"I never got to say goodbye to dad, I never got to say goodbye to my father."
She found him slumped on his sofa one night, one arm hanging over the side, his face 'smushed' into a cushion. His sweatpants riding down and revealing half his ass. It was the first thing she attended to, pulling them up, then covering him up with a blanket. She retrieved the empty bottle that had fallen from his hand, an energy drink, her flavour not his. Which meant he'd gone through his own supply of orange and had started on the few bottles of raspberry that she had kept in his house for the odd occasions when coffee wasn't enough. It didn't seem to have helped him much, nor the coffee, if the empty espresso cups on the table indicated anything. What was more worrying was the empty packet of over-the-counter stimulants that lay on the table too. It hadn't seemed to have had much of an effect either, though she was glad he hadn't resorted to amphetamines, or anything similar, like before.
He wasn't fast asleep though, and as she started to clear up around him he reached out and grabbed her arm, fingers curling around her thin wrist and holding tight.
"Tony?" she asked, he pulled her towards him. "Mr. Stark?"
He mumbled something into the cushion that she didn't hear, and then crouched down beside him, trying to pry his fingers from her wrist. When it was clear he wasn't going to let go, she settled onto her knees and asked him to repeat what he'd said.
"You know what day it is?"
"Of course," she said, resisting the urge to reach out and smooth down his hair, or rub his back, or do a number of other comforting actions. His parents anniversary, their birthdays, and of course, the day of their accident, they always hit him hard and she was always there for him.
"My mom said I'd be okay," he mumbled, a couple of tears running down the cheek that wasn't against the cushion. She saw him cry once a year, regular like clockwork, they never talked about it. In fact, he never talked about any of it, but of course, things were a little different now. They were both different people after Afghanistan.
"The day she died," he continued, "she was in and out of consciousness, only really half aware."
His voice was a little clearer after he shifted, but his grip on her wrist a little tighter.
"She told me she loved me, had faith in me. Asked me to make sure I looked after dad."
Another tear and Pepper felt some tears of her own coming. "I couldn't tell her dad had died."
"I-I didn't know."
"She died during surgery," he said, sitting up, pulling her with him until she was sitting next to him on the sofa. She knew that, knew his mother had died during surgery after the crash, and knew what was coming up. She wrapped an arm around him and held him close to her, his body was tense but warm next to hers.
"Doctors told me it was a one in a million chance, told me to say goodbye, just in case, and I did, I did," he chocked on a sob. "She just said she'd see me later for dinner."
He laughed then, hollow, and it was worse than the tears.
He let go of her wrist finally, and she took his hand. As expected he smiled at her, hollow once more, before leaning in and kissing her.
Once a year he kissed her, just once, and they had never talked about. On occasion though, they talked about the almost-kiss, and they were both different now. Something that was confirmed when his hand cupped the back of her neck, and he deepened the kiss. She sighed, and her arm dropped from around his shoulders, and when she felt his tongue flick over her lips she opened up to taste coffee, raspberry and pills. Instead of oblivion in alcohol and illegal drugs, he'd done everything legal he could do to stay awake. He wanted to acknowledge and feel the sadness this year instead of avoid it. Wanted to kiss her with a clearer head than usual too, and it made her feel a little giddy inside as he kissed her, and started to push her back on the sofa. His hands went to her hips as he lay on top of her, delving beneath the white blouse, but when she moaned he pulled back.
"We should stop," she said.
She didn't want to stop, his was lying on top of her, and it felt good, and she wondered when their roles had revered. She smiled, cupping his cheek.
"You know," he continued, "wait until I'm clear headed. I've had so much caffeine to try and keep awake, I've come full circle, and you taste like two glasses of wine."
"You can measure the amount just by kissing me?" she asked.
"I'm good. I know."
She kissed him again, just a light peck on his lips, and pulled him down against her. He shifted so he was only half lying on top of her, and they lay comfortably on the sofa. His face resting on her chest, one hand still under her blouse and stroking her skin softly. She pulled the abandoned blanket over the both of them.
"Can I ask you a question Pepper?"
"Did you get to say goodbye to your parents, before they died?"
"My dad told me he was proud of me, but didn't let me say anything to him while he was conscious at least. Only to hear me promise to name a child after him."
"What was his name?" he asked. She wasn't surprised he didn't know, she just surprised he was asking, or that they were in this position. Once a year he cried, they kissed, she pushed him away, and they went their separate ways for a few days and avoided the entire situation and the conversations.
This was a wonderful change.
"Eric," she told her.
"Not so bad," he replied. "What about your mom?"
"I just told her I loved her. Once a day for a month while she was in the coma. I told her I was sorry before I switched the life-support off."
She felt tears then, the harsh sting before she started to cry softly. The memories of her parents now had the new information of Tony's parents, and she felt vulnerable hearing about about it, exposed telling him about it. He saw her cry twice a year, but this was not one of those days.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to make you cry," he whispered.
"Tell me about them," he said, cuddling closer to her and kissing her cheek. "About their lives, not their deaths."
She could do that.
"Then tomorrow we talk about the kissing," he continued. "And maybe do some more kissing."
She smiled at him, kissing him on the lips before he buried his head into her neck and let her talk about her parents until they fell to sleep together on the sofa.
That never happened.