Pepper learns that memories are fractured, imperfect things.
There are so many things that happen to her, things that she never in a thousand years imagines she will forget - sharp, poignant things, things laced with pain and adrenaline and happiness and euphoria. Things so clear and powerful they seem seared into her, like scars she can't touch.
But as time passes... she'll find herself remembering only the strangest parts of them, like the way Tony's hands looked when he playfully held them out to her, requesting a dance she never gives, or what Jarvis' voice sounded like as he struggled to be heard over blaring rock ballads, or the sound of tire wheels crunching over gravel as Happy pulled the car around.
They're all stupid, innocuous little things, and never the things she thinks she'll remember. Certainly never the things she wants to remember. She wants to remember the way Tony's eyes would dart away when she caught him staring at her, the way they crinkled at the edges as he squinted in that far away manner at something perplexing he was assembling. She wants to remember the way his outline would look as he stood on the patio, leaning on the railing and staring at the ocean. Or the way he could be so infuriating but so damn magnetic when he did the most annoying things, like holding the door open for her, telling her she was holding her fork wrong, pointing out the creases in her skirt after a long day at work…
But that's the first stuff to go, and after so much time has passed that she really can't remember the way his voice sounded when he was laughing, she'll recall with crystal clarity the sound of his sharp exhale, the kind he made when he's fighting down pain from cuts and bruises she delicately patches up for him. What his blood felt like, after it had dried on her hands and she rubbed her fingers over it. And that's how it is. Never the things she wants, but they're still bits and pieces of him, and she'll keep them for as long as they'll have her.
The smell of the ocean. The most poignant memory of anything she has. She doesn't know why Tony falls in love with it, or when it happens, but before she knows it he visits the ocean at least once a week. Not just looking at it from his patio, but actually touching the ocean, squishing sand between his toes and getting his pant legs wet and everything. It will be the California coast, at first, but he'll branch out, too. He'll spend a day in Alaska and send her a picture he took with his cell phone of a red sun dipping into a blue horizon. Maine, sometimes, and a triumphant, grainy picture of the lobster he chose to kill for the sake of dinner, fresh from the ocean. Always at least one small token that shows, for the briefest of moments, he was there and thinking of her.
She keeps hard copies of the pictures, just for the feeling of turning them over in her hands. The heaviness of them, the smoothness. It's a crude replacement for the warmth of Tony's skin, the softness of the fabric of his business suits, but they're still bits and pieces of him, and she's starting to learn that maybe it's the only thing she'll have of him.
Her cell phone rings. It's on the night stand, and the glow from the screen illuminates patches of her lampshade and casts shadows on the ceiling. She rolls over and squints at it, blinking away sleep, and reaches for it with a clumsy hand.
She flips it open and grunts into the mouthpiece.
"Good morning, Pepper." Tony says to her.
"What is it, Tony?" Pepper murmurs, still too asleep to be properly angry. She tries to look at her alarm clock, but she knocked it aside when she was reaching for her cell phone, and can't see the numbers.
There's a sound through the connection, like a hard-blowing wind. Pepper exhales, then fumbles with the lamp on her night stand, flicking it on and squinting in the light. "Where are you?" she asks.
In the background, she hears him say something in a language she can't decipher from so far away, before he's back on and saying, "Souya-misaki."
The gears in her brain are picking up speed, and she's awake enough to ask, "You're in Japan?"
"The northern-most point, in fact." Tony pauses, and then continues in a horribly cheery voice, "So that means I'm the northern-most person talking on the northern-most cell phone with the northern-most wind blowing in my face. How cool is that?"
Pepper almost wants to say, almost as cool as sleep, but refrains, and instead says, "When are you going to be back?" In her head, she's mentally reviewing Tony's schedule, already figuring out what could be moved and what could be canceled.
"I don't know, Pep. Soon. Keep the porch light on, okay?"
Pepper opens her mouth to respond, but the sound of the wind abruptly dies out, and she pulls the phone away from her ear to find that the connection has been severed.
She holds the phone in her hand, staring at it. Then the phone vibrates and the screen lights up to inform her that Tony has sent a message. She opens it, and it's a slightly slanted picture of Tony standing in front of a steepled art structure, and he's flanked on either side by a man and a woman, probably husband and wife, who're flashing Pepper a peace sign. Between then, Tony is grinning like an idiot and flashing his own pair of peace signs, slanted sideways in gangster style. Behind them, the ocean spreads out endlessly. The text of the message says simply, proudly, the northern-most gaijin in Japan.
Pepper stares at the picture for a moment. This is something that Tony has done before, she knows. When something goes wrong, when something happens that he can't quite handle, he'll leave. For months at a time, he'll vanish without saying where he's going.
So it's expected that this might happen, but Pepper can't decide if she's relieved or worried.
Placing her cell phone back on her nightstand, she turns off the light, and tries to sleep.
She catches it on the news. It's the ocean, as it always is. He's still in love with it and she still can't figure out why. She has her guesses, though, and thinks to herself that maybe it has to do with the nature of it. It's huge, it's vast, and it's always changing. It's calm and peaceful and angry and devastating and for a man who spent months without seeing daylight, imprisoned in a cave, who must have felt such vast myriad of things...
It's feels a bit unreal to be watching it on television, like it's not really happening, and it's disconnected for her, to watch the shaky footage of the red armor hovering over streets turned to rivers, wailing children and terrified mothers tucked under his arms. The wind and the rain assails the camera and she thinks that barely half a year ago he was a playboy drunkard, and now he's out there, doing things like this, like it's his duty. Like he'd rather be there, than anywhere else.
Pepper is a stranger to duty, in the sense that she can't quite understand how someone might dedicate their lives to something like this. Pepper knows that people do, just not her, or anyone she's really known. Certainly never Tony. And she's still having trouble rationalizing this in her mind. Years later she can still remember the emptiness in her chest, as if a great distance had suddenly made itself known to her.
She has dinner with Rhodes at least six times before Tony returns, and she subtly asks him questions she never did before, and spends most nights listening to him talk about these things that she doesn't understand.
Pepper is waiting in the garage for him. She watches, biting her lip, as Jarvis removes the suit from him, and she wants to say something, because Tony is visibly shaking and won't meet her eyes, but he shrugs away from her touch like it burns, and vanishes upstairs without a word.
In this memory, it's the way the plated glass door closes; the soft snikt it makes as it shuts, and it's the first time she remembers that it had a sense of finality to it, watching Tony's back as he ascends the stairwell without her.
Pepper is eating lunch when another picture is sent to her cell phone. Tony is supposed to be at a meeting in New York, and she's just taking a bite of the taco salad she had delivered to Tony's Malibu mansion.
It shakes against the marble counter-top in the kitchen, and she flips it open. It's Tony sitting on a surfboard, a couple yards out into the water, with a young man sitting on his own nearby, pointing out towards a cresting wave in the distance. There's a fleck of water marring one corner of the picture, and Pepper at first has no idea where this picture might be. All she knows is that it's certainly not Wall Street. Annoyed, she scrolls down to the text, which reads Kovalam much superior to New York.
Tony is only gone for five days this time, and returns with what appears to be a sunburn on his face. Tony steadfastly maintains that it's a tan, if only made so through his powers of denial.
Pepper knows Tony is in Cuba, because he's puffing on a big fat cigar and the text that accompanies the picture says extremely legal. What's not extremely legal is the Molotov cocktail he's holding in his hand, and the shit-eating grin around the cigar clamped in his teeth. To his left is the ocean, its beach littered with trash, and to his right is a steel fence with barbed wire at the top. He's flanked on either side by a bunch of maniacally grinning teenagers, and Pepper prepares herself for the inevitable message from SHIELD that Tony has managed to get himself arrested and executed.
Instead, he shows up two days later, and the first thing he says when the helmet comes off is, "I bet you thought I was serious."
The sunset in Peru is gorgeous. It reflects in the water, in various gradations of color. Faint wisps of clouds hover across the horizon, stained orange. Tony is only a dark silhouette, and he calls her, this time, before he sends the picture.
"It's beautiful, Pep," he says. "You'd think you were the last person on Earth, standing out here."
Tony tears the helmet from Jarvis' mechanical hands, and hurls it with all his might across the garage. It strikes one of the cars, and it's the sound of breaking glass that Pepper remembers, as one of the windows shatters.
Pepper stands near the door to the house, her hands clenched into fists at her side. She wants to ask what happened, but she knows he'll never say. There's blood splattered across the armor, a few deep scratches and faint dents. He stalks past her without a word, and disappears upstairs for the rest of the night.
The next morning she wakes to find him gone. Three weeks with no word, and then a picture of him building a sandcastle on a beach somewhere in the world. Next to him, a small boy pours a bucket of water into a moat.
Pepper starts to visit the ocean as well. Not because Tony takes her – he never does – but because she's desperate to discover why Tony loves it so much. She wants to know what makes it such a desirable retreat for him. So she goes on her own free time, mostly when Tony is away.
She'll stand on the beach with the water wasting away at the sand beneath her feet, and she'll stare out into the ocean until the sun sinks below the horizon, and she tries to find the answers out there.
She doesn't find anything. It's lonely, and the wind is cold, and she wraps her arms around herself and wonders how anyone might find comfort in this.
The blood makes her fingers tacky. It has dried stiff on the fabric of the suit he wears under the armor, and it gets on her hands as she peels the cloth away from his skin. He hisses through his teeth, his knuckles white as his hands curl around the edge of one of the tables in his workshop.
"Fuck, Pepper-" he says, and his face has drained of color.
Pepper fights down her own retort, knowing that it would sound slightly hysterical. As it stands, it's taking all of her willpower just to stop her hands from shaking.
The damage on the outside of the armor hadn't looked quite so bad, but what was merely a large dent on the outside, on the inside the armor had buckled and split open at the sides, slicing open Tony's skin in uneven lengths.
"You need stitches, Tony," she says, and adds in her mind and a real doctor.
"And mar my beautiful skin? What will the ladies say?" Tony asks, faintly horrified, though the effect is diminished when he says it through gritted teeth.
She keeps her hands against Tony's side, the cloth she has pressed against the laceration growing heavier and heavier with his blood, and when the SHIELD-provided doctor arrives, she steps back, and stares down at her hands.
She has the irrational urge to walk down to the beach, and wash the blood away in the ocean.
Of all her memories, it is this one she clings to. The one she refuses to let go. Because for that one instant, staring down at the smears of red on her hands and wishing for an ocean to take them away... it is in that moment that she finally starts to understand.
Two months and no word. It's never been this long before and Pepper has called SHIELD and predictably they've told her nothing. She knows Tony has gotten under her skin, because while he's gone she visits the same beach he did in Alaska, and she stands on the shore with her cell phone in her pocket, waiting for the next picture to come. Two months, seven days, and it finally does, when she's driving in her rented car with the windows down and the radio droning softly in the background. Her cell phone shakes, and she brings her car to a stop at the side of the road, turning down the volume.
The wind is blowing gently through the window as she opens the message, and the picture is dark and hard to see, but Tony's form is unmistakable. He's leaning back, elbows resting against the railing of a ship, in a heavy jacket and a scarf. One hand is half raised in a lazy wave, and the scarf covers his mouth so she can't really make out his expression, but she thinks he doesn't look unhappy. There's a man leaning on the railing next to him, his back to the camera, staring down at the water. The words COAST GUARD are stenciled on the stranger's jacket, and in the distance she sees what can only be patches of ice resting on the water.
Pepper stares at the picture for a long time, memorizing it. The faint dusting of red across Tony's nose, the way his hair looks tousled. Outside, the wind softly whooshes as cars pass her by.
When she snaps the phone closed and drops it into the passenger seat, she pulls back out onto the road and spends one more day on the coast, before flying home.
Tony's eyes are bright when Jarvis pulls the helmet off, and there's a breathtaking grin spread across his face.
"Pepper!" he shouts, so loud that it echoes within the confines of the garage.
His excitement is infectious and Pepper finds herself grinning before Tony even tells her why. "Tony," she replies, one eyebrow delicately poised in question.
"Pepper, it was incredible!" Tony says, and hops out of the boots and onto the platform. He spreads his hands wide for emphasis, and continues, "I was diving under these glaciers, and you've never see water this color, Pep. It's this crazy blue when the sun streams down through the ice. And then you sink farther and farther down, and there's darkness all around you-"
Tony is standing close to her now, close enough that Pepper can see his eyes. She's never seen them look like this, not any time in her recent memory. They're shining, fairly burning with excitement. She thinks it's the most alive she'sever seen them, and there's a funny feeling in her chest as he breaks off mid-sentence to wrap those spread arms around her in a hug. In his excitement he lifts her off the ground and twirls her around. "It was incredible!" he repeats, as he's setting her down. He doesn't let her go immediately, but keeps his arms around her. Somehow, she thinks that it's not really her he's holding on to.
"I'm sure it was," she says, and she's still smiling, even if she doesn't understand.
Tony will go alone, sometimes. Or rather, he always leaves alone, but will generally end up with someone, somewhere. But on rare occasions, there'll be a picture that Tony has taken himself, presumably because there is no one around to do it for him.
She knows it's Tony, because only he could infuse such sarcasm into such a simple thing. The most breathtaking picture he sends her is one of a sunrise in Tolo Harbor, Hong Kong. However, it's not a picture of the sunrise, but rather one of a rusted Coke can half-buried in the sand, and the sunrise is merely something else that seems to have been caught in the picture.
Tolo Harbor is the longest yet, spanning four months, during which Pepper visits the ocean five times, including once with Rhodes and twice with Happy. She's looking for something, she knows she is, but she's not sure what. She's hoping she'll know when she finds it, but somehow, she doubts it.
They pile up, over the years. Tony gets deeper into the Avengers and he stops taking such long trips, trading length of time for quantity. On and on it continues, Russia, Ireland, China, Australia, Argentina, Peru. There are others, Pepper knows. Times he went and didn't give her a thought. Lost weeks with no word, and then him sitting in the kitchen on a stool, eating a sandwich, as if nothing had happened.
But most of the time, he doesn't forget her. Pepper will turn the pictures over in her hands, tracing the glossy edges with her fingers. They're mostly simple, just him and the ocean, with a red sun sinking gracefully into the horizon of Greece. There'll be ones that put a smile on her face, a small child tackling Tony's knees and his arms pin-wheeling for balance in the shallow beaches of Indonesia. Tony skipping stones into the ocean with a little girl in Greenland, her features frozen in delight.
There'll be ones she stares at for hours; Tony standing behind a young woman, with his arms wrapped around her stomach, and she's bent over with his weight. Her hair is in her face and she's laughing and Tony's eyes are crinkled at the edges with mirth. Behind them the surf crashes, and the half-erased footsteps that travel the length of the Italian coast are slowly dissolving away.
Another of Tony standing with a group of people huddled together on a beach in Australia, with an older man holding up a windsurf board, mid explanation. Tony looks so normal standing among them, even if you can see the arc reactor through his shirt. She wonders if people ask him about it, and she imagines that they must. She wonders if it bothers him, or if he's okay with it.
Tony blows her a kiss from a cliff overlooking the sea. Beside him, a cracked statue of an angel prays.
Pepper knows what sea salt tastes like. It leaves a horrible aftertaste in her mouth that she never gets used to.
It helps her remember, though. When she's trying to recapture the memories she wants, like the feeling of Tony's arms wrapped around her, or the burning delight in his eyes. She'll get them, sometimes, but they're fleeting things. She muses, appropriately, that her memories are a sandcastle and time is an ocean, and it all wastes away before she's ready to lose them.
Mostly she's left with Tony's half-choked cry of pain, his hand wrapped around her forearm in a vice grip. His voice through a cell phone as he talks over the wind. The gears in the garage, as they remove his armor.
She still visits the ocean, though, despite what it gives her.
Tony is crying. The tears trace his cheeks silently, falling against the skin of her shoulder and sliding down to soak the fabric of her shirt. She holds him, one arm wrapped delicately across his back, the other hand resting on his hip. She can't tell if he's crying from the pain, or from where he's been, but all she can think to do is gently press the warmth of her skin against him and listen to his hitching breaths. He holds onto her loosely, like his arms lack the strength, and Pepper hates the smell of blood. The floor is cold beneath them and she hates that too.
She remembers this one clearly, every aspect of it, and she hates that most of all.
She's standing on the patio when he calls. She opens her cell phone, but before she can say hello, he says, "Have you ever almost drowned?"
She's startled into silence, and eventually manages to respond, "No."
Tony doesn't say anything. The silence stretches out, and Pepper asks tentatively, "Have you?" because she has no idea what else to say.
Instead of answering, he says, "You should see the waters in New Zealand. I think I've found Paradise."
Pepper says something, she can't remember what, and Tony hangs up a moment later, and sends her a picture of him sitting on an empty stretch of beach, with his feet dug into the sand. He's operating on a broken kite.
"Do you think he's coming back?" Pepper asks once, and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. The wind from the ocean tugs it loose a moment later.
Rhodes holds his shoes in his hands, and has the bottom of his pant legs rolled up. The water covers his feet up to his ankles, and then recedes.
He doesn't say anything for a moment, causing Pepper to turn and look at him. The faint light catches against the scar that traces his temple, from some distant battle in the War Machine, and he studies the coming waves with a distracted intensity. Pepper wonders if he's listening to her, or if the ocean is bringing him memories, too.
It's been one year, three months, one week, and four days. Pepper holds her cell phone in her hand, and she's still waiting for it to ring, or for it to receive a new token from some forgotten part of the world. She clenches her hand around the plastic, which is warm from her touch.
"I hope so," Jim eventually says. His voice says something different, and Pepper stands next to him for a moment, contemplating that. The ocean pulls at the sand beneath her feet, and she scrunches her toes.
Pepper takes a few steps forward, until the waves crest just beneath the hem of her dress.
She heaves her cell phone far out into the water, as far as she can make it go, and lets the ocean have that, too.