Mark IX by AndromedaMarine
In my experience good, even better, ideas came at a costly price. At least he didn't act like it was a Mark IX naquadah bomb from Stargate: Atlantis. His first suit was a work of pure genius to get him out of captivity. Mark II was pumped full of bullets and Mark III saved his life from Obadiah.
He went through five more suits in the span of a year.
I wished that he'd stop flying around the world for the Air Force, but who was I to meddle in the affairs of Earth? Rhodes needed him on the front lines and I would be there for Tony Stark when he was overwhelmed by the missions.
His open book of a life closed significantly after that fateful press conference; the charity events dwindled to special appearances, Stark Industries continued making advanced weaponry but Tony wasn't as prominent a spokesman as he once was. My duties became more of a routine than ever: make him breakfast, wake him up, lay out his clothes, etc. His exhaustion concerned me and it was only after about two months into the routine that he insisted I move into the mansion because I was getting an average of four hours of sleep per night.
I would never miss the late night drunken flings with nameless blond prostitutes, something that had changed after his return and re-addiction to cheeseburgers. I had to remind him to shave and to take his sleeping pills after a particularly hard day's work. When he wasn't in the air in his gold titanium alloy suit he was in his workshop, tinkering away at another Mark suit or on more inventions for Stark Industries.
I knew I had to lay down some rules (and I berated myself for not thinking of it earlier) when he collapsed in the middle of dressing. So much for a good night's sleep. Last night he'd returned from Baghdad at two in the morning, and I was waiting for him in the workshop. He blacked out after landing; it was Jarvis' system that kept him upright. Butterfingers' advancements allowed him to help me move Mr. Stark onto the futon I'd insisted he have down there.
His skin was clammy and Jarvis had informed me of the mission's main points and exactly why Anthony Stark was unconscious. He hadn't eaten anything that day; he'd simply forgotten.
I couldn't leave him alone in the workshop with no food and, if I did, when he woke he'd be alone in the dark. I forfeited my night of rest and settled into the armchair beside the futon with a book and a blanket.
He seemed peaceful in his slumber, but I was positive that his mind's eye was wracked with nightmares. I was three chapters in when my eyelids began to droop and I dropped the book onto the cold cement floor.
The next thing I knew, Butterfingers was nudging me awake and Tony was thrashing wildly in his sleep. I was instantly fully awake and kneeling beside him on the bed, brushing the hair out of my face as I shook him. "Tony," I urged, my hands on his shoulders. "Tony, wake up!"
His eyes shot open and pure reflex propelled him into my arms. He sighed, relaxing. "Pepper," he breathed.
"What's wrong?" I asked softly, stroking his black hair. "Tell me what happened."
His eyes were shut tight and he didn't loosen his hold on me. "Same every time – I'm back in captivity. But...they – they kill y-you...and Rhodey..." He remained in the awkward position until I began to pull away from him. "No," he whispered, tightening his arms. "I need to know you're real."
As he stayed in my embrace my eyes swept the workshop and landed on a half-illuminated new suit. Mark IX. The best Ironman outfit so far. I wondered at the advancements this one held, although the prospect of a suit that blocked nightmares was unlikely if not impossible.
"Tony, this is an uncomfortable position," I pointed out. He loosed his hold and allowed me to maneuver and sit comfortably. "Do you want to talk about it?"
He shook his head without vigor into my neck, sucking in rattled breaths. I rubbed circles on his back, grateful that his bodysuit kept him warmer than pajamas. "No. Just need to sleep...know you're real..."
I looked back at the Mark IX. I could understand how it called to him and why he felt compelled to help the Air Force. But I realized I didn't know the reason behind his motivation to keep building more. Anthony Stark, the billionaire who risked his life every day and who had to be mothered by me, Pepper Potts. He was only five years my senior, for goodness sake. He was in my arms, plagued by the nightmares of the past and by the urge to simply keep going.
I wished to myself that Mark IX would be the absolute last model – that this was the one truly indestructible and most advanced until we were long since dust. His body became dead weight as he slipped into unconsciousness. Because his arms were still around me and because I didn't want to wake him I stretched out beside him, his body wrapped in my arms.
Even as I expected it to be it wasn't awkward, even with him being my boss. He was more than that: a friend, a confidant, a patient, a superhero. He was peaceful now, I was sure; he was holding me – he knew I was real and that I wasn't dead.
I fell asleep to the rhythm of his breaths.
I woke before Tony, around seven. Jarvis greeted me quietly, and I retrieved clothes from Tony's bedroom and when I returned to lay them on the armchair he was still out cold. Breakfast was next on my internal schedule. In the middle of eggs Jarvis spoke with concern.
"Miss Potts, Mr. Stark has collapsed in the workshop. I advise you attend him immediately; he doesn't seem to be breathing."
I dropped the pan and fled down the stairs into the basement workshop. Tony was halfway into his pants, having removed the bodysuit, but he was facedown on the floor. Thankfully Jarvis was mistaken – Tony's chest rose and fell with each shallow breath. "Dummy!" I yelled, and Butterfingers rolled over to help me lift the owner of Stark Industries again.
I brushed the hair away from Tony's eyes and felt his forehead burning up. The man was sick.
"Yes, Miss Potts?"
"What was Tony's temperature last night before the suit was disassembled?"
There was a pause. "It was ninety nine point eight," Jarvis replied. I cursed.
"Why didn't you report this to me?" I asked angrily.
Jarvis' calm voice was unnerving. "Mr. Stark asked specifically that I not relate any information regarding his physical health to you other than obvious injuries." There was another pause. "I do realize that while Mr. Stark's intentions were not to hurt himself his decisions can be rash at times."
"Jarvis, I'm overriding that order," I hissed, glaring down at Tony. But my image of madness melted away as I saw how vulnerable he looked. I went to the computer and input my override code to Jarvis. "What else has he kept from me?"
There was significant hesitation in the British AI's answer. "His temperature has been a steady ninety nine point eight for a total of four days. He has the nightmares of which he spoke every night however this is the first time that Mr. Stark's dreams caused him to thrash."
"Jarvis," I seethed.
"Yes, Miss Potts?"
"You are not to keep anything like that from me ever again, is that clear?"
If Jarvis had a body he would be nodding vigorously. "Yes, Miss Potts."
"Keep an eye on him while I get some supplies," I ordered both Jarvis and Butterfingers. "Alert me immediately if he wakes or if his condition worsens."
"Miss Potts, Mr. Stark's condition has been getting worse ever since he began work on the Mark IX."
I stopped in my tracks. "Why?"
"He feels as if the Mark IX is his last advancement. He could not describe the feeling to me in perfection, however I took the liberty of a brain scan while in mid flight and Mr. Stark's mind seems to be preoccupied with two particular things."
"And?" I urged the Brit AI.
Jarvis remained silent.
I continued up the stairs to heat chicken soup and fetch a bottle of Advil. "Jarvis," I sighed, "Tony needs someone to talk to. He needs a human companion. You can't be his only confidant – I need to know what's going on with him so I can help him."
He didn't answer me.
"Jarvis," I barked.
"Yes, Miss Potts?"
"Must I override all Tony's commands?"
"If you wish for a straight answer, I believe you must, yes."
I punched in the code again. "What's his mind on?"
"The Mark IX and, if I heard him correctly, you."
It took all my willpower to not drop the steaming pot of chicken soup. I didn't say anything else to Jarvis and retraced my steps downstairs. Tony Stark was still asleep. I stroked his cheek again after setting the Advil and bowl of soup on the table.
He woke up five hours later.
"Pepper," he croaked, his voice shot. "Where am I?" I almost laughed at his delirium. Almost.
I reached out and patted his hand. "I'm right here. You're in the workshop. You've got a fever. Never keep something like that from me again," I added for good measure. "Are you feeling any better?"
He struggled to lift himself into sitting position, but I pressed my hand against his chest and he stopped. "What happened last night?" he asked, ignoring my question.
"You had a nightmare," I said too quickly. "Are you feeling any better?" I repeated.
"Pepper," he groaned, "having worked for me for almost nine years now, don't you think you'd know if I was feeling better?" He answered my question with his sarcasm. "And my answer is yes."
I felt like smacking his arm but he still looked too weak. I glanced at the Mark IX, wondering about Jarvis' words. "I don't know, Tony. Having been my boss for nine years don't you think you'd know better than to keep your health as secret from me?"
"Touché," Tony said as he sank into the pillow, relaxing under my hand, which I'd forgotten to remove.
"What's the last thing you remember?" He froze. "Tony?"
His eyes locked with mine. "You."
"What about me?"
"I remember...you – holding...me." He paled. "The nightmare."
His hand found mine. "Tony..."
"You're always here for me..." he said, keeping his eyes on mine, "and I fly around the world without a second thought. How...how do you live with that?"
I smiled down at him. "I trust you to keep yourself relatively safe, Tony. And I trust Jarvis to get you home in one piece when you fail on your end. It's not that I live with it; I live with you, and that's good enough for me."
Neither of us had ever said those three little words that could change life as we knew it in a snap! instant. But I saw it in his eyes and head it in his voice. The thing was it didn't have to be said for us to know it was there. "What about Mark IX?" he asked softly.
"If you weren't Ironman I wouldn't know who you are," I replied. "Tech is what Stark Industries is about, and I'm perfectly fine with your tech in the form of Mark IX. Fly around the world – save the world – keep the peace, but as long as you take care of yourself and promise me you'll come home alive."
He pulled my hand up to his lips and kissed my palm. "Always."