that no survivors had been found other than right at the beginning. Coming across body after body had added to the overall hopelessness--even the search dogs were getting depressed. "All right, Jarvis. Last one."
"As you say, sir." The AI sounded disgruntled.
With the help of some villagers, he started moving rubble aside from the next house in the row. They came across a mother and daughter, crushed together by a beam, and Tony clenched his jaw and kept going. "Hello? Anyone here? Anyone?"
He cleared a doorway into the next room and stopped short. "Oh, hell no. You have got to be kidding me." He spun on his heel. "Out! All of you, get out, and move everyone away from this house. Far away." Jarvis translated for him, and the people got out, gabbling amongst themselves.
After he was sure everyone was a safe distance back, Tony used his repulsors to drop the rest of the mountain on the house, and flew home.
Pepper had considerately left some clean sweats and a tank out for him in the shop, and he threw them on after the 'bots got him out of the suit. Shambling over to his sideboard, he poured himself five fingers of scotch, neat, and downed it in two swallows.
It didn't make him feel better. He poured another.
Pepper found him with the half-empty glass in his hand and shook her head. "Upstairs and into the shower. The suit's made of iron, Tony, not you."
"Gold-titanium alloy," he corrected automatically. "Yes, ma'am." He stumbled a little, going up the stairs, but long experience had steadied his drink hand, and he didn't spill any. They stopped outside his bedroom, and he let the doorframe hold him up. He was exhausted, pissed off, and upset, and he really didn't want to be alone right now.
"Will that be all, Mr.--" Must have been something in his face that stopped Pepper in her tracks. He knew he looked like death warmed over. Felt like it too.
Felt lost. She was all he had, and she was leaving. "Please don't go, Pepper," he whispered.
Her expression was...resigned? "Tony...will you at least talk to me about it?"
He wasn't sure he could, really, but Jarvis for his only company tonight wouldn't cut it. He nodded, once. "I can do that. I think."
She poked him in the shoulder, which ached. As did his entire body. The scotch wasn't helping in that department, or any other. "Shower, first. You'll feel better," she said.
He tried on a roguish look. It didn't fit. "Join me there?"
"In your dreams. Mr. Stark." She tried on a severe look. It didn't fit either. She just seemed worried.
After the two days he'd just had, he didn't want to spend the night on the couch, or in a guest room. "Wait for me in here, then?"
"In your bedroom?" Her eyebrows crawled up her forehead. Tony half-shrugged and turned to go into the bathroom, sipping his drink, counting on her to follow, not turning around to see if she did.
He shut the bathroom door and put his drink on the counter, telling Jarvis to set the shower temp to a hundred and five and turn the head to the massager. He stripped and stepped into the oversized stall, letting the hot water pound away at his sore muscles for a few minutes before soaping down and rinsing off with ruthless efficiency. Taking refuge in normality.
Normality stopped when he came out of the shower and saw his scotch sitting next to the sink. He dried off before picking it up and draining it, because it wouldn't do to have the glass slip out of his wet hand and shatter all over the tiles. He eyed the clothes he'd left in a heap on the floor, debated just going out naked, decided Pepper probably wouldn't like that much and he was pushing her as it was.
His teeth felt disgusting, so he brushed them, again taking refuge in the normal. His hair still dripped, and he grabbed a hand towel and rubbed his head, picking up the empty glass and walking out into the bedroom.
Pepper sat propped against the headboard, twisting her fingers together. She'd changed into...his clothes, sweatpants and a tee that were several sizes too big. Well, of course she had. He hadn't expected her to stay dressed as she was. He seated himself on the edge of the bed, dropping the towel on the carpet and setting the glass on the bedside table. He wasn't ready to face her yet.
"You know, Tony, if you wanted me in your bed, there are easier ways."
He tilted his head, turned around. "Really?"
She considered. "Well. No."
His lips twisted into a half-grin. It felt horribly forced. "Technically, you're on the bed instead of in it anyway." She patted the spot next to her, and he moved, grabbing a pillow and putting it behind his back. He leaned his head against the headboard and closed his eyes, hands at his sides. His fingers twitched of their own accord.
"What happened over there?" she asked quietly.
"It was bad." She knew that already. Idiot. He lapsed into a few seconds of silence that stretched into minutes. "Seems like the whole mountain fell down on that little village." He stopped again, wishing for more scotch to scrub the experience from his brain. "We found one survivor. One. And that was at the beginning of the rescue operation." He barked out a humorless laugh, still with his eyes closed, still facing the ceiling, still unable to look at her. "No, I take that back. We heard a kid crying. Bunches of us frantically digging, took an hour to get to it, even with the suit. And it turns out it was an actual kid. A baby goat. They probably ate it later." No probablies, they had. He'd smelled it cooking. Didn't want to tell Pepper that, though.
She didn't say anything. What was there to say, anyway? He was still processing it himself, and he was a genius, and he'd been there.
"But that wasn't the worst of it." He turned his head and looked at her. Took a deep breath, let it out. Closed his eyes again, because this hurt and she had enough sorrow on her face now for both of them. "I was digging down into a house. And I found two people crushed under the rubble. Looked like a mom and her little girl. And then--" He stopped and swallowed and clenched his fist and his jaw. "I found some of my weapons stashed in the back."
"Oh, Tony." The backs of her fingers brushed his bicep, and just like that he was undone. He curled into her, wrapped his arm around her waist, put his head on her shoulder. He knew he was shaking, was powerless to stop it. His personal demons came out of the woodwork, gibbering at him that no matter what he did it would never be enough; he'd opened the bottle and let Hell loose on Earth and stuffing it back in was out of the question. He wasn't crying--he hadn't done that since Yinsen--but the rage that kept him going was losing way to despair, and a part of him wondered, fleetingly, how close he was to cracking wide open and going completely barking mad.
Pepper froze for the briefest moment, long enough for him to think Oh crap now I've done it, but then her own arms enfolded him, and who knew that a woman who looked so slender and fragile could be so strong? Something in the back of his mind said that it wasn't fair of him to feed from her strength like this, that it had to be taking some sort of toll on her, that he was supposed to be the strong one. But she always knew what he needed and provided it without question.
So, he lay in her arms, letting his guardian angel beat back his demons just by being there. She knew not to whisper platitudes like "It's okay," because it certainly wasn't okay, and she was a terrible liar anyway, which was why he'd hired her. But she kissed his hair, which was new, and laid her cheek on top of his head, which was nice, and sleep tumbled him over like a tidal wave and took him down because he was safe here with her and always would be.
He woke up the next day with Pepper's back spooned against his chest, her hair in his nose, his hand on her waist, and his leg thrown over her hip. For a second he couldn't remember what happened, then it all came crashing back, and for once in his life he didn't have any words for how grateful he was. He made a mental note to give her a well-deserved raise; putting him back together after he fell apart like this wasn't in her job description.
"Thank you," he murmured into the back of her neck. That would have to do.
She rolled onto her back, turned her head toward him, searching his face for...something. A tiny frown creased the space between her eyebrows. "Better?"
"Better," he said, resting his forehead on her shoulder and closing his eyes. "Not perfect, but it'll work for now."
Something about her relaxed, and he hadn't even realized she was tense. "Okay. Jarvis, what time is it?"
"Three-fourteen PM, Miss Potts."
It was almost scary how she switched gears into Work Mode. "Right. Well, I'm long overdue to start sorting out the day's schedule." She used one finger to tilt his chin up. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
He thought about kissing her, because damn if she didn't look kissable right then, but he knew she'd swat him if he did, so why spoil a good thing? Instead, he gave her a lazy, half-wistful smile. "That will be all, Miss Potts."