It was the evening of yet another endless, pointless day. Like on countless similar days before this, Pepper was sitting in the living room at Stark mansion, finishing her day's work on her laptop. How long had it been? She knew the date, but she still needed to count to be certain. Three weeks. Three long weeks, since this nightmare had begun. Tony had been in a coma for three weeks, and as the days passed, everyone's hopes grew slimmer. Even though the doctors had fixed his body as best they could, it was starting to look horribly certain that his mind was gone forever.
She couldn't concentrate. She stopped typing, closed the laptop and leaned back, letting her head rest on the back of the sofa. She needed to gather the strength to actually get up and walk to the bedroom. Then again, she could just sleep here. It made no difference.
Somewhere in the hazy zone between wakefulness and sleep, she heard a voice from behind her.
She sat up straight, all awake again. She had imagined it, that much was for certain. It had been Tony's voice. It wasn't as if this was the first time - she had heard him call out to her once before, but that, too, had been just a hallucination. Was she finally losing it? She stood up.
"Don't turn around," the voice added, clearer than before.
Of course, she turned around. There was no one in the room. She sighed and sat down again.
"Right, so you just had to look. All right. Well, you can't see me, but that doesn't mean I'm not here, Pepper."
"No, it means I'm hearing voices," she told the empty room, curling up in a ball on the sofa.
"You're only hearing one voice, mine, and it's real."
Since this hallucination was obviously not going to go a way anytime soon, she decided she could just as well play along. "What are you, then? A ghost? A disembodied spirit?"
"I guess you could say so, but that would be stretching it. Disembodied, yes. Spirit? Hardly. Open your laptop."
Well, that was unexpected, she thought, but followed the voice's order anyway. As long as it didn't start telling her to kill people, she guessed this was all right.
An untitled, inexplicable window opened on the screen, seemingly associated with no program at all. An image took shape in it: Tony, dressed in a white tuxedo, sitting on a white armchair, his dark eyes fixed on her. The laptop's built-it webcam was on, too, though she hadn't touched it.
She curled up even tighter, trying to make herself as small a knot as possible. "What's going on?" she asked, frightened.
"It's all right, Pepper," he assured her, and the voice came both from all around her and from the laptop, the lips of the Tony on the screen moving in perfect sync. "I'm really here."
"Everywhere. In the house, on your computer, on every computer that the Internet can reach."
"You're..." she stared at the picture, wide-eyed. "You're in the computers?"
"I'm an uploaded consciousness," he told her.
"An uploaded... Oh God, it really worked? The idea you had that night after the Maria Stark Foundation gala? But... I had no idea! Why didn't you tell us you had it all figured out?"
"There were no guarantees it'd work," virtual-Tony said, without as much as a hint of guilt. "I could've ended up as nothing more than a huge load of garbled code that'd wreck half of Stark Industries' servers. I didn't, though. I'm quite whole. Well, except for the fact that I lack a body. But I've got a great illusion of one, so I don't miss it too much. Besides, I've got all of the Internet at my hands! Truth be told, I think this is the single coolest thing I've ever experienced."
He sounded so much like himself: excited to have found a new playground, and totally carefree. Still, how could she be sure he really was sentient, not just acting and looking and sounding like Tony, but all in a pre-programmed, mindless way? She uncurled a little, sitting on the sofa so that her elbows rested on her thighs, her chin on her fisted hands, and stared intently at the screen.
"I know what you're thinking," he said. "No, don't get me wrong, I'm not reading your mind. I'm just reading your face. You're unsure of what to think about me, wondering whether I'm really me or something else, and so on, blah blah, philosophical bullshit. Well, I am. I feel like myself, I've got all my memories, all my feelings. If you choose to think I'm not myself anyway, then there's nothing I can do. But the fact is, Pepper, I'm sorry."
She gasped, and covered her mouth with her hand, tears welling up in her eyes.
"I'm sorry I didn't come back to you, like I promised. And please don't go all teary-eyed on me," he added, and irritable though his voice was, it was emotional as well. So real, so human. "It's not fair when I can't do anything about it except talk."
She reached a hand to touch the image of Tony on the laptop.
"Pepper, you know I can't feel that, and you're leaving fingerprints on the screen," he remarked.
"I can never really touch you again, can I?"
"In my current manifestation, no, but I wouldn't be so quick to give up on my flesh-and-blood counterpart. He's a tough bastard, he might still come around," he told her, sounding quite serious now. "Besides, there's something else I need to tell you. I'm not the exact same Tony you fell in love with anyway, but in the name of fairness, you should know: I'm with someone else."
She felt like he'd punched her in the gut. "You're leaving me? You're a version of Tony's mind that's stored on computers, and you're dumping me?" she asked, too baffled to be angry.
"Never leaving you, Pepper Potts. I'll be here for you. I still love you, always will - and for me, that's a very long time. But, you know how it is," he said, stood up and reached out a hand, so that it looked like his palm was splayed on the inner surface of the computer screen. "You and I can never be."
As if on cue, another person walked into the window, to join Tony. She had never seen him before. He was clearly taller and thinner than Tony, had pale skin, golden hair and blue eyes, and wore a black and white tailcoat suit.
"Pepper, this is Jarvis," Tony said, and patted the other man on the back. "Technically, he's genderless, of course, but I guess you could call him my boyfriend now."
Pepper stared at the two of them. The whole situation was so incredible that for a good while, she felt completely blank. When the feelings finally began to register, they weren't what she'd have expected. Not anger, envy or sadness, but a strange wistfulness. This wasn't her Tony anymore, but at least it was Tony. His mind survived, and he would live on, albeit a strange, new life. She could see that he looked happy, at ease with where and what he was right now, and that made her feel better about everything. Somehow, even though this didn't change how broken the real, flesh-and-blood Tony was, it made Pepper hopeful. Maybe everything would be all right again.
"I'm glad for you," she said softly.
"I'm glad to hear that, Miss Potts," Jarvis answered.
"You can call her Pepper, you know."
"Very well, Mr. Stark, sir."
For the first time in three weeks, Pepper found herself smiling.