"He's deaf," the veterinarian murmurs gently. "Or very nearly. His sense of balance is unimpaired, but the damage to the bones of both inner ears is pretty extensive."

Lou seems unimpressed with the diagnosis; Pepper bites her lip as tears threaten. She scoops the groggy cat up from the exam table, cuddling him.

This, Lou likes, and purrs. The vet gives a compassionate smile. "I've given him a pain-reliever –here's the prescription—and some drops to help fight infection, and a diet formula for dry kibble; I don't think his hearing loss is going to affect his quality of life too much, but I'd suggest you keep him indoors for his own safety from now on."

Pepper nods and tucks Lou into his carrier; he protests for a bit and settles down as she hauls it to the car.

Once there, Pepper draws a breath and picks up her phone. Jarvis answers immediately.

"Doctor Potts."

"He's lost most of his hearing," Pepper murmurs sadly. "Other than that he's okay. We'll need to keep an eye on him from now on though."

"I am fully prepared to monitor Louis constantly," the AI assures her. "Shall you be returning to the compound?"

"Yes," Pepper replies wearily, and starts the car.

It's nearly ten at night, and the emergency clinic fades from the rear-view mirror as she heads out on the road, feeling tired but unable to sleep. Pepper isn't sure she'll ever be able to sleep at this point, but the saving grace is that Tony is in good hands for the moment.

She heads towards the Pacific Coast Highway, and for a moment Pepper remembers the first time she did this, so long ago.

Not so long ago, she chides herself. Maybe in time but not emotion. She and Tony have compressed their relationship within some magic portal, and while to the world it seems they've known each other a few months, in their own timelines it feels like years.

Pepper smiles. She speeds up a bit, and looks up the coast line, to the twinkling lights that dot the landscape there. The marina. The shops and restaurants and homes. Further beyond them, standing up on the point, Tony's home.

He's there right now, she knows, being watched over by Yinsen and Jim, resting after being questioned by the police.

It's been hell, opening up the house and having so many strangers inside, and she's proud of him for letting it happen.

She's proud of him for so much more than that, but this sort of caps a lot of it.

Pepper looks at the dark water and then a sudden shiver runs through her as fleeting thoughts of Stane flash in her mind.

"You bastard," she murmurs, feeling a surge of honest hate tinge her words. It's difficult for her; Pepper has always been careful with her emotions.

"You built your own empire out of Tony's gifts. You kept him prisoner and intimidated me and you, you . . . you hurt my CAT, Goddamn you!" Pepper yells, and suddenly it's too much. She pulls over in a little parking lot for a Seven-Eleven and begins to cry, resting her forehead on the steering wheel and feeling the harsh emotion drain out of her like an infection; full of fury and sorrow.

There IS a catharsis in tears. Pepper knows this from bitter experience, so she lets herself cry fully, riding out the sobs and sting and anger.

Lou meows uncertainly a few times, and when Pepper finally wipes her face, she glances over at his carrier and sniffles.

"I'm okay," she tells him, feeling a little silly about doing it, and laughs weakly. "Oh Lou. Yes, I'm better."

And she is, a bit. Crying lightens the heart.

Pepper starts the car again, and makes her way up to the mansion, passing by the police tape and barricade, making her way up to the curved driveway, and lugging Lou's carrier up the steps. The door swings open of its own accord,

She steps inside; Detective Zelig looks up at her and smiles. "Cat okay?"

Pepper shrugs jerkily. "He's . . .deaf now."

The detective's face falls, and he swears under his breath as he comes over to poke a finger into the carrier. Lou sniffs it.

"Damn it. I'm sorry, Doctor Potts, I really am. He gonna be able to manage?"

"He should be," Pepper clears her throat. "With care. Where's T . . . Mr. Stark?"

"Master bedroom," Detective Zelig tells her. "Doctor Yinsen gave him a mild sedative and is up there with him. We're almost done processing here, and I'll leave some plainclothes on the gate for a few days, keep the media out. Damned shame—"

This last is to Lou, Pepper realizes, and she nods, taking the carrier with her to the elevator.

Upstairs Pepper knocks on the door and Yinsen himself lets her in. He looks at the carrier and she tells him the prognosis.

"I'm so sorry." Yinsen reaches out and squeezes her shoulder compassionately.

"He'll be okay," Pepper repeats, looking over his shoulder at Tony. He's stretched out on the left side of the mattress, trying to open his eyes and not quite succeeding. Pepper sets the carrier down and opens the door; Lou cautiously wanders out and makes a valiant attempt to leap onto the bed, not quite making it, but scrambling up at the last minute.

Tony gives a soft chuckle. "Nice job, Super Lou. How is he?"

Pepper glides over and sits down, facing Tony, who catches her expression and starts to sit up. Yinsen glides out, leaving them in privacy, and she waits until they're alone.

"He's deaf," she tells Tony gently. "The device . . . Lou's inner ears couldn't take it, and the damage is permanent."

"Fuck!" it comes out viciously, and Tony struggles to sit up, a glint of fury in his eyes. Pepper lightly drops her hands on his shoulders and catches them, feeling the strength of the muscles there.

"I know," she agrees, and a little quirk at the corner of her mouth softens her expression. "But he'll be fine. The hardest prescription will be the diet kibble."

"No way," Tony protests in a mumble, his gaze locked on the circle of orange fur settled on the end of the bed. "He gets filet Mignon and Highland Salmon the rest of his days. All the thin sliced roast beef he wants, Pepper. He saved my life. Not because he knew what he was doing, but that doesn't change the outcome here, you know?"

"I know," Pepper assures Tony, feeling a surge of love in the pit of her stomach for this confused genius. "The Chuck Norris of cats. We'll . . . negotiate," she assured him gently. "I'm not ready to give Lou the keys to the kitchen JUST yet."

Tony snorts and reaches up, brushing his knuckles along her cheek. For a moment he says nothing, and she closes her eyes, appreciating the touch more than anything he could say.

"Think I've done more talking today than this whole year past," Tony finally admits. "Paramedics, detectives, Lloyd, Yinsen, Rochelle and the board. My GOD there are a lot of people out there. I mean, I KNEW they were there, but I always had that degree of separation."

"You were very . . . insulated," Pepper nods. "Not really a social butterfly."

"A caterpillar in a cocoon," Tony agrees drowsily, "A hairy one." he yawns and adds, "You're coming to bed, right?"

Pepper almost hesitates, but the thought of staying with him and Lou wins out and she smiles. "Let me make sure Yinsen gets home safely, and after that . . ."

"Okay," Tony mumbles, and closes his eyes. "You'll have clothes tomorrow. I had Jarvis order some."

Pepper blinks. "Ordered some?"

"Yeah," Tony settles back against the pillows. "I had him check through some of your credit card records—don't get mad—and find your sizes and stuff. Wanted to make sure you had something that fit, since I couldn't get out there to shop . . ."

She can't speak, torn between a surge of outrage at this blatant invasion of her privacy . . . and the shy thoughtfulness behind the gesture. The idea that Tony blithely had access to personal aspects of her life at the touch of his fingers is frightening, but it's ameliorated by the idea that by tomorrow she'll have something to wear that's not donated, or loaned.

Pepper bites her lip, to stop herself from snapping at Tony. Instead, she sighs and pats his hand. He opens one eye to check her expression, and his own droops a bit. "Too much?"

"No, somehow it's very . . . you," Pepper admits. "Really."

"I hear disapproval," Tony whispers sadly.

"Go to sleep, Mr. Stark," she replies, bending to kiss his forehead before getting up to take care of things.

Later, in the early hours before dawn, when the land is dark and the only sounds usually heard are the waves outside, they make love again, slowly, sweetly, wrapped in blankets and cocooned in an intimacy all their own. Pepper loses herself in the warm rush of languid orgasms, like hot pearls, one after another, all a gift from the man in her arms.

This is what matters, she realizes. This skin-to-skin time with Tony, quiet and oh so very personal. He is in love with her skin, her body, and constantly touches and licks and kisses her, running big hands along her thighs or through her hair, stroking with a lust-tinged reverence that makes her want to cry. Nobody has ever made Pepper feel like this, and the ache in her throat loosens enough for her to tell him what's been building deep inside.

Her words make Tony cry; she feels his tears against her shoulder, along with his smile.

Later, they sit on the sill of the window, looking out over the water as behind them, dawn begins to light up the new day. The air is still, but fresh, and a breeze stirs Pepper's air. Tony breathes it in deeply, his arms around her.

"So today begins the new life of Tony Stark," she murmurs to him. "What do you have planned? Going to go outside for a walk?"

She's teasing; she has that right now.

Tony nuzzles behind her ear. "Nope. Sometimes you've got to run before you can walk."

"What does that mean?" Pepper asks, feeling a small tingle of panic. There's something in the tone of his voice that makes wary, and his next words confirm it.

"I'm going to fly," Tony tells her.

Pepper freezes. He's absolutely confident, he has the Suit, and she senses that Tony Stark is going to make good on those words, yes indeed. It may take months, or years, but in her mind's eye, Pepper can visualize that red and gold armor streaking through the air, and while that should fill her with worry and fury—

She turns and nestles into his arms, burrowing in against the arc. "We'll start with going out and getting the mail, Tony."

He laughs and his arms tighten around her once more.


(Sometimes the single best thing an author can do is know where the story should end. For this novel, this is precisely that point. Thank you for reading and letting me know what you thought about it. I value your feedback very much!)