A New Normal

A Story Based on Marvel's Iron Man 2

Started: May 9th, 2010

Contrary to cliché – and Rhodey's obvious expectation – the two of them do not immediately leave the roof to find the nearest bed and go at it like a pair of sex starved springtime bunnies. (Though admittedly, Tony is probably calculating the likelihood of it, of course.) Instead they stand and watch the fires burn great swaths of the Expo grounds to smoldering metal framework, concrete and dust while sirens wail in the distance.

"I'm sorry," Pepper murmurs after a moment, so softly he almost doesn't hear the words.

"For what?" Tony glances at her out of the corner of his eye.

She clears her throat and gestures to the scene below them. "This. This place...what it stood for. I know it was important to you."

He raises a brow, "As opposed to it just being an unnecessary flight of fancy – my 'ego' again...?"

"That was before I..." She stops. That was before she'd known that he was dying.

So many things are different now. So much of what she'd thought she knew now requires a complete reinterpretation. 'This is about tomorrow.' Hadn't he said something to that effect? He'd said time was too short. He'd said that legacies were important. God, how could she have been so stupid?

Maybe not stupid. Oblivious though, certainly. He'd been dropping hints – unintentional or otherwise – for awhile now, and she'd been so lost in the details of being CEO and in being pissed that everyone was still riding her back for whatever it was that he had or hadn't done in the last week that she'd completely missed or simply discounted them. How different might things have gone if she'd at least attempted to listen? There could have been so much less misery between them.

"I was wrong," she says simply. "And I'm sorry. Again."

"You're never wrong," Tony says back in that mock serious voice that has always meant that he's processing data, or waiting for more data because what he has is incomplete, or that he's come to a decision and won't be swayed from it no matter what. "There's always ego involved in a legacy. Why else would we try to control how others are going to think about us when we're gone?"

"I'm capable of screwing up every bit as much and as often as you, Stark. Don't do either of us the disservice of pretending otherwise." She looks at him a moment, then back down at the fires, lifts her hands to rub her upper arms for a moment. "Look...it's getting pretty cold up here – can we put this topic on hold for the time being?"

"Yeah. Sure. Where do you want to go? Want to grab a bite to eat? I'm starving." His eyes focus on her face again instead of the wreckage below, though "focus" might be a generous term. He looks utterly bewildered.

"Are you alright?" He was flying and talking and he'd snatched her out of the way of certain death, so she'd assumed he was fine. But his armor is pock-marked and still smoking a little, and he'd been dying apparently...? So what does she know? "Tony, are you… Did you hit your head –?"

He laughs, a sound out of place for their surroundings. Then he tilts his head a little. "If I tell you how hard or often I've hit my head tonight, you're probably going to try and disregard everything that we've just decided isn't weird. And frankly, I like where this is going and I'm not inclined to let you weasel out –"

"I'm not inclined to weasel," she says softly, quickly, cutting him off. In the last few months they've tried so many things that haven't worked that she's willing to kiss and tell the chips to fall where they may and they'll figure this out if this is yet another avenue that doesn't work. She honestly can't imagine that them in a relationship is going to cause a bigger mess.

Her brow knits as she studies him closely, taking in both skin tone and posture. "Tony, are you sure you're alright? You're really pretty pale." Tony dodges and swats at her hand as she tries to feel his temperature. "I think we should probably find the nearest secure disassembly platform, get you out of the suit and let a medic check you over..."

Tony rubs the back of his neck with one gauntleted hand, a sure sign that he's going to say something that she's not going to like. "Uh, yeah. I'm fine. Sure, I don't have my meter with me but Jarvis is monitoring my vitals and will warn me about any serious issues. My body's just still adjusting to the Starkonium, I think, and toxicity shouldn't be much of an issue –"

"The what?" It's her turn to look absolutely bewildered. "Wait…meter? Toxicity –"

He colors. "Starkonium... Well that's what I'm calling it for lack of a better idea, till they come up with something official, I mean. Not that I really even know who 'they' are technically. Chemistry's not really my deal. I just needed something safer to power the arc than palladium…so with Dad's help I kinda invented a new element. They really should let me name it since I risked life, limb, and car collection to make it. Do you think the panel will take that into account when I petition to name it?"

She stares at him for a long time, both processing the sheer number of words, their somewhat random order, and their meaning. 'With his father's help?' "Is the house still in one piece?" she finally asks him after several moments of silence, disregarding the rest for the moment. In all fairness, it's a valid question, considering how things have been going lately.

"Mostly." He half shrugs, half winces. "The basement's almost as torn up as the upstairs is at the moment. It's all right though – I've been thinking about redecorating anyway."

She raises a brow. "Really."

"Oh yeah." Considering the damage that'd been inflicted by his aptly named birthday bash, severe structural work was going to have to be done, so why not redecorate at the same time? "I mean frankly, I need more work space, and I'm kind of bored with the color scheme. Time to change things up a bit."

She snorts in spite of herself. "You're not making the whole place up in gold and red and copycat art work. That red white and blue posterization theme is so overdone since the election."

"Nah, I was thinking just the master bedroom or bath...it won't be so obnoxious that way at least. As for the rest of the house…" His eyes turn strangely earnest, as they've been doing more and more often since he'd come back from his three month enforced "vacation" in the Middle East. It still takes her breath away.

"Are you going to coordinate the efforts?" he asks, striving for nonchalance and managing only to keep his anxiety out of his tone. "I know I've got great taste, but mostly because I hand over my credit cards to you." He wonders if they can find paint to match the exquisite blue of the dress she'd worn to the firefighter's benefit.

"…You want me to choose the decor for your house?" Pepper struggles to breathe as she thinks she understands what's being offered. But maybe it's just due to the wind changing direction and blowing smoke from the fires below up to their perch.

Still, suddenly Natalie's remark about honeymoons doesn't seem quite so snarky anymore.

Then her eyes blur a little, and she wobbles. Tony frowns stepping forward to brace her. "Okay, definitely time for us to take this conversation elsewhere. I'm not the only one who looks pale. The chemicals in the air from all the fires below may not be lethal, but they're probably not great for human lungs either."

'It's not the air, Stark, it's the subject.' But of course she doesn't tell him that, opting instead to just nod her head. "Yeah, sure. We can take the stairs to ground floor and then walk over to the main stage to see if the platform there is still working…" If it's not, the nearest platform is either at his penthouse or the local headquarters for Stark Industries.

"Still don't trust me to manage a controlled drop?" Tony teases as he reaches down and picks up his helmet, then he reaches for her after he gives the battered tech into her possession. "Trust me, this is less risky than asking me to climb down a dozen flights of stairs in this getup."

Before she can offer to meet him on the ground, he's got her in his arms and has stepped over the ledge of the roof as easily as if there was an escalator waiting to take them down. She squeaks a little and wraps one arm around his neck. "I...I don't mind flying if I get a little warning first, Tony."

"Noted." He grins. "It's a beautiful night, even if it is cold. Want to just head straight for the penthouse in Manhattan and skip going pavement side entirely?"

"I..." She sighs then shakes her head. "I really ought to check in one more time with both security and the metro police." Pepper's not sure he'd actually make it that far without exhausting himself . She knows the suit drains him, both his physical energy and his RT piece. She'd rather have him out of it and call a taxi – which reminds her that she needs to check in on Happy and Natalie, because she doesn't know where they ended up, and how had Natalie known about the dying thing before she had anyway? – to take them to the apartment in upper Manhattan.

"All right. I'll set us down and Jarvis can help with disassembly. Meanwhile if you can find me some clothes that fit I'm pretty sure I can hotwire one of the cars in the showroom and drive us back to the penthouse."

She blinks. "You need clothing?"

He smirks a little. "Yup. Unless you want me running round shocking the first responders in nothing but my neoprene."

He speeds up towards the convention center so that the sound of wind in her ears keeps her from replying. But she still purses her lips and narrows her eyes at him as they soar over the heads of lots of uniforms – police, fire department, EMTs, emergency workers of all kinds. Ideally she'd liked him checked out by one of the many EMTs on the ground before she allows him near anything motorized. There's blood on his temple and his chin, and she's sure there's more elsewhere as well.

Of course she figures that her chances of getting him to agree to a stranger's examination are less than fifty percent.

They reach the main presentation stage to find it abandoned but for some firemen, rolling up deflated hosing. Charred and water-stained in places, the structure of the building itself seems to still be mostly intact. When his boots hit the ground she gently disengages from his arms. "You're not insured to drive any of the cars that are here at the moment," she informs him, and rolling her eyes at the face he makes in reply, she continues. "Let me call us a taxi instead – no one will care what you're wearing if we go straight home."

"Food first," is his only protest.

"I can call and have sandwiches delivered or something. But that's probably the best I can do. I'm pretty sure all the falafel stands are unmanned…something about rampaging, weaponized prototypes."

He nods at that. "Jarvis..."

"How can I assist you, Sir?"

"Find me munchies."

"Very well, sir. Of what type?"

"Anything but death by chlorophyll. And peel me out of this sardine can while you're at it."

"If you'll step onto the platform..."

Pepper takes over the acquisition of an evening meal as somehow Tony and Jarvis manage to pull up the assembly platform from underneath the Expo floor. She's surprised that there's even power to it anymore, but knowing Tony like she does, she'll lay even odds that there's a generator around here somewhere in the event that power was lost. Changed man or not, Tony would never allow a little thing like a city-wide blackout to get in the way of whatever production he was putting on.

It seems to take longer than normal, but by the time dinner has been ordered and the concierge at the penthouse complex has been alerted to their imminent arrival and could someone please run around the block to pick up the soup and sandwiches from the deli Tony liked, Tony is stepping gingerly from the platform. The whole assembly disappears back into the depths like a strange sea beast, leaving Tony and Pepper alone and without the armor between them.

In just the neoprene he can no longer hide either his gaunt fragility or general exhaustion. Pepper wants to step in and support him, wants to breathe a second wind into him with soft, exploratory kisses. However, if they start that up now it'll probably be hours before they can make themselves move again. Tony needs medical attention, and a decent meal, and quite frankly he needs a shower because despite the bite in the night air, he's still sweating like a pig.

The girl in her finds this mildly unattractive, despite the heroic nature of said perspiration.

Pepper reaches out and takes his hand in a grip that's just as uncompromising as the hug would have been, a temporary substitute that will have to do for the time being. "A car is on its way, dinner has been ordered, and someone is going to up to the penthouse to change the linens in the bedrooms."

"Sounds like a plan." He almost impulsively raises her hand to his lips, taking comfort from the smooth, intact stretch of skin. "So which of the gates do we have to walk to, to meet the ordered taxi?"

"The nearest. Though one of the EMTs was actually on the phone with me a minute ago checking in. He's offered to lend you a pair of scrubs and drive us to the gates if you'd prefer it."

"Yeah. That would be pretty good actually." Conserving energy has been the name of the game for a long time now. It seems practical to keep it up so that he can figure out what else Pepper didn't find weird. He was already weak as a kitten as it was.

As if sensing that thought, Pepper studies him, then frowns a little. "Do you need to sit awhile? You still look pretty wiped, Tony." Diminished somehow without his exoskeleton.

"Nah. I actually feel better right now than I have in weeks. I've just been pulling too many short nights lately...probably need to crash on the cab ride home and take a short nap."

"Uh-huh." She's only been not his assistant for a week. She's seen Tony go twice this long on "short nights" without looking this wiped out. However, he's not arguing about hitching a ride out to the main gate, so maybe if she doesn't raise a fuss she can also quietly persuade him into some patching up during their brief ambulance ride.

"God do I need a shower, my entire back is itchy." The way he reaches to scratch the edge of his shoulder blade is confirmation of his misery. His nose wrinkles as it nears his arm pit. "Okay eau de'Sweat is definitely not sexy."

"Not particularly, no," she agrees smoothly even as she tightens her grip even more around her hand. The strength that's returned to her helps her relax a little more. "We're going home. Just soldier on for thirty more minutes, Stark, then you can get cleaned up."

He nods and lets her lead him to the entrance, accepting the help of the man who meets them by the convention center doors silently, though Pepper notes he stubbornly refuses to let the medic do any more than take a set of basic vitals and patch up the abrasions on his face and scalp. He makes a face at the green scrubs and pushes them away with a shake of his head.

"No thanks. I have clean clothes no doubt waiting for me where we're going," he informs him. "And sea foam…not my color exactly."

The other man rolls his eyes, but doesn't press the issue further. Instead he roots around for a moment before pulling a bottle out of a bag in the back and handing it to Tony.

"Sir, your blood pressure is this side of swooning damsel and your capillary refill is sluggish at best... You're dehydrated. If you won't let me put in an IV, then at least drink this bottle of Gatorade before you go. It will help with the tiredness." Tony makes a face – Pepper knows he hates grape flavored anything – but he drinks the beverage obediently while the medic slips several tubes of super-grade antibiotic ointment into a discarded plastic bag and hands them to Pepper for reapplication after Tony cleans up and first time application once he's been divested of the neoprene.

After that, they just sit in silence shoulder to shoulder on the gurney. Pepper uses her BlackBerry to send several texts before allowing Tony to steal it briefly so that he can check in with Jarvis silently. "Home, James," Tony finally instructs minutes later, once their civilian vehicle arrives and he half climbs, half flops into the open back seat.

Pepper, now done with the necessary 'security measures' snorts at that and provides the woman with an actual address. Moments later they're pulling away from the curve and headed swiftly down the street.

This time he's the one to reach over and take her hand as she settles in, staring down at their entwined fingers for several minutes before he turns his gaze to the window. Pepper runs her thumb back and forth over his hand several times before the ringing of her phone distracts her. She shouldn't be surprised by the shrill tone – for all intents and purposes she is still the CEO of Stark Industries and there's just been a mechanical battle to the death involving Tony, a Lt. Colonel of the U.S. Air Force, an international felon, and a platoon of robotic goons.

Of course her phone is ringing. She's going to need to arrange for a press conference in the morning.

She sighs as she checks the ID; depending on who it is, she might just allow voicemail to cover her calls tonight. But it's Happy and he at least should know where they're going, and her erstwhile assistant can be put to work triaging the calls that will be coming in for next several hours. Despite her sudden exhaustion tonight, tomorrow is going to need her full attention.

"I'm going to take this," she murmurs to Tony, who's carefully not watching her out of the corner of his eye. "It's Happy."

Tony nods. "Tell him good job, all right? And to thank Natasha for me."

"Natasha?"

He waves a hand "Natalie. Natasha. Whatever. The plant SHIELD saw fit to sic on me..."

"Natalie works for SHIELD?" This new bit of information is enough to make her head spin a little, but at least it answers one question. She's learned over recent months not to be surprised at Nick Fury or his goons knowing anything.

"Not that I knew that when I hired her." He nods a little sheepishly. "But she's been a big help tonight. If it hadn't been for her, I'd still be trying to keep Rhodes from making toe jam out of me."

Her eyes roll at that, though she still feels more than a little irritation. "So while we're sharing pertinent facts, is there anything else you'd like to tell me that you've conveniently forgotten to mention...?"

He stares at her dumbly as the phone in her hand stops ringing and goes over to voicemail. Clearly he's trying to process, or maybe just get into order all the things she's been left out of the loop about. "About Natalie?" he finally queries cautiously.

"About her, you, your plans for Rhodey's suit or for the company in general..." It's a wide net to throw but she's not taking any chances – she can't afford not to. This week has been a painful lesson on giving Tony too long a leash.

He doesn't just tend to hang himself on it.

He winces at that, "Umm....Fury called you my best girl...? Other than that, not really for now… Though I may think of something to add by the time I wake up tomorrow morning. The last few days have been crazy." Though it occurs to him now that he's had a few doses of their sodium bicarbonate or whatever the hell it was, that Fury's tone hadn't been particularly respectful when he'd used the epithet. Like making Pepper the CEO of Stark Industries had been the result of a whim, and not a particularly smart one at that.

He doesn't think he'll share that fact with Pepper. In this area at least Fury pretty much knows shit about what's best.

She glowers a little, but nods and uses the speed dial to call up Happy again.

Tony half listens in, aware that Pepper's leaving huge chunks out of her explanation to Happy. Of course, he's not sure what should go into those chunks because saying, "By the way, Mr. Stark and I have started a relationship of some sort and we might be occupied tonight," wasn't her style and didn't have nearly enough innuendo included to be his.

Besides, Happy's a smart guy. He'll figure out the gist of things on his own, and probably sooner rather than later.

When the taxi pulls up in front of their building he sighs in relief and climbs out before the concierge can pull the cab door open. Pepper gets out moments later, striding forward toward the doors with her typical confidence.

He digs both her posture and her new heels, which for the record, do awesome things for her legs...

But then, that's hardly a newsflash. Just an observation worth pointing out. Especially now that imminent death doesn't seem to be his only future. God it's nice to have some hope for his libido again. Because honestly? The Sahara's had a shorter dry spell lately than he's been in.

Pepper holds the door for him instead of the other way around when they reach the entry, and he thinks he should be ashamed, and maybe he would be if he weren't so tired. He really hopes that food gets here soon; with luck he'll manage to pick up a second wind from the shower and extra calories and they can get back to the kissing part of their changed dynamic.

He's a little confused when the elevator doors close behind them, and Pepper abruptly starts chuckling. "What?" He tilts his head, trying to pinpoint the source of her apparent amusement.

She waves a hand. "Nothing...it's just that I just realized for the first time that I don't have to either ignore you or give you grief for staring at my ass..."

He raises a brow in a credible imitation of his usual lechery. "Really?" He twirls a single finger. "Well then throw me a bone and turn around for me. I want to make the most of your brief lapse in judgment." She sticks her tongue out in response. "Not helping," he moans pitifully.

Her smile widens, though her face in also getting red. "You were right," she mutters under her breath.

"About?"

"You know…about this whole thing..." She waves a hand between them. "It's definitely a little weird."

"Weird is still good, right?" he confirms because if he's gone through all of this, gotten a second chance at everything, and still doesn't get Pepper... Well, the heights he's capable of throwing himself from are exponentially greater than those available to the average joe.

"Weird is fine...better than fine. It's just gonna take awhile to adjust." Pepper sidles closer as the elevator comes to a halt and opens into the short hallway that leads to only two doors, bumping her shoulder gently with his. The one on the right side of the hall is currently for let he thinks. He's pretty sure that Pepper refused to look into buying it so that he could expand his suit across the entire floor. The one on the left leads to the penthouse he'd bought shortly after moving his company's HQ to the West Coast.

"I promise not to push in the meantime," he says, hoping he can actually keep that promise. Her skeptical expression indicates she finds that promise as shaky as he does. "Fine. I promise not to push much."

Her laughter rings through the entry. "Better." Then she leans forward impulsively to kiss him again.

'Yup,' He concludes a few happy second later as her hands come up to lock behind his head. 'We're definitely getting better at this with practice.' Albeit it'll be easier once she's out of her heels; he's practically on his tip toes at the moment.

Still, he thoroughly enjoys the chance to cup her ass until she breaks for air and pulls away with a little smirk of self satisfaction. "For the record…adjusting is gonna be a hell of a lot of fun."

"My sentiments exactly." He types in the pass code and waits for the door to swing open, before waggling his eyebrows. "So…do I carry you over the threshold?"

"Not tonight," she defers, though the answer still makes his heart pound a little. It's not a no. It's not her running away at the playful inference towards a much more developed relationship.

"Thank god. I'd hate to drop you on your ass." Not only is the scenario possible if he were to attempt it right now, but bruising the natural wonder that is her posterior would be a criminal act.

She regards him a moment, silently, and Tony's suddenly afraid that he's managed to mess up somehow. Which is sad, really. He's all for setting land speed records, but not ones for failure.

Finally she snickers softly leaning in to rest her forehead against his before speaking. "Is this how you always smooth talk your women?"

"God, no." Largely because Pepper reverts him to a bumbling idiot.

"Thank God," she murmurs, before kissing him hungrily.

Somehow they move into the penthouse without falling or slamming his aching body into any walls or sharp edges, something for which he's eternally grateful. Pepper kicks the door shut and then it's just them in the dark, again, just without the cold and the sirens and Rhodey telling them to get their own roof.

"I don't believe it," Tony murmurs when Pepper finally pulls away to catch her breath.

"Don't believe what?" Her eyes shine darkly in the light from his RT. In fact, the way the light slides over the familiar contours and turns them into something new and angular is something that makes him just as intrigued by the play of light as the Impressionist masters. Not to mention the thought of her being lit by him stirs something possessive and teasingly erotic in his chest.

"We have to look way hotter than two seals going after a grape. What kind of comparison is that, anyway? Seals don't eat grapes. Do you think we should get some photos taken – classy ones – just to prove him wrong?"

Pepper snorts. "Shower, Tony. We can talk about it once you clean up."

"Did you...uhm... want to join me?"

She raises a brow.

He shrugs. "Hey...guy here. I'm not expecting anything, but I at least have to ASK..."

She snorts. "Right now you look like someone could knock you over if they hit you with a TOWEL, Tony."

His scowl is that of a man who knows she's right but who still doesn't want to admit it.

"All right," he finally concedes. "Feel free to help yourself to the contents of my master closet while I'm gone. If you want to change into something less formal I mean."

"My next stop," she promises. And leaves him to strip of his flight suit.

00oo00oo00oo

Tony's penthouse closet is – unsurprisingly – full. Of every kind of clothing she can imagine. Suits certainly for when he has board meetings of course, but also workout and lounging clothing. There are warm sweatpants and faded t-shirts – one of each which she liberates and brings into the bedroom to change into. Warm socks from the dresser against the wall round out the makeshift ensemble quite nicely.

The bedroom is dimly lit, something she doesn't change as she turns down the bedcovers in preparation for later tonight. The expanse of windows stretching across the room show a sweeping vista of lights, stationary, blinking, and in motion. Pepper's always loved the view from this penthouse, especially at night. Right now she loves that the chaos of evening is swept away by comfortable déjà vu.

"Jarvis?"

"Yes, Ms Potts?"

The room is dark, her reflection in the clear glass barely a hindrance as she stares out at the city in motion. "How's Tony holding up at the moment?"

"Mr. Stark is quite enjoying his shower...did you need me to give him a message for you?"

"Oh no." She shakes her head. "Just let me know if he gets sick, or dizzy or anything… I'm a little worried about him passing out." Though that fear may be over-reaction. Unfortunately she has no idea how much strain almost dying of palladium toxicity has placed on his body. Mainly because he's taking such pains to hide all symptoms from her.

"You needn't worry about that, Ms Potts. I've been monitoring him constantly for nearly two weeks, and now that he has a new core for the arc, his blood screenings should begin improving steadily. He is tired yes, but continued daily chloraphyll intake should be all that's necessary to complete the detoxification procedure. Once his system is purified he should start to regain his appetite and muscle mass rapidly."

Pepper nods at that. "Jarvis, how much can you tell me about his health without betraying his confidence? I mean you never said a word about him being at risk, so I assume Tony ordered you to help hide all this from me?"

"Negative, Ms Potts. He simply said he thought it better he break the news to your himself, and asked I remain silent until he did so." The AI pauses, "To be honest I had begun to doubt the wisdom of that course. But I'd hoped perhaps you'd hear about it from Colonel Rhodes."

"Rhodey KNEW?" That brings her head up sharply, anger and hurt combining in her stomach to bring her temper once again to a boil. If Rhodes had known Tony was sick he should have said something, keeping confidences be damned.

"Negative, Ms Potts. At least Colonel Rhodes knew nothing in specific. He did witness Anthony's near collapse in the basement a week ago though, and I believe he was beginning to suspect."

"A WEEK ago?"

"Shortly after your flight returned from Monaco. That was just after Mr. Stark's health hit a crisis point, so to speak."

Her lips draw up tight. "Define crisis point."

"The chlorophyll shakes ceased to function as an effective counteragent to the palladium contamination. The signs of his illness were becoming increasingly difficult to hide."

"How long..." There's a lump the size of Texas in her throat. "How long would he have had if it weren't for the, um…the Starkonium, Jarvis?"

"A specific amount of time is undeterminable. It would have depended on his other obligations and how much stress he continued to put on his body."

"Give me an estimate."

"Anywhere from five to ten weeks."

Her eyes slide shut. She exhales raggedly.

"But...he's OKAY now right? The new arc reactor fixed things?"

"I'm FINE, Pepper. Going to be fine. Better than fine, actually."

Pepper's eyes dart to the side where Tony's reflection stands silhouetted by the light from the bathroom doorway. She turns so that she can see him more clearly, tired of the blurred view he's been giving her even though she's just discovered the extent of the degeneration. His face is shadowed; a towel's wrapped around his waist limp from use. Another hangs from his hand, which she supposes is better than having been dropped to muster on the bathroom floor. As he shifts on his feet the light from the bathroom seeps around him, allowing her to better see his face. He looks unsure, like he wants to offer comfort, but is also keenly aware of all the reasons she might turn it down.

And perhaps he's also unnerved by his half dressed state.

'Another thing I should have noticed,' Pepper admits as she steps forward automatically, modesty be damned. Tony – Mr. Casual Nudity himself has been dressing like a modest school girl for weeks.

"I will KILL YOU." Her arms wrap ever so carefully around his waist, trying to avoid the worst of the bruises that are throwing red and purple blooms across his skin. "If you ever hide something like that from me again."

His arms rise from his side – cautiously, as if he's afraid he might break her or something. "I'm sorry," he mutters. "I WANTED to tell you so many times....but finding the words..." He shrugs almost helplessly. "Didn't want to have to admit you didn't really get me back...that you were gonna lose me twice. Didn't want to have to watch you cry for your boss."

The emphasis on the word and the roles it forced them into hurts in a way it hadn't when he'd stepped off that cargo plane nine months ago. An errant thought passes through her head, wondering if these last nine months have been waiting to give birth to this moment. Like a chain being pulled, the next link that shudders into view is a partially burnt, partially jelled omelette; his desperation on the ride back from Monaco, his insistence that the two of them call it quits from the reality they were living in.

"Besides, you were so pissed –"

"Yes," she cuts him off. "I was furious."

He nods, not quite able to meet her gaze.

She reaches up and drags his face down until his eyes meet hers. "But not just because you were being an ass. Hell, you're always an ass, Stark. I've built a tolerance. I was mad because I didn't UNDERSTAND. Because I hate being stuck in the dark, helpless to do anything but wait and try and hold things together when I don't have all the pieces of the puzzle I need to do so. That's not FAIR, Stark. Not to you, or to me."

"I'm sorry," he repeats again, for lack of anything better to say. "I just..." His eyes widen as understanding bursts into his conscious mind. 'I didn't want her to leave me.'

After all she'd threatened to leave at the though he might POSSIBLY be suicidal. Why would she have stayed with him if she'd known that he knew the energy expenditure of being Iron Man was killing him by increasing degrees.

"Tony. TONY." Pepper's voice cuts through his shocked revelation. He looks down to see her still standing there, hands around his waist, squeezing tightly. "Oh no you don't, don't you DARE spaz out on me."

He finds himself smilingly a little maniacally. "I think you're about a decade late on that order, Potts." Thankfully she takes it as his quirky sense of humor rather than letting the lame joke go flat.

"I repeat, ever hide something like that from me again, Stark, and I'll take out your liver with a rusty spoon."

"Duly noted, Ms. Potts." He wants badly to call her boss, but now isn't the time for that.

She nods, and her hands caress his shoulders so lightly that he thinks he might be imagining it. "Go put on some boxers or something. I should take a look at these bruises before we eat."

He winces at the thought of the poking and prodding and the brooding that's going to lead to, but submits without complaint. Right now it's the quickest way to get actual food in his belly.

00oo00oo00