She feels the stomachache again and chalks it up to the usual stress. Pepper hates to admit that yes, she's susceptible to it, but lately—as in the last three days—it's gotten really bad.

Which is stupid, because life has been fairly quiet. Tony has been behaving—for him anyway. He's either locked away in the garage doing modifications to the suit, or following the skeleton schedules she's managed to talk him into for the sake of PR. Nothing major is on the calendar, and yet her stomach won't settle down.

Pepto helps, a little. Pepper manages to chew some tablets before being summoned by his Starkship down to appreciate some tiny detail of his latest work. To be honest, she's not as dazzled by the suit itself as by what it means to Tony. What it's *done* to Tony.

This . . . quest, of his.

Six months ago, if anyone had told her that her brilliant but shallow boss, her playboy employer would gain a social conscience, she would have politely laughed.

Not now.

He's got an inner drive now, and the hell of it is it excites her to see him honestly committed to something beyond the next martini, the next blonde. To something meaningful and great—something that only *he* can do.

Another lance of pain, and Pepper thinks maybe taking the afternoon off and getting a heating pad would be a good idea. A REALLY good idea. She starts down the stairs to the garage, ready to smile weakly at whatever Tony's done, and then make her request.

At the third step though, the pain goes off the scale, so bad she wobbles, folds up and starts to black out on the stairs. Right before Pepper falls she catches Tony's horrified glance through the glass wall separating them.


Blackness. Pain, A few glimpses of lights overhead, passing by.

Bye, thinks Pepper. Bye-bye.

She feels she's going up now, very high.

And then it's dark again.


She feels the pain before she opens her eyes, and the antiseptic smell tells her she's in the hospital. Blearily Pepper looks around, feeling sluggish panic, but before she can say anything, one face hovers over her, dark eyes locking on hers.

"There are easier ways to get sick leave days from me, Ms Potts," Tony tells her, trying to tease. She knows it's hard for him though, because his gaze is so unwavering. Pepper looks down; he's holding her hand, the one with the IV in it.


"Your appendix nearly ruptured on the operating table. Very dramatic," Tony murmurs. "Not that the quick thirty mile flight over Malibu to the hospital helped it to begin with."

She blinks. "You flew me?"

One eyebrow arches up at the suggestiveness of that, and Pepper doesn't want to laugh because her abdomen aches so much, burning and tingling. She doesn't want to, but she does, weakly.

"An ambulance would have taken too long, and I wasn't about to lose you because of traffic. Besides, the Live Flight landing pad was clear," Tony mumbles, clearly not wanting to go into details that Pepper knows she'll have to deal with later, when she gets out of the hospital. Unauthorized landing on a privately owned building with possible damage to the same; intimidation of medical personnel—

She's already lining up who to call and what to smooth over, but the warmth of Tony's hand in hers is amazingly comforting, and Pepper wants to savor it. She tentatively squeezes his fingers, and the sudden brightness in his eyes startles her.

"Did I get a bag of honey peanuts?" Pepper smiles at him, and closes her eyes to go back to sleep.


Tony watches her drift back to sleep, and the tension along his shoulders and neck finally relax, letting go of the knots that have been there for the past two days. He keeps Pepper's hand in his, and uses his other one to gently stroke her temple, where the bruise is standing out against her pale skin.

Appendicitis and a broken arm, the doctors tell him. Possible concussion, although mild. Tony feels like crap, not having picked up on her symptoms; her earlier distress. The lead physician on the case tries to tell him that it's not his fault, but Tony isn't letting himself off the hook that easily. After all, he'd seen the empty packets of Pepto-Bismol tablets in the trash, and never bothered asking.

Now he's got Jarvis canceling appointments, ("Personal emergency, we shall call you to re-schedule, thank you so much for your patience.") and even now, the housekeepers are setting up the spare bedroom across from his.

Pepper won't like it, he knows. She values her independence and her privacy. But he's checked, and Tony also knows there isn't anyone to take care of her right now but him. Her only living relative--an aunt--is halfway across the country, and at seventy-two is in no shape to come out—not that Tony wants her to.

No, this is something he can do himself. That he WANTS to do, because he owes this woman more than he can ever repay, and even more than that, he loves her.

Loves her so much he can't figure out exactly what to do about it, which is really a first in Tony Stark's world. He can handle deadlines and mergers, deals, acquisitions, recreational sex, specs, circuitry, small talk and power broking, but love is so far out of his league he hasn't got the first clue what to do.

Flowers, he assumes, and chocolates. He's pretty sure those are the standards for a situation like this, and he wishes Pepper had looked around the room when she was awake. Right now every available surface is filled with vases of bouquets, and stacked on the visitor's chair is enough Ganache chocolate to put the entire Endocrinology wing into a diabetic coma.

He should leave and let her rest. Tony knows that—after all, it's the best thing for her, and he's got more than enough to do back at the compound.

He stays.


Tony feels the chill of Pepper's annoyance, and tries to be patient. They're in the limo, heading back to the compound and she hasn't spoken a word for most of the trip. Her bruises are healing, and between on the seat is a pharmacy paper bag full of her medications.

He wishes she would say something, but instead, Pepper keeps her gaze directed out the window, and averted from him. Tony tells himself she'll relax once they're inside and she can sleep. Then Pepper finally turns to look at him, and her eyes are direct, and cool. "I really *hate* this," she tells him in a low voice. "I'm not comfortable being . . . obligated to you, Mr. Stark."

"Yeah, me too," he mock-sighs. "I really wish you'd arranged to get appendicitis on your own time, Ms. Potts."

She flinches a little, and he reaches for her hand. "Kidding. Look, you've spend years of overtime watching out for my sorry ass without a word of complaint, and I think it's only fair that I pay back some of that diligence. I am *lost* without you, and you know that's the truth, so suck it up, Pepper, and just hang out at the house for a few weeks until you're back on your feet, okay?"

Pepper blanches. "A few weeks? The doctor said I'd be fine in three days!"

"Second opinion," Tony tells her with as straight a face as he can muster. "Co2 absorption is painful, and with your arm in a sling, it's not like you're going to be able to text at your usual Mach roadrunner speed."


It takes almost all of his willpower, but he stops himself from hovering around her. Pepper is sitting on the sofa in her bedroom, pulling the sling off and looking tired. He backpedals to the doorway. "You probably want to lie down a while, so I'll just . . . go do stuff. But Jarvis is up, and if you need anything--"

"I'll go get it myself," she tells him, but her words have no sting, and he can see the trip home has been rough on her. Despite advances, laparoscopic surgery is *still* surgery, and she needs a lot of rest. Pepper moves to sit on the bed and slips out of her shoes; it's such a graceful gesture that Tony feels a lump in his throat.

"Let me get you a blanket," he murmurs.

When he comes back, she's lying down, curled up on one side, hands folded under her cheek, eyes closed. He drapes the crocheted afghan over her and steps back, not sure of what else to do. More than anything, Tony wants to touch her; kiss her temple gently. Instead, he reaches down and strokes her cheek.

Pepper's eyes don't open, but she smiles, and the dimple on her cheek leaves him feeling slightly giddy.


She's restless. Pepper fights her irritation and looks around the living room, feeling about as useful as one of the ornaments here. She's read every magazine, amused herself on the Internet and managed to eat a little, but nothing holds her attention for long, and she needs something to DO.

Tony and Jarvis have her locked out of the Office program, and try as she might, Pepper can't get into anything related to Stark Industries. Grudgingly they've allowed her access to the Schedule, but only for events two months from now or longer; most of those are already in place and don't require much on her part but some confirmations and reservations.

She wishes Tony understood, but of course he doesn't. Tony Stark has always had infinite resources for occupying his time, and for once Pepper truly envies that he's got so many diverse interests. The cars, the suit, the bio-engineering start-ups, the alternative energy research—he's got more than enough to do.

Why he wants to saddle himself with a semi-invalid puzzles her a bit, but Pepper figures it's a good dose of guilt, and maybe that's not a bad thing, and makes up a little for some of moments he's put her through in the past year, at the very least.

But the boredom!

Her job has never been easy, and a lot of times it hasn't been fun, but Pepper realizes that she adores the challenge. Keeping Anthony E. Stark on schedule and ahead of the pack has been a hell of a job, and just because he's changed his moral compass for the better and she's let herself get sick doesn't mean she isn't up to it anymore.

Or is she?

For a sickening moment, Pepper worries that Tony is phasing her out; the fear of being fired is so strong she wonders if she's going to throw up. She wraps her one good arm around her stomach as she rocks forward on the sofa, feeling miserable both mentally and physically now.

"Are you in need of assistance, Ms Potts?" Jarvis asks softly, and Pepper flushes. She shakes her head and clears her throat.

"No, I'm fine," comes her automatic response, this one a little whisper. It's not true, but the AI won't know that.

She gets up and slowly makes her way to the deck outside, where sunshine on her face makes Pepper feel a little better. The Pacific is a gorgeous blue, and a few gulls are wheeling by overhead. A few minutes later, Tony comes bounding up the garage steps and wanders out to join her. They watch the gulls for a moment together.

"So," Tony begins.

Pepper sighs, "Jarvis is one large mechanical tattletale."

"You know, the whole point of recuperation is to get better. If you're not getting better you need to let me know, so I can adjust the conditions."

"That's fine for engineering. People are a little more complicated, Mr. Stark."

She turns and leaves him on the deck, still staring at the gulls.


Pepper reads the article with growing concern, and by the time she reaches the end, she's not sure which emotion is stronger; anger or humiliation. In the course of her job she's faced a lot of accusations and insinuations, but this latest article of Christine Everhart's is a masterpiece of understated implication.

It's about Tony, of course; the woman is still obsessed with her boss and seems to have never really gotten over her one-night stand with him. Pepper could almost forgive her for that, if *that* was the only problem.

The real issue though, is how this latest Vanity Fair article intimates that she, Pepper Potts, is nothing more than a nanny/keeper to the Great Man, and that because of her and Obadiah Stane, Tony Stark has always completely isolated from the real world, his little adventure in Afghanistan notwithstanding.

The hell of it is, Pepper realizes, part of it is true.

At least, it *used* to be. But Tony's changed, and this article completely ignores all the good he's done in the last three months. Pepper thinks of the bullet holes and broken glass; of the maniacal look in Obadiah's face and grits her teeth, wishing for a moment that Ms. Everhart had been there to see all of that for herself.

But she wasn't, and no matter what sort of PR spin Pepper can authorize to counter this article, it will be too little too late. Pepper sighs, feeling the sting of one particular paragraph:

Ms Potts is quite likely the prettiest nanny any spoiled brat millionaire could ever wish for, and well-compensated for her devotion to keeping Tony Stark dressed, fed and free of those dangerous emotional entanglements that might happen should he be allowed to--horror of horrors--want a relationship rather than recreational sex. But it's clear that although the leash is long, it's still in Nanny Potts' gloved little hand.

"I read that. Kinky, actually," comes Tony's voice from behind her shoulder at the sofa, and Pepper flinches, making the magazine rustle loudly. She looks up at him, feeling her exasperation well up a bit.

"It's offensive and tinged with the acid of a woman scorned," Pepper points out, fighting to stay calm. "You need to avoid sleeping with reporters, sir."

"Christine Everhart is no reporter," comes the absent reply. Pepper notices he's got a socket wrench and a bolt in his hands, which are covered with grease. "At best she's a puff piece in every sense of the word, and—"

Pepper drops the magazine. "—Be that as it may, she's made an implication here that's insulting to you, and . . ." she trails off, because Tony's face takes on a hard expression. He turns his gaze on her, and she feels the heat.

"—And degrading to you. I got that. I've taken care of it."

"What?" Pepper blinks at him, annoyed that his words both frighten and excite her. Defending her honor is a concept she was sure Tony had never considered—certainly he'd never bothered with it before.

"She wants to do my biography," Tony goes on, looking stern. "Unauthorized. Already had notes, outlines, the whole nine yards. Her editor was very forthcoming when I chatted to him yesterday, and what it boils down to is that if Ms Everhart fails to send a private note of apology to you within the next three days, my lawyers will begin a motion to confiscate her materials concerning me as a matter of invasion of privacy under the current stalking laws."

Pepper can't speak. It's so utterly outrageous, and at the same time so ruthlessly pragmatic that all she can do is blink. Tony stares down at the bolt in his hands and speaks again. "There won't be any more Everharts, Ms. Potts. Even though the whole nanny imagery is . . . hot," he admits. "Especially the potential for spanking."

Pepper rolls her eyes. She wants to say something, but the first thing that comes out isn't what she expects. She rises, and comes to stand in front of him, staring at her cast instead of into his eyes. "Thank you. I'm leaving for a few weeks."

Tony blinks, definitely caught off-guard. "Wait, what? Leaving? You're injured."

"I need some time off," Pepper tells him gently, but firmly, and finally looks at him. "Two weeks. It's a clause in my contract that I can take it whenever I want."

Tony scowls a little. "I don't like it."

That makes her smile; it's hard on her too, although she's not ready to say so to him, especially after all he's done for her in the last week. She gives a little shake of her head. "I know. But I have some . . . thinking to do."

Tony's face goes impassive; at any other time she'd assume he was bored with the conversation, but his eyes can't hide his anxiety, try as he might. "Okay then, thinking is good. I do that on occasion. Thinking. Not often, but you know that already. Will this thinking gig affect the duration of your vacation?"

And she sees it. Fear of abandonment in those big, dark eyes.

Pepper lets her breath catch a moment. Instead of speaking, she hooks her cast over his shoulder and around his neck, pulling Tony close to her, into that dangerous space that isn't quite close enough for a kiss, but so much closer than friends ever share. "I will talk to you every day. I will be back."


All his life, Tony Stark has been a doer. He figures things out, situations and problems, then finds solutions for them. Need a cheap power source? Arc reactor. Better missile system? Jericho. Trapped by terrorists in the middle of nowhere? Armored suit.

Solution-oriented, ruthlessly so, he knows.

It's not been a big success with people though, and Tony knows this. Pepper IS one of his solutions—the best he's ever had in his life. She is the missing link between him and the rest world; a sweet, efficient, strong, loyal woman with a brilliance all her own, and while Everhart's article is snide and painful, it's got enough truth to it to make Tony uncomfortable.

Pepper might have the leash, but *he* collared himself and put the handle in her hand.

And he likes it that way. Tony might snipe and grumble about specifics, but the gentle, sweet accountability to the one person who has never let him down was a good thing before Afghanistan.

Now—now it's not a leash. It's a lifeline. It's the one, true connection he still has left, the one that matters most. Pepper is his sounding board, his conscience, his better half.

A Jiminy Cricket with freckles.

The thought of being without her is alarming, even if it's only for fourteen days. Nevertheless, Pepper's right—she deserves the time off, and if she needs to leave, he won't stop her.

It's a melancholy last supper they share on the deck overlooking the Pacific at sunset. The sky is overcast, and the air is cool. Pepper picks at her salad and gives short answers to his questions.

"So your aunt knows you're coming on my jet."

"Yep. She'll meet me at the private airport."

"Kiowa, Kansas," Tony muses despairingly. "And I thought *I* was in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan."

"You were," Pepper assures him. "I'm going to be in the middle of the Midwest."

"What the hell is there to DO in Kansas?" he asks, finally, caught between a laugh and a sigh. The idea of Pepper stranded in miles of corn and wheat is an image that haunts him, makes him think of Cary Grant running from a crop duster.

Pepper looks up from her wilted lettuce. "Have better food than this, for starters. This is the most anemic iceberg I've seen in years. My Aunt Ruby would feed this to the hogs."

Tony blinks. "Hogs. You're going to Old MacDonald's farm. Dear God, let me guess—one morning you'll find a spider web in the doorway that spells 'Some Pig.'"

She laughs, finally, and part of his tension relaxes under that spell. Pepper has a lovely laugh, soft and sweet. "We all have to come from somewhere, Mr. Stark. I just happen to come from Kiowa."

"And you're going back to it," this slips out before he can stop himself; Pepper sets her plate aside and gets up. She comes over to him on the other side of the glass table and bends down, looking intently into his eyes as a little breeze stirs the loose tendrils of her strawberry blonde hair.

"No, I'm visiting Kiowa, and I will be coming back here," she whispers. "Until I hear the words 'Ms Potts, you're fired' from your lips, Mr. Stark, I'm committed to this position."

Tony leans forward, back into that mingle point of their auras; the place where she's the focus of everything, and all the glib responses he thinks of evaporate because the scent of her is ratcheting up his pulse, and instead he swallows hard.

He shakes his head. "Never," he rasps.