Disclaimer: The characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Note: IMDb lists Rhodey as a colonel, while Wikipedia ranks him as a lieutenant colonel. I can't remember who's right. If the latter, Pepper would still not refer to him as "Lieutenant Colonel" unless she were being extremely formal. Trust me, I work for one.
It was a good thing, Pepper thought with some exasperation, that she could take notes practically in her sleep.
The exasperation was for herself, for once, not her admittedly patience-stretching boss. Here it was barely two weeks since he'd been nearly pulled to pieces by one of his oldest mentors turned insane, and he was pacing around his living room spinning off plans for the company while she knew all the while that he was thinking about the next...mission.
She really hated the thought. And it distracted her. But she kept taking notes, holding her game face and pausing in her typing only to discreetly scratch the persistent itch on the back of her skull.
It wasn't that she was going to argue. Even if she doubted his purpose, which she didn't, there was no way anyone was going to convince him to stop being Iron Man. And Pepper understood his reasoning, she really did. But that didn't mean she liked it. At all.
If nothing else, couldn't the man at least take a little more time to recover? She'd managed to get in people to fix the holes in his house, and even replaced the piano--whose bench she now occupied--but the roof of Stark Industries' lobby was still covered with tarps and the engineers were just now beginning to sort through the ruins of the arc reactor. Tony still bore bruises like fading tattoos along his shoulders and arms, and while he'd stopped limping even when he was tired, there was the undeniable truth in the dead reactor returned to its housing on his desk. He had come this close to dying. Again.
At least the first thing he'd done was whip up a couple of replacement Mark II reactors, just in case...
Tony was bouncing a little on his toes and staring out the opposite window, going on about agricultural research and desert farming, and Pepper reached up to rub at her irritated skin again. I really hope I'm not getting a rash or something...
"Do you want PR in on that one too?" she asked, mentally shuffling departments like a deck of cards.
"Nah, not yet, but get on their asses anyway. It's been two weeks and we've still got the press howling at the door. Have them fix that--a prepared statement, a water cannon, I don't care." He wrinkled his nose. "It's that or I'm gonna start taking the chopper to work, and Air Traffic Control hates it when I do that."
"That's because you insist on flying it yourself," Pepper reminded him, forcing her hand to stay away from her head. It itched.
"Only 'cause Happy lets me." He wandered in her direction, looking past her out the window. "Tell them that if they don't get rid of the reporters I'll start taking the suit to work, and then they'll really have something to do."
Pepper pinched her eyes shut. She didn't think he was actually serious, but just in case it was better to treat him as though he were. "You'll have to reinforce the helipad first."
His snicker came from behind her--close behind her. "Hey, Potts, when did you start dying your hair? Aren't streaks a little wild for work?"
She straightened. "What? I--"
She felt him touch the back of her head, just to one side of her ponytail, and then his hand clamped down over her shoulder. "Pepper, this is blood."
A flush of embarrassment heated her cheeks. I actually scratched myself enough to bleed? Dammit-- "I--it's nothing," she offered. "I'm probably just sensitive to my new shampoo or something."
The hand moved from her shoulder to her elbow and she found herself on her feet with barely a chance to set her laptop aside. "Come on. The first aid kit is downstairs."
"No it's not," Pepper countered, trying to resist his drag towards the stairs. "It's in the main floor bathroom."
"Yes it is, Potts, and move it before I pick you up and carry you," Tony said, all the amusement fled from his voice. His grip on her elbow was unbreakable and his expression was grim. "I dinged myself on a wire last week and I never took it back upstairs."
Deciding it was easier to humor him, Pepper let herself be guided down to his workshop at a pace almost faster than she could handle. Tony made her sit on his stool while he rummaged through the clutter, and she twisted her hands together in her lap and tried to control her embarrassment. "It's nothing, Tony. Just an itch."
"Every time the skin's broken there's a chance for infection, isn't that what you told me the last time you patched me up?" he riposted, dumping the first aid kit--a modified tackle box--on the workbench in front of her and popping it open. "Turn about is fair play, Ms. Potts. It's your turn to hold still."
She eyed the contents of the kit as he poked through it. "At least use the alcohol pads then, Mr. Stark," she said as his hand hovered over the hydrogen peroxide. "I've never wanted to be a bottle blonde."
His mouth curved, but he didn't reply, instead turning her on the stool so she faced away from the bench. His fingers released her ponytail with a gentleness that made her suppress a shiver, and then parted her hair over the sore spot. She was prepared for the cold sting of the alcohol, but not for his sudden curse when he pressed the pad to her scalp, or the extra spike of pain that made her suck in a breath.
"What the hell, Potts, are you growing spines now?" Pepper reached up automatically, only to have her hand knocked away. She tried to look over her shoulder, but Tony grabbed her head in both hands. "Hold still."
She could hardly do anything else. The feel of his warm palms pressed into her neck, his fingers spread over her cheeks, made the strange pain recede and a paralyzing thrill run through her. He hadn't touched her so intimately since they'd danced at the benefit, and Pepper swore at herself for being so susceptible--
"Jarvis." His voice was cold, and perfectly calm. "Diagnostic scan of Ms. Potts' skull, right now."
She opened her mouth, then closed it again as the hands left her head and one clamped again over her shoulder. This was getting weird and a little scary, and she didn't move as the robot arm whined down out of the ceiling to point at her face.
Tony stepped out of its way, but didn't release her. "Close your eyes," he told her, still in that quiet chilly tone, and she obeyed. Light danced over her eyelids, and she heard the hum pass over her head and down, and then cease.
"Diagnostic up," Jarvis reported, and she opened her eyes.
It was kind of neat to see a ghostly image of her own head hovering in Tony's workspace--an electronic painting, as it were, in three dimensions. It was also a bit eerie. She stood by Tony's side as he frowned at it. "Well?"
"Ms. Potts, you have several pieces of tempered glass embedded in your scalp," the AI reported. Dots of red sprang up on the virtual surface of her head. "They range in size from 2.54 centimeters to mere micrometers, and will gradually work their way out."
Pepper blinked at the image, remembering the fight on the roof, and the hideous crash of glass overhead that had briefly drowned out the shouts and the clashing of metal. She'd found tiny cuts all over her body later, but they had healed within a day or so, and she'd never noticed any other specific pain amidst the exhaustion of too much adrenaline and too much to do. She'd thought nothing more of the glass than to be grateful that she'd managed to shield her eyes.
"Well, if that's all..." Relieved, she swung round to face Tony, only to stop cold. He was still staring at her virtual head, and his expression was akin to the one she'd seen only when she'd told him she was quitting. Angry, agonized...and panicked underneath.
Then he glanced at her, and the emotion was shut down so quickly that Pepper almost thought she'd imagined it.
"Sit down," he said, pointing at the stool, voice still cool. "We need to get the rest of it out."
She opened her mouth to protest, and then thought better of it. The idea of having shards of glass in her head really was creepy. And I'll spend the next month twitching every time my scalp itches.
As she sat, Tony moved behind her once more, and Pepper glanced back at him. "You're not going to let Jarvis handle it?"
"No." His flat tone left no room for questions. "Jarvis, show me where."
Pepper held still as the AI used a laser to pinpoint the pieces. Tony's touch was amazingly delicate, and she quickly got used to the antiseptic burn, but she still had to control her flinches as he wielded the tweezers. Some of the shards were still beneath the skin, and as Tony went after one she couldn't help gasping a little.
"Dammit," Tony muttered, and Pepper realized that the muscles in the lean body next to her were all wire-tight. "Sorry."
"'S okay," she managed through gritted teeth. "Keep going."
She tried to understand why he was doing this, now, instead of letting the AI perform the extractions or merely ordering her to see a doctor. It was easier to be annoyed at his high-handedness--a fairly normal state for her--than to concentrate on the pain, or how being this close to him made her feel.
Somehow, over the last few months, she had become much more than fond of her boss. It was less of a pleasure and more of a torment, even if he'd brought no one home since he'd freed himself; Pepper was acutely aware of how attractive Tony was and how he didn't even have to try to win most women over. She wasn't about to ruin a well-honed working relationship by making a fool of herself--like so many others already had.
If she set her mind to it, if she endured, it would pass. Just like the hurt he was causing her now.
Finally the last shard clicked into the jar lid that Tony was using as a basin, and he pressed an alcohol-soaked pad to the wound--this one halfway between her forehead and her ear. "There," he said, not sounding relieved. "Done."
Pepper reached up to hold the pad in place, and Tony tossed the tweezers down on his workbench, picking up a rag to wipe his hands. He was scowling horribly, as if confronted with a knotty problem, but Pepper let it go for the moment, rolling her head on her neck to loosen the tension of holding still against pain. The worst of the stings were fading. "Thank you."
With an oath, Tony balled the rag up and threw it. It plopped limply down a few yards away, very unsatisfying, and he rounded on her, plainly and suddenly furious. "Don't you dare thank me, Ms. Potts."
Pepper stared at him, baffled. "I beg your pardon? Is common courtesy somehow verboten now?"
He snarled at her. "This is my fault." His fist thumped down on the workbench, making the glass pieces tinkle faintly. "You told me you weren't hurt!"
She remembered that, a dizzy and half-unconscious Tony grabbing weakly at her hand as she and Rhodey crouched beside him on the wrecked roof, his eyes struggling to focus on her and his arc implant flickering ominously. Pepper bit back the obvious response of what did you expect me to say and tried to be soothing.
"I wasn't, Tony. Nothing more than a few cuts and bruises." And you nearly died right there--again-- The memory had given her more than her fair share of nightmares since. It had been touch and go as Rhodey scrambled down to retrieve the Mark II implant from Obadiah's ruined suit; Pepper had clutched Tony's limp fingers in hers and kept talking, babbling, saying anything out of sheer superstition, because it seemed like every time she fell silent his implant would falter.
"That is more than a few cuts." He gestured at her. "That could have been your eyes, Pepper, or your throat. I almost got you killed!"
"Tony." She spoke firmly, using the tone that she employed to make him sit down and sign things he'd been putting off for weeks. "You had no way of knowing what was going to happen. You're not--"
"Yes, I am." He squeezed his eyes shut briefly, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "Fuck. Pepper, I can't lose you."
Okay, he's going to say something we'll both regret later. Pepper gritted her teeth again, determined to maintain at least a shred of professionalism in the presence of the maddening boss who had nearly kissed her a few weeks ago and who had barely let her out of his sight since that desperate battle at SI headquarters. "A good personal assistant is hard to find," she said, trying to inject a little levity, "but you'd manage."
His bark of laughter had nothing to do with humor. "That's not what I mean and you know it. You're the only person I trust. The one I need."
Her throat swelled, and Pepper pushed away those frantic few minutes in the dark, sirens drifting up from below, as Rhodey held the flashlight in shaking hands and she struggled to reconnect Tony's stolen implant before he stopped breathing entirely. "I'm sure you could teach Colonel Rhodes, at least, to plug you in."
It was a feeble line, and she knew it; Rhodey's hands were even bigger than Tony's. But I'm not--
Her boss took two steps forward, grabbed her by the elbows, and shook her, though not hard. "No. You're what I need. You always have been. Dammit, you made yourself indispensable from Day One, and now I don't have the slightest fucking idea what to do without you!" His eyes were angry and terrified at the same time, and Pepper, frozen, couldn't look away. "And I don't have anything to give you, I don't know how to make you stay--"
She managed to find her voice. "I don't break my promises, Mr. Stark."
Tony's mouth twisted, and he released her with a jerk, turning away and running a shaking hand through his hair. "I am not talking about your damned job."
Pepper swallowed. "I know," she said as calmly as she could manage. "But I think you're just--reacting to recent events. Do you really think you'll feel the same way in six months, or a year?"
His laugh broke this time, an oddly hopeless sound that made an ache settle under her breastbone. "I don't know. Maybe I won't need air in six months, either."
His shoulders drooped, and he turned his head as though to hide his face from her completely. Pepper hesitated a long, long moment, knowing that this risk was the biggest of all for her, afraid to take it for fear of losing everything that mattered. Then Tony spoke again without moving, and his voice was small and uncertain.
"At least tell me if I should keep hoping."
The ache spiked into a sweet, sharp pain, and Pepper chose. Her touch on his shoulder made him spin back around, and all she saw was his widening eyes as she held him still for her kiss.
Her aim was a bit off--she honestly wasn't used to kissing anyone any more, let alone someone a fraction shorter than her--but as her bottom lip dragged across his top one Tony made an odd gasping sound and snatched her close, and corrected the angle before her fingers had finished burying themselves in his hair.
And oh, her clumsy offering blossomed into something glorious and very definitely mutual. Pepper had never been one to believe in the mystical connection of souls or any such thing, but for one long dizzying moment it was as though Tony had surrounded her in some kind of glad, welcoming heat--as though he was making her feel what he felt through sheer will.
It made her shudder in painful relief, as if tangled strands of her self were unknotting all at once. Her hands, of their own volition, slid down to cup the back of Tony's neck. He sighed against her mouth and kissed her again, slow and infinitely sweet, his hands wandering along her spine to be certain every second that she was real.
It was quite some time before they were calm enough to stop, let alone speak. Pepper couldn't make herself stop touching him, her starved heart suddenly overflowing with an unfamiliar joy. Since Tony didn't seem inclined to let her get more than a few inches away, there was no real problem. But when his hand stroked through her hair, the sensation was enough to make her pull back a little. "Ow."
Tony blinked, then blushed. "Sorry. Oh, damn, sorry--"
Pepper laid two fingers on his lips. "Stop it. I'm fine, just a little sore."
He kissed them, then tugged her hand down, his own reaching up to stroke her temple with a feather-light touch. "And here I thought you were just as hard-headed as me, Potts," he muttered, his eyes twinkling, and she snickered.
"It's a gift. --What is it?"
His soft smile was fading and he was staring at her forehead. "Are you bleeding again?"
Pepper lifted her hand to the spot, but there was no soreness, just a minute smear of blood that came away on her fingers. "Hey--"
She took Tony's hand in hers and looked closely. Sure enough, the tiny slice on the tip of his middle finger was oozing slightly. "You cut yourself."
"Huh." He didn't try to pull free, instead grinning a little. "You stuck me, remember?"
Amused, Pepper placed a kiss on the nick. "There."
She let his hand go, looking up at him with another smile, but the sheer force of his gaze caught her. His grin had softened into something fiercer, and at the same time far more intimate.
"That's it, Pepper," he murmured. "We've bled on each other, it's all over now. You're staying." He stroked her cheek, thumb hovering reverently over her lips. "Forever, hear me?"
Pepper's heart ached again at the vulnerability underlying his fierceness, but it was answered by that new joy. "In case you haven't noticed, Mr. Stark, you haven't managed to make me leave yet. Despite some really spectacular efforts."
His smile deepened. "Guess I'll have to put that energy into keeping you happy instead." The gleam in his eyes made her flush, but before she could reply he was kissing her again.
And that, Pepper decided, was just fine with her.