The Difference Between Stepping and Falling in Love by AndromedaMarine

Author's Note: AU version of when Obadiah takes Tony's reactor.

He'd fully expected to flip open the phone and speak with his assistant. But of course nothing ever happens the way we plan. Perhaps it was too cliché – the way Obadiah snuck up on him and used that little devil of machinery. But it didn't matter at the moment – he was too paralyzed to think of anything but Pepper and what Obadiah was saying to him.

It's really a shame she had to die like that... But I assure you that her death was necessary...

If Tony could he would've landed a right hook on Obadiah's ego-inflated head, but since that was entirely out of the question, he focused on keeping his strength. His plan B failed when he felt the familiar tug of the arc reactor being pulled out. Suddenly the warmth he'd grown used to with the reactor nestled snugly in his chest cavity was gone, leaving nothing but a gaping hole with sticky reactor waste deep inside. Tony's face went completely white, and the first thing he thought of was Pepper's gift. His heart.

Obadiah left with the reactor, and barely five minutes later the paralysis began to wear off. Tony struggled to stand, but he knew that with every beat of his heart; with every pump of blood that rushed through his system, the shrapnel was edging its way towards his now unprotected heart. He collapsed to the floor, the phone now lying forgotten on the couch. Pepper had long since hung up, and he didn't bother to make any connection to what Obadiah's words were and the pure and simple fact that Pepper had been speaking moments before Obadiah informed him of her 'death.' What he needed was his spare reactor. If he could've he would've laughed, simply because it was ironic that he needed a spare in the first place.

It was one of those moments he wished Jarvis and Butterfingers were actual humans and not A.I. systems and robots.

His fingers brushed the glass casing, and he gave a mental curse when the case slid backwards. He could feel the strength draining from his incomplete body, and he slumped to the floor in defeat. Obadiah Stane had won.

Anthony Stark had stepped and dabbled in love a few times over his entire lifetime. It was because of a certain personal assistant that he'd learned there was a distinct difference between stepping and falling in love. Pepper had always been there when he needed her. Without her he wouldn't know his social security number, where to send his bills (let alone even how to pay them), how to get rid of the one-night-stands that had multiplied into possibly hundreds, or when the time was right to go to bed. Sometimes she mothered him (but he assumed that came with the job description), especially after a crash-landing or a particularly nasty hangover. If not for Pepper, Ironman wouldn't have been a success. With a flicker of anger, Tony realized it was all for nothing. Every dabbling in love had been failures and in his time of need his mind found comfort in the one person he'd fallen into love with: Pepper.

As Tony's mind began to take hold of the looming darkness attempting to claim him, he thought of Pepper. He thought of her smile, the way she walked, and her eyes. He'd nearly said goodbye when something heavy fell into his lap...

Butterfingers peered down at him, nudging the case with one of his robotic extensions. Tony's eyes flickered open and he saw his spare reactor glowing inside the glass box. He attempted a small smile. "Good boy," he said quietly, glancing up at his robot. With one last heave of strength Tony smashed the box into the cement floor, and remembered his hands were too big to reach inside the cavity. His mind drifted back towards the darkness eager to welcome him. Butterfingers rotated down and gingerly snagged the end of the reactor, and plunged it into his chest, connecting the wire and the reactor. Tony felt a sudden surge of warmth, and instantly his mind went back to Pepper. His arm felt like jelly when he moved he arc to the inside of the cavity, and in an instant he was complete again. But the reactor couldn't replenish his lost strength. He collapsed again, allowing the blackness to take him into peaceful oblivion.

Pepper rushed into the Stark mansion, calling Tony's name over and over again. Rhodes was a few minutes behind her in his truck, and she spied the forgotten phone. Not hearing him anywhere in the house, she screamed, "Jarvis! Where is he?"

The British voice was calm, but Pepper thought she could hear a hint of worry in it. "Mr. Stark is in his workshop, Miss Potts. I would suggest you hurry as he barely made it down there in time in the first place."

Pepper paled. She kicked off her heels and sped down the stairs, not caring if she stepped on broken glass as long as she got to Tony.

When she saw him on the ground, not moving, her own heart nearly stopped. Butterfingers swayed to and fro, as if he was pleased with himself. "Tony!" she exclaimed, rushing and kneeling at his side. She seized his arm and pulled him so half of his back was on her knees. His eyes were bloodshot and his face still white, but the arc reactor thrummed happily in his chest. "Oh my God, Tony, are you all right?" She felt it was a stupid question because he obviously wasn't all right.

"Stane..." was all he managed before he tried to sit up. He halfway succeeded, and Pepper had to maneuver herself so she could support his head.

Anthony Stark decided he loved Pepper Potts the moment he laid eyes on her, but that was before she pointed out the difference. Now he decided he had fallen in love with her.

She cradled his head in her arms, rocking back and forth as the tears came. She didn't want to think of what could've happened had she arrived a little later; or if Butterfingers hadn't connected the arc and Tony. She had almost lost the only thing she really had.

She heard Rhodes come inside. "Pepper?" he called out, and the assistant could hear Jarvis directing the colonel to where Tony and Pepper were. "Oh, God," Rhodes breathed as he saw Pepper with Tony's head cradled in her arms. "Is he...?"

Pepper shook her head vigorously, the tears still pouring down her cheeks. Tony was still too exhausted to even open his eyes. He knew that it was Pepper behind him, not Rhodes or – God forbid – Obadiah again. It took him ten minutes before he lifted one heavy arm and seized Pepper's elbow.

"Pep..." he said thickly, struggling to open his eyes. "Love you." It came on a whisper, and as soon as he said it Rhodes stared at him.

Pepper stopped breathing for a moment. "Of course you do. You wouldn't be able to live without me." She chuckled, but with it came the tears that reminded her she'd almost lost him.

"No..." Tony rebuked, tightening his hold on her elbow. "In love with you." He became stronger each minute he was still.

Suddenly Pepper didn't care that Colonel Rhodes was right there. She leaned over Tony and kissed his forehead. "Tony Stark, I'm in love with you, too," she murmured, but Rhodes knew exactly what she was telling the billionaire.

Tony Stark had learned the difference between stepping and falling in love.