A/N Hello again folks. . . This oneshot is NOTHING like the last one. . . this is how I roll, you see - I write something funny, then something serious, then probably something funny again. . . It's a pattern. And as annoying as all get-out when I am trying to update my longer stories. Which I am. (I promise! *cowers*) At this moment I am in the middle of THREE major stories (one for the Sherlock Holmes Book fandom and two for the Scarlet Pimpernel fandom) which I know some of you have been waiting a year for, and am working on one long songfic for the SP fandom too, but noooooo. . . THIS is what gets written instead. (^_^) lol.

This is just a one-shot, and an attempt to get into Tony and Pepper's minds. It isn't really romance, but I guess it's Pepperony-ish at the end there. . .



The roar of the Suit dimmed in Tony's ears. The sound of his own breathing echoed through the helmet as acceleration took over and all noise bled away into his wake. It was amazing how quiet everything was at super-sonic speeds. Looking down at the wide, wide expanse of the Pacific; that blue dotted with white and green and veined with richer blue, domed over with bright, beautiful sky-blue, Tony found he wanted to think. . . . . . . .

There was a difference, he knew, between a mate and a soul mate.

He checked his heads-up-display, and slightly adjusted the right stabilizer to compensate for a sudden change in the wind.

Having only recently begun to care about souls in general (and his own in particular), it had actually shocked him to discover how much he did know about relationships - how much he had absorbed, apparently, from his parents and those around him during his (albeit brief) childhood.

How much he had learned in his tragically short time with Yinsen. . .

How much, in actual shocking fact, the whole mess with Obadiah had helped. . .

How much these missions as Iron Man were no longer just a vendetta-charged excuse to show off. . .

He lowered the Suit's altitude by exactly 5,000 feet. The jet-stream had decided to be a bit tricky today - best not mess with it. As soon as he dropped out of the turbulent air, full silence returned, and the soul-piercing vastness of the world's biggest ocean returned to overwhelm him.

It really was pitiful, he mused, the amount of time he had for thinking during these missions.

And it was outright pathetic how much he found himself craving that time.

Jetting off to Guam to help a U.S. tanker ship that had sent out a distress call, and then using his whiz-kid-engineer brain to get the tanker's engines back online in record time, were not the sort of things he had planned on doing once he had attained superhero status.

Neither were wanting to think deep and esoteric thoughts, nor seriously considering other points of view than his own.

He shrugged inwardly - Oh well, who's gonna know?. . .

He wove through a bank of clouds hanging over a clustered knot of islands, and his mind was drawn irresistibly back to mates and soul mates. . .

The former, when taken at its most basic meaning, could refer to every single one of the casual liaisons he had racked up in his mad career as "The Da Vinci of our Time", but that was only the biological meaning of the word. "Mate" could also mean associate, friend, helper, or assistant.

Or wife. . .

He wondered if "mate" was how his father had thought of his mother.

But, a soul mate. . . now, there was a different term entirely. Someone who could be not just your friend and lover, but your other half? It smelled of predestination, and that was something he had never believed in. No, everything in life was a choice, and that was something he had believed even while in the midst of hedonism, and he believed it just as strongly today. Only his acknowledgment of consequences was new, and that, in fact, had decreased his belief in the whole "soul mate" myth. One could find infinite numbers of "mates" but, he wondered, can one ever find a soul mate? Was there ever just one person that was meant to live with you for all eternity?

There was a difference between being with and living with, after all. . . and a difference between not just living with, but growing with.

But perfect? Did that ever happen? Could you even get close?

And was it possible to mess up what was meant to be?

He cursed silently and resisted the urge to make a fist - he couldn't disrupt the stabilizer. . . but why couldn't he even admit to himself that he was thinking of Pepper?

Because she's too smart to fall for you, Stark, so suck it up.

There was a difference between wanting and needing.

He still didn't know which one of them was which. Or if either of them were both.

Or none.

There was a difference between love and passion, and though he personally would have liked to mix the two ideals into one person, he didn't entertain any delusions of predestination or even hopes for a soul-mate.

There was a difference between what was genius and what was just dreams.

He smirked - The charm of the uncaught is nothing to the charm of the uncatchable. . .

There was a difference between what was out of reach, and what could never be reached.

He didn't know which one of them was either one of those, either.

A fuzzy gray line appeared at the juncture of blue and blue that was the horizon. Jarvis put his ETA on the head's-up-display. Fifteen minutes, and he'd be home.

Home. . .

Pepper would be there, of course. She was a good girl, and always waited for him when he had a mission, even one as low-threat as this one had been.

She would be waiting for him. . .

He sighed.

There was a difference between waiting and patience.

She had gone down to the garage/workshop the minute Jarvis had announced that Tony was within ten minutes from arrival. She set up the first-aid kit and turned on the EKG machine in case he needed her to take his vitals. She shooed the 'bots away from his landing zone, and prepared the chemical/steam cleaning station so he could disinfect and clean up the Suit.

Then she sighed, sitting down on the black leather couch to wait for the now well-familiar hum of his rocket boots.

She ran a finger along the bridge of her nose, unable now, to keep herself from thinking.

There was a difference, Pepper knew, between loyalty and devotion.

Tony could demand loyalty from nearly all of his employees - even command it - because except for a billionaire's usual gamut of caprices and a very well supported amorous reputation, he was a good person, and people sensed that.

Even the major-weapons designing, "let's arm America to the teeth" Tony Stark had never really wanted to hurt anyone.

It had only been Obadiah's jealousy and greed that had driven him to betray "The Merchant of Death" to his death. And it was only because Tony wasn't "The Merchant of Death" that he didn't die.

But devotion? Had he ever experienced it? Had she, for that matter?

Pepper sighed again.

There was a difference between caring and real sacrifice.

She knew that both of them cared - at different levels and about different things, of course - but she doubted highly that either one of them had yet really sacrificed the one thing that really mattered.

There was a difference between personality and identity.

There was a difference between hope and trust.

There was a difference between need and. . . and. . . well. . . love.

Pepper didn't know if either of them were ready to think about that.

But it was gut-wrenchingly aggravating how much she wanted to.

There was a difference between alone and loneliness.

And there just wasn't any way to explain that to the one man who was a constant in her life. He had to come to it, and she didn't know if he would, or if he could. Was he lonely? Or merely alone?

What had all those girls he'd bedded meant?

And what did their absence mean now?

She heard the faintest roar in the distance - almost indiscernible over the crash of the breakers and the whistle of the afternoon wind, but to her hyper-sensitive ears it was unmistakable.

Iron Man was nearly home. . .

Pepper got up and began to pace, even though she knew the mission had been an easy one and she had not felt the least anxiety until just now. . .

There was a difference between fear and habit too. . .

He had changed, she could feel it. Or at least he wanted to. Why couldn't she?

Because there is also a difference between making a difference, and being different.

Or at least becoming different.

And sometimes she had no idea what she wanted, much less what she wanted from him. Or if she wanted him at all.

There was a difference between acting like a wife, and being treated like one.

The roar got louder, and Jarvis announced that Tony was coming in for a landing.

She stopped her pacing and walked over to his desk, to watch the 'bots remove the Suit, and wait to see if he needed her. Not because she wanted to, but because she had to. . . and wanted to.

There was a difference between obligation and duty.

"Everything checks out, Mr. Stark," Pepper said, calmly taking his vitals and handing him an ice pack for the elbow he had slightly wrenched while wrestling with a malfunctioning tanker engine, "Nice to see you all in one piece for this one - no bullet holes is always a good sign."

"Sure," he grunted, "Too many more of these tenderfoot missions and I'll have to change my name to Flying Engineer Man."

"Tony!" she reprimanded sharply, "Stop it! You're being useful and helpful, and you're staying safe, Tony. That's important."

"Yeah, well, just remember that I don't do too well on a steady diet of the same old same old. . ." he turned and pulled his shirt over his head.

"No", she whispered.

He wheeled around, "What?"

She coughed a little, "No, Tony, this isn't "the same" at all. . . it's different. . . it's. . . normal. . ."

"Normal?" he grinned a little, "Me? Us? Here? How can you possibly think this is. . ."

She interrupted, finally overflowing the bounds they had set for verbal give and take, "So maybe I'm used to it!" she said, half petulant, half exasperated, "So maybe I like not having to chase some floozy out of the house every morning, and maybe I admire the sentiment of what you're willing to do and where you're willing to go for a cause I am sure you don't fully understand and can't control. . . and. . . and maybe I like the fact that you. . . try. . . to. . ." she stopped, completely uncertain as to what would happen next.

"What, Pepper? What do I try to do?" He put a hand on her shoulder. Gently. Awkwardly. A question in his eyes that he couldn't voice because he had given up the right to make the first move, and he was terrified she never would.

Her hand came up and held his, not removing it, just holding it. For several seconds she stared fixedly at the collar of his shirt. Then, blushing and blinking, she stammered out -

"You. . . you try to understand. . . you really do. . ."

Then she met his eyes, really met them, talked with them, and listened to his look in return.

Neither one of them knew if the kiss was fast or slow, hard or soft, long, short, sweet or fierce, but one thing was for sure - there was nothing with which to compare to how different it was.

There is a difference between a man and a woman.

Vive la différence.