Title: Every Second Song
Author: A.j.
Spoilers: The Invincible Iron Man #3.
Rating: PGish.
Warning: Sappy. Very, very sappy. hides
Notes: Accidentally written as a prompt-that-doesn't-count for BJ. Cleaned up and expanded. Not beta'd though.

Summary: It's been fifteen years, but she continues to surprise him.

Tony remembers a time when it was easier to roll out of bed in the mornings. When the copious weight of decisions made and traded and forced didn't weigh on him like sand. It was a long, damn time ago. He's probably lying to himself anyway.

"Hey." Pepper's voice is quiet, drifting over the balcony and into the bright morning air. It's one of those beautiful days that is crisp and clear, a perfect day in early fall. Tony smiles and leans back in his chair, glances back towards the woman behind him.

"Hi. Need any-"

"Help?" She raises an eyebrow at him and moves further onto the balcony. Her movements are slow and controlled, the cane she's using reflecting silver in the sun. Rehab is going well, but there's only so quickly you can go after most of a building falls on you. No heels for Pepper Potts in the near future.

Tony's fine with that. She's breathing and really? That's all that matters.

"I'm fine, Tony." She smiles down at him, her hand drifting over the curve of his shoulder. "Mostly."

"I've been where you are, Pepper. You are completely lying."

She snorts. "And on vicodin. It's better than it was yesterday, and that's all I can ask for."

He nods and kicks out her chair. "Fair enough. Today's a half-day, right?"

He watches as she easies herself into the offered seat. Three months ago, it's unlikely that she'd even be in the building, let alone sitting down with him for breakfast. The last year had been... well. If he could strike the entire thing from his memory and start over, he'd do it in an instant.

Happy. That fucking registration act. Steve. Zeke.

Her being here and eating with him isn't worth the loss, but it isn't supposed to be. It's a bright spot in a really dark, fucking time, and he's more than happy to grab on with both hands and not let go. He takes a sip of his coffee.

"You have that look again," she uses his distraction to snag a piece of fruit off of his plate. Her nails had been done recently, he notices. They're rounded and perfect. It's such a Pepper thing that it takes a few seconds to actually register her comment.

"What look?"

She raises a shoulder and gives him a half-smile. "The look that made me fall in love with you all those years ago."

His brand new heart is beating hard against his ribs, and for an instant he almost slips into the underskin out of sheer shock. "What?"

Pepper's laugh is bright and jarring, a sharp counterpoint to his sudden lightheadedness. It's painful to listen to and something of that must show on his face because she stops, face closing to a serious expression that he's become increasingly intimate with over the last few years.

"I'm not laughing at you." Her eyes don't leave his and he's grateful for it. He's never known Pepper to lie, at least not to him.

"Then why?" Because he needs to know what brought about this sudden shift. Why this morning is when she's finally decided to speak. To throw open years of shadows and missed opportunities and fraught glances.

"Oh, Tony." Her smile is sad. Ten parts nostalgia, two parts exasperation, and another eight parts warmth, it wraps around him like a hug or a shroud. "You know I love you. You've always known that."

"You-" He breathes deeply. Gathers the fear and the shock into his lungs and then pushes it out in one long exhale. "I don't know what to say."

She shrugs and poaches another strawberry off his plate. "Don't say anything then. It's not like saying it out loud changes anything."

"How can you say that?" The vehemence in his tone surprises him, but not much. Pepper is... Pepper is something he's never been able to define. Friend, yes. Brilliant employee, definitely. Someone who confuses the hell out of him on a minutely basis? No question.

"I say it because it's true. You know that I love you. I know that you love me, even if you can't bring yourself to even think it." She reaches over and lays a hand on his forearm. Without thinking he turns his hand over and clutches at her fingers, entwining them with his own.

He drops his face. Takes a moment, and when he finally speaks, the words are soft. "How do you know?"

She lets go of his hand, but not completely. Just pulls it so that it's lying against the front of her robe, just below her breasts. Confused he looks up. Her smile is gentle and sad. "Because of this."

And then he can feel it. The hard ridge of scar tissue settled just below where her bra would hit. The reactor. He closes his eyes, relief and fear warring with something he can't quite name.

Pepper's voice is gentle in his ears, reaching into the weary places, the dark places that seem to keep growing and growing with each passing year. "Without hesitation, because I needed it, you gave me this. Years, Tony. For years you've never let anyone near this tech. But for me?"

And then his hand is under her robe. Pushing up the camisole she uses for pajamas and running over the still healing scar. Her skin is hot under his hand and so very, very alive.

It takes him a bit to let go. To lean back away from her and try and collect himself. When he finally looks up again, looks at her, she's still smiling. Her robe is open, but her shirt is down and her long hair is blowing in the gentle morning breeze.

She's not young. There are lines around her eyes that weren't there before. Her face is narrower than he remembers, due to sickness and weight loss, but also maturity. It hits him like a canon shot that he's known this woman for nearly fifteen years. She's still here.

"Why now? Why today?" Because he needs to know.

She shrugs again, looks out over the buildings around and below them. "Maybe because I'm tired of not saying them." She looks back, her blue eyes wide and sad in her face. "I lost Happy. I loved him deeply and still do. And it wasn't because you pushed me off on him - and don't tell me you didn't because you did - but because he was a good, sweet man who loved me."

Tony nods, waiting for her to continue. He doesn't know what to say. He honestly has no idea where she's going with this. "And?"

"And I'm healing." She leans back in her chair, letting herself relax into the seat and the moment and the reality she's created. "I'm healing and I'm tired of this being unspoken. I'm tired of being The Woman, Tony. The one you don't think you're good enough for. I'm not a prize. I'm me. We don't have to change anything. I don't know if I'm ready for that yet. I don't know that either of us will ever be ready to be more than what we are." She shakes her head and smiles at him.

Stunned, he leans back in his chair and tries to process. Watches as she nonchalantly pours herself a cup of tea - one of the many changes in his breakfast habits over her two month-convalescence in his home - before smearing butter on a slice of toast. Like it's just another day. Like what she'd just said hadn't completely altered his world.

And then he realizes that it hasn't. It doesn't feel all that different. He doesn't feel all that different. Just... better.

"I love you too."

The toast falls from her fingers and lands, butter down, on the table cloth with a light squish. He laughs, partly at her expression and partly because he means it. And he's said it out loud. To her.

"Okay," she says and then her hand is warm against his face, fingers tracing the curve of his cheek and eyebrow. He thinks she might be crying, but he can't quite tell with the glare of the sun. "Okay."

They smile at each other like that, touching and surrounded by breakfast items and the waking sounds of the city below.