Not the Superhero I Know by AndromedaMarine
I sighed, pushing the pile of unanswered mail and paperwork aside to make room for my head. I checked my mental calendar: it was ten months since he'd announced that he's Ironman. I groaned. Ever since that happened he'd been gallivanting off to help the military on undisclosed missions halfway across the world. Even Jarvis was sworn to secrecy. I knew the exact time he was to land, and I would be waiting in his workshop (launchpad) with a complete first aide kit. Some days it was worse than others – instead of a few dents in his golden-red armour an entire section was blown off, and his hand would be an angry shade of red. Instead of a few bruises Jarvis had guided him home because he was out cold. Instead of bullet holes a few were embedded in his arm, which made it impossible for him to keep a stoic face when his machines disassembled the armour. Instead of coming home unscathed something would be wrong.
Tony would be back from Kuwait in a few minutes, and I had to go down and meet him in the makeshift hospital. I cringed at the thought of what he'd come home as this time: minced meat or no scratches. And as I made my way downstairs, I realized that Tony Stark was no longer the superhero he hadn't intended to be.
He landed on his launchpad, and the machines began their tedious work. I saw him wince as the arm pieces came off, and it was only when he stepped out of the suit and turned to face me that I saw a long, jagged cut from his temple to his jaw. He saw the expression of exasperation on my features, and gingerly walked over to the worktable and sat down. I noticed he was also favoring his left foot. I groaned again.
"Pepper," he began, but I lifted a finger to cut him off.
"No, Tony. There is absolutely no need for an explanation." I began to dab at his temple and worked my way down to his jaw. His arm was covered in deep purple bruises and I resisted the urge to slap him. "I understand that this is how you work – hell, if you worked any other way I'd be worried if you were doing enough. You can't help that Ironman is part of you, Mr. Stark. I'm probably the only person who is able to put up with your flamboyance." I finished my tirade with an angry jab into his bicep.
He winced and I began my work on his foot. At first look I could tell it was a sprain. Taking his heel in my hand I began to wrap his ankle.
"You won't be able to fly properly while your ankle's like this," I pointed out.
He squirmed. "Pepper, there's something you have to hear," he said. His voice was sadder than it usually was.
I paused in my ministrations, and looked up sharply. His eyes were full of something other than snarkiness. "What?"
He rubbed his chin and tore his gaze away from me. "Rhodes..." he began, and he squeezed his eyes shut. "Rhodey didn't make it."
Letting his foot go was an accident, but it didn't make me feel any better. "Oh my god," I breathed, my hands flying up to my mouth. I was actually already done with his foot, so when I released it he shakily stood and reached out his arms to pull me into an embrace. I pushed him away. Rhodes had been my friend as well as Tony's, but for some reason it hit a nerve deep down inside. Suddenly I couldn't breathe, and I was hyperventilating (an ironic mixture). I felt Tony's arms snake around my waist and his solid chest was against my back as I sobbed.
At that point I didn't care that Tony had come home with a bum ankle, a bum arm and a scratch that would need stitches. Rhodes was gone.
Tony's hands encased my wrists and he pulled me against him, his arc reactor thrumming against my back. "Pepper," he said softly, burying his face into my hair. I spun in his embrace so I was facing him. Reaching up with one hand I traced the outline of his face, staring into his eyes that were filled with regret and sorrow.
"This is not the superhero I know," I whispered, not blinking. Right then, Tony wasn't Ironman. He wasn't Mr. Stark, either. He was simply Tony, a caring, gentle man whose best friend had just died. A caring, gentle man who held me in his arms. "What happened, Tony?"
He grimaced and closed his eyes, lowering his forehead so it connected with my shoulder. "We found another cache of Stark Industries weapons. Rhodes told me to eliminate the threat, and I did. He didn't tell me that he was fighting Taliban with only a few men as backup." He didn't have to say any more for me to know that Rhodes had refused help from the Ironman. From Tony Stark, his friend.
I pressed my cheek into his black hair, savoring the warmth of Tony's embrace. "We're going to get through this," I whispered as the tears came.
Tony wasn't Ironman or Mr. Stark at the funeral. He was simply Tony – for that day deciding to be what he was: a human; a friend.