Title: These Bloody Footprints
Author: kira
Wordcount: 9.900
Rating: PG-13 (language)
Spoilers: Set a few weeks after IM2.
Notes: Written for the lovely Ginger Ninja; this went out in email bursts to her, and we giggled over it while going deeper into Iron Man fandom. I wouldn't have finished if not for her. Thanks to quicksilvermad & Ginger Ninja for the beta, and mga1999 for helping when I got stuck.
Summary: Each and every time he comes back like this, she wants to find something heavy and hurl it at his head, hoping it would knock some common sense into him. But the fact of the matter is, he doesn't have anyone else. She knows that just as she knows he could never give up his mission.

The sounds of explosions and gunfire are deafening, even through the audio dampening built into the helmet. Sand kicks up all around, creating a blanket of fog that swirls and surrounds him. Moving targets are illuminated by the bright flashes of exploding gunfire as they continue to shoot, their movements random and thus unpredictable.

Chaos theory could be applied here, but there isn't time – another bullet pings off the armor, two more, and then the hydraulics fail on one of the legs. Forced to one knee, the targeting algorithm tries to work through the sand; it picks out two, fires.

There are less bullets flying. The suit needs to be standing for a successful launch, but it's heavy, and standing sends a shockwave through the wearer that must be ignored. There are weapons here, his weapons, and he needs to make sure they're all destroyed.

"Jarvis," he croaks, and fuck, his voice sounds thick. "Target status?"

"Based on metallic readings, there are two more dense targets that have a –"

"I don't need the full stats. What do we have left?"

Heavy artillery fire hits the sand off his right foot, and he tries to duck and roll in the opposite direction; it's difficult, and he's panting when he lands on his ass against a tall rock, thankful he didn't take a header into sea just feet from his current position.

"Sir, I advise you exit the situation and return when at full power."

"Noted. Target the, the whatever," he orders, mind going fuzzy at the edges. Computer readouts are flashing lights in front of his eyes, and he blinks a few times to clear his vision.

Another shell and his sanctuary interrupted. He stands as best he can but stumbles because everything is too damn heavy to move without the hydraulics to take up the slack.

A high pitched whine. He can see it coming - sees it disappear, feels the full force of metal hitting his midsection.

Inside his metal suit, Tony Stark passes out before he hits the water.


It's the cold that wakes him, not the blaring alarms and concerned harmonics of Jarvis. He comes to with a jolt - his mind instantly awake. He's freezing despite the suit's built-in temperature controls that are usually used when going supersonic in the upper atmosphere. Wherever he is, it's either really high up...

Or, as he feels wet, very far down.

The viewscreen is dark, pitch black, only the computer readouts reflecting off the HUD. Lights bounce through his head, and he closes them before his stomach can get past his throat. A moan escapes his lips.

The alarms quiet. "I am glad you are awake, sir," the computer greets. "We are currently submerged in the Persian Gulf, zero-point-five miles from land. There are no sea-level landforms in the immediate vicinity..."

Jarvis continues, but the throbbing in Tony Stark's head blocks out the geography lesson. He knows where he was, relatively, but the last few moments between the battle and his current location remain fuzzy, no matter how hard he tries to recover the memory.

Inside his gold-titanium alloy suit, Tony's teeth begin to chatter.

"Power status?" he stutters.

"85%. 100% recharge will be reached in forty-three seconds."

The chill climbs past his legs - licks at his stomach. Muscles spasm. The nausea returns, for just a moment, and wouldn't that be great, drowning in my own vomit in the ocean. He pushes it down; watches the progress bar on the suit's recharge and lets his mind drift to obvious and crucial upgrades. The suit was never really designed for submersion, though he has to admit the possibility occurred to him. If the seals held up to high altitudes while regulating pressure, then why...

His mind drifts and the black begins to eclipse the bright lights of the HUD.

Water rises around his chest; he can feel it swell up and around the Arc reactor's casing, and, for a terrifying moment, he wonders if that will be compromised as well. Tony startles, mind racing back to the first chest piece and its reaction to water – unable to breathe, lungs burning, pulse pounding in his head. Up, down, under again... Eyes wide in the tank of water. A push over the edge – the shock through his entire system - sending him spiraling into a black-out that lasted only seconds.

"Recharge complete in ten seconds..." Jarvis announces, voice suddenly miles away.

Is this how it happens? Do I go because I didn't think everything through? I need more time!

The display shifts from red to blue. Tony can only see it through a pinhole, as though he's looking through a tear in his vision, a single dot. Water laps at his chin.

His teeth chatter as he speaks. "Get me out of here."

And then, he's gone under (far under) with arms above him, grasping for the surface he can never reach.


This is a morning in the life of Virginia Potts.

She wakes at 5:30 without the aid of an alarm, but has one set on her phone, just in case. Her clothes are already set out on the chair in the corner of her bedroom and her make-up is placed orderly on the dressing table. She finds comfort in tradition; at least when it comes to her home. Her bedding is white, plush, and soft. Her walls are covered with the work of the Impressionists - all soft shapes and muted colors.

At 6:30, Pepper takes the elevator to the parking structure below the condo building and slides into her silver Audi (a perk of the job she knows was more a gift than a loan). The car always purrs when she starts it.

Down the street is her favorite Coffee Bean. Every morning, she orders a soy mocha, sometimes adds a shot, and sits at a table on the patio to go over Tony Stark's schedule for the day. Emails are already coming in from the east coast, and she answers what she can on her phone. When finished, she grabs a plain cup of coffee and leaves a generous tip.

The ride in to Stark Industries is a pleasant trip through the edge of the city where there's more clear land. She isn't required to arrive until 8:30, so she never rushes. She just enjoys the last calm before her day officially begins.

When she arrives, Pepper sets up the day.

But today is not a normal morning.

She's cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down, wisps of strawberry-blond hair escaping a prim ponytail as the breeze rushes through the car. The radio is silent. These few minutes are hers - a way to zen-out before walking back into the whirlwind that is Tony Stark's life.

Pepper savors every second of the ride into Malibu.

On the passenger seat, her phone rings, the tune a heavy metal song she discovered programmed in one night – and she can't change it.

Tapping the earpiece, she answers, "I'll be there in five minutes."

"Good morning, Miss Potts," greets not Tony but the pleasant harmonics of Jarvis. "I am pleased to know you will arrive on time."

In all the years she's worked for Tony, Pepper can count the number of times she's received a call from the very intelligent system on one hand.

Okay. So this makes twice.

"Where's Tony, Jarvis?" she asks carefully, upping her speed and praying there are no police out on the PCH today.

"Mr. Stark is currently removing the – "

"And Rhodey?" Pepper interrupts.

The computer pauses. "Lt. Colonel Rhodes is not here."

Pressure begins to build behind Pepper's eyes; do other personal assistants in the world have to deal with these kinds of things?

"Two minutes. I'll be there in two minutes," she says. But the panic is already beginning to bubble up. Her mind forced to choose between shutting down completely or blocking off her emotions so she can get through this.

Jarvis says nothing, but the digitized static on the line tells her he's still connected.

Solace broken, Pepper speeds, taking the turn into the mansion's driveway a bit fast. The car is barely parked when she throws open the door and races inside.

The entire time she's moving, Pepper wonders what's happened. Tony swore he'd have Rhodey cover his back from now on, promising not to do anything stupid. But this is Tony she's talking about. Yes, he usually acts with good intentions, but when it comes to getting his weapons out of the wrong hands, his mind can get a little...clouded. Rhodey will be calling soon, probably as soon as reports on Tony's activities hits his desk.

Pepper takes the stairs down to the workshop as fast as her heels will allow; even then, she stumbles in her haste. You're no good to him if you fall down the stairs. Sufficiently self-chastised, Pepper slows and manages the rest of the way down without incident.

Jarvis has the door open. It feels weird to walk straight in, like she's intruding into Tony's mind uninvited.

But if Jarvis is his alter-ego, then his invitation is enough.

Robots are holding pieces of the Iron Man suit, the alloy pot-marked and dented. Pepper takes it in, files it to process later.

"Tony?" she calls tentatively into the room. The lights are low everywhere but on the armor. "Jarvis, can I have some light, please?"

The room becomes much brighter. Easier to search.

Her eyes lock on partial footprints. Red mixed with water. These bloody footprints are breadcrumbs, and she follows along side them –


The name's a rough question. She follows, rounds a worktable –

– and there sits Tony Stark, hair damp, blood dripping down his arm.

"Great," he stutters through pale, frozen lips. "You're here. Can you get me a towel?"

A jolt runs through her chest, a sharp, acute pain where her heart beats quickly. There are so many questions running through her head, but a voice tells her it would be best to run for the towels now and ask later. She starts across the workshop for the bathroom on the other side, trying to move fast. The floor is wet in the middle of the lab, pooled where it must have come out of the disassembled armor, and her foot slips – grumbling, Pepper stops, leans over, and takes off her strappy shoes. She can move faster in bare feet, anyway.

It takes her maybe half a minute, but in that time, Tony has leaned his head back and closed his eyes, shivers running through his frame.

"Jarvis, can you give us some heat, please? And monitor his vitals," she adds.

Back at his side, Pepper hesitates before kneeling. A small amount of water has slicked from his neoprene suit onto the floor of the workshop, and a chill runs up her spine as her knees make contact.

"Tony," Pepper says softly, resting a hand on his shoulder. His eyes crack open, dark slivers almost black against the pallor of his skin. "We should get you out of this thing."

This prompts a smirk. "Why, Miss Potts, is this really the time?" His teeth are chattering, speech stuttered.

Pepper rolls her eyes. "Spare me."

She can feel the temperature in the lab warming, Jarvis working hard to help in his own way. When Tony doesn't move his arms to unzip the under suit, she reaches up to help, eyes cast skyward – she's so afraid of what she'll find underneath (bruises or cuts or something worse) that she's on the edge of hysteria. Yes, she saw Tony in the aftermath of his first mission, bloodied and steaming in the Dubai house, but then (when this was all so new) it was such a shock, that she acted without thought.

Here, in the house in Malibu, in the workshop where everything was created, it's just too real.

"Lean forward," she orders, pushing lightly on his shoulder blade. She moves him maybe an inch before his face pinches and a moan escapes his lips.

"Uh, yeah," he huffs when he leans back and meets Pepper's gaze. "I might be a little bruised."

"A little," she deadpans. "Really."

He ducks his head sheepishly.

Which means he won't be able to get out of the suit himself. The things I have to deal with. Pepper grasps the zipper and pulls it down as far as she can, looping her arm around the table leg to trace down his spine to his mid-back; that is enough, for right now.


Tony looks over his shoulder at her. "Scoot?"

"Yes. Forward. So you don't have to lean."

"I really think this is the only thing keeping me upright now," he chatters.

"Either you scoot or freeze in this thing. You're soaked. How long did it take for you to get back here?"

Tony shrugs, gently, face impassive as he scoots forward a few inches, giving Pepper enough room to help him out of the protective layer.

"Tony?" she prompts, peeling it away from his neck.

"I don't know."


Sitting on the floor in his home workshop, Tony Stark hates being so helpless.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" asks Pepper. Her hands are warm on the naked skin of his back, fingers trailing down his spine for just a moment before she wraps one around his shoulder and starts helping him get his arm out.

"Well, I wasn't driving."

She doesn't say anything, but jerks his hand out of his sleeve with a bit more force than really necessary. "Not driving. I should be relieved, is that it?"

"Out of the two of us, Jarvis is the designated driver," he quips.

Pepper lets out a long breath, hand resting along his left shoulder. She slips a hand up under the suit, along his arm, and for a moment, he's lost in her touch – she may be fuming silently behind him, but she's still here.

So he closes his eyes and indulges for a bit until her fingers hit a spot on his upper arm and fuck that hurts. It's like her fingers have become a soldering iron pressed up against his skin, and he flinches to the side, pulling away just as her hand slips and comes out red.

"Tony," she breathes, past anger forgotten. "I don't think I'm the right person for this. Maybe," she scoots back and starts to stand, "maybe I should call someone."

Words whisper through his mind, make a god bleed and they begin to doubt, and he impulsively reaches out to grasp her wrist with his good arm. She looks down, half-crouched, eyes shimmering.

"You're fine. You'll do fine," says Tony. "I'd rather not have anyone else touching me, you know. They'll get their germs on me. And a hospital is full of sick people."

"Yes," she responds slowly. "They generally are. Since that's where people who are sick or bleeding go to get better."

"It could be a scratch."

"Scratches don't bleed this much, Tony."

"I'm delicate. Maybe mine do."

"Oh, yes. I'd forgotten how fragile you are."

He smirks, or tries to. But ever since she touched the damn thing, it won't stop throbbing. "I need a drink," he comments aloud, shifting his weight a bit to take pressure off his torso. The difficulty in breathing isn't the same pressing sensation he's gotten from a problem (or complete removal) of his chest piece in the past; he sees this as a good sign.

Still crouched, Pepper narrows her eyes. "I don't think this is really the time for that."

He rolls his eyes. He hadn't meant it in the way she's probably thinking, but a sudden wave of exhaustion washes over him and he just doesn't care to argue the point. Despite the warmer temperature, Tony feels a chill, and shivers a bit more violently than he has been ever since stumbling out of the damaged and water-logged suit. Either he needs to stop battling stronger weapons, or make better armor. Completely bullet-resistant would be fantastic.

So he lets it go and drops Pepper's wrist.

"Maybe we should see what we're working with before we decide anything," she comments, kneeling back down.

Tony doesn't do thanks, or apologies. At least not with words. He looks up at Pepper and wonders why the hell she's stuck around as long as she has, and knows he's damn lucky she has.

This time, she's more careful with handling his arm. When it comes time for him to do his part, he does it with a grunt, squeezing his eyes shut as his arm comes free of the black fabric. The other is much easier to extract. Arms free, the rest falls to his waist, slick black tiles now haloed in blue.

Dizzy, he stares into the light, trying to right himself. He's a damn superhero, now—this should be nothing. With his teeth chattering in bouts, Tony goes to hug himself, feels the pull in his arms, the pressure along his chest, and hopes the floor isn't too hard when it catches him.



There isn't much between the front door and the workshop, but it isn't as demolished as last month. Most of the walls have been replaced, a few changed by a micromanaging Tony Stark when he isn't down in his workshop or off keeping world peace. Even so, James Rhodes can't help but wince when he passes the inoperative waterfall on his way down the stairs.

From below, he hears, "Jarvis, open the door."

"Of course, Miss Potts."

So Rhodey slips through without having to enter his code and crosses the room in a few long strides.

Pepper can't help but feel a bit of relief run over her as Rhodey crouches down next to her. She hasn't left Tony's side since he fell asleep (she's in denial about her denial at this point), her knees long gone numb in what's left of the water on the ground.

"Thank God you're here," she says in a rush of gratitude. "He's too heavy for me to move by myself."

"Move by yourself?" Rhodey asks, eyes wide. "Pepper, you're crazy. He should be in a hospital. We need to – "

"No. You know Tony; he hates those places."

"Sure. But that doesn't mean," he cuts himself off, shaking his head. "Fine. What's the plan, then?"

"Help me get him to the shower."

For all the time it took her to wrap Tony in towels, they come off easily when Rhodey lifts him under the arms and gets and arm up and around his neck. Pepper rises, her knees awakening with icy sharpness, causing her to stumble a bit before she can take up the slack.

"Damn, he's cold," a surprised Rhodey intones.

God, she hates this. Each and every time he comes back like this, she wants to find something heavy and hurl it at his head, hoping it would knock some common sense into him. But the fact of the matter is, he doesn't have anyone else. She knows that just as she knows he could never give up his mission.

The walk across the workshop is slow-going, both taking care not to jostle whatever's been knocked out of place under the bruise forming just under his chest piece, dark color beginning to blossoming down and around his right side. At least his arm isn't bleeding anymore. Four steps in and she eyes the door out to the elevator.

"Wait, wait," she says, stopping. Rhodey takes an extra step, then stops. "Elevator."

"I thought that was damaged," he brings up.

God, since when did Tony weigh so much? Pepper grunts under the weight, thankful he isn't awake to hear her. "Repaired last week."

Rhodey nods and starts back towards her. The distance to the elevator is much shorter than to the small bathroom on the workshop's far side, though there's a walk from it to Tony's repaired bedroom. He doesn't use the elevator much; it was Pepper who requested it be fixed at the same time as the ceiling and outer walls.

They maneuver sideways through the door, into the little lobby where Jarvis has the elevator ready and waiting for them. There may be times when the AI can be a bit like Big Brother looking over her shoulder, but right now, she's glad someone's watching and working ahead of them. There's shuffling and scooting until all three are in and Tony is settled against one of the walls.

"What happened to your shoes?" asks Rhodey.

Pepper pauses rubbing her aching shoulder and remembers she's wandering around barefoot—generally not a good idea, if they were to emerge on the main floor. "I realized I wouldn't do Tony any good if I slipped and broke my neck." She smirks as she speaks, voice dry. Rhodey's solidarity is keeping her from falling into panic, and thank God for the man. In the bright, reflected light of the elevator, her eyes are drawn to a gash running along Tony's right leg, just under the knee, blood shading the charcoal neoprene.

"Miss Potts, I have computed the water temperature that would be the most beneficial, and have warmed the shower accordingly," Jarvis announces, voice booming in the small box, surprising her enough she jumps. The door opens on the second floor and the hall beyond.

"Thank you Jarvis," breathes Pepper softly.

"Let's get this done," Rhodey says.

This would be one of those times when Pepper would remind herself she didn't get paid enough for the things she had to deal with. But it's not all about that, she thinks, not anymore. She chose this, would rather be here, knowing, than anywhere else. Love, she ruminates, can be quite the motivating force.

Walking into the large – massive – master bathroom has Pepper thanking her lucky stars she remembered scheduling the work on the elevator earlier that week, because the workshop bathroom is a cubicle compared to the space they can move around in up here.

"Can you hold him for a second?" Pepper asks.

"What are you thinking?"

She pulls open the door to the shower stall and places a hand under the stream. Hot, but not completely unbearable. Pulling off her sweater, she takes a step into the spray, then crouches and sits against the wall opposite the shower head, then beckons with a hand.

Rhodey's back is wet, light blue uniform turned dark, shoes almost slipping on the floor. But he manages sitting Tony against Pepper's chest, working at the edge of the water to grab the thick shoe-like socks off Tony's feet.

But Pepper isn't paying attention to him. She keeps her arms at her sides, afraid if she touches Tony, she'll hurt him. So he rests against her chest, head on her shoulder. With her eyes on his face, Pepper watches him breathe.

This is a morning in the life of Virginia Potts.



Wrapped in a deep, fuzzy warmth, Tony Stark comes back up to consciousness with a smile on his face—

—Until he realizes there's water raining down on him.

He's back in his suit, except instead of water coming up from below, it's leaking in his helmet, gushing through cracks in the faceplate, down his nose and in his mouth. He's stuck, stuck in this suit with the water coming in and he can't escape.

"Tony!" Pepper's voice is saying. "Tony, you're okay!"

Blinking through the light spray, Tony finally focuses on what he's seeing – the delicate curve of Pepper's neck, wet strawberry-blond strands plastered against the skin behind her ear. She's flushed from the heat, almost like sunburn.

"Hey," he breathes, "I really like this view."

It shifts and changes, and now he's looking up at her face, lips large and beautiful and just right there.

"Nope. Wait. Like this one more."

The lips thin out, a solid, angry-Pepper line, and he decides he doesn't like this view as much. And where most people would take this as a sign to shut up, Tony decides that if he keeps talking, she won't be able to say anything.

"Why are we in the shower?"

"Why are we in—Tony, you were nearly hypothermic. And then you passed out," she answers tersely. He's more interested in how the muscles in her neck have tightened, and reaches up to trace them. "Are you even listening to me?"

"Yes. Maybe. Should I be?"

Pepper turns her face away, and Tony finds himself scooting a bit more into her neck, resting his forehead there for just a moment. His eyes drift down, and, frowning, he says, "Why are you wearing clothes? This kind of ruins the fun of two people in a shower, you know."

He can feel her body shift as she snorts, which is rather cute and better than an icy glare.

"You'll be buying me replacements, Tony," she remarks from above. Her soft voice vibrates through him like the words are coming directly into his head. "Since these were ruined in the line of duty."

"Only if I can come with," he replies, "and pick out the clothes."

He's sure she rolls her eyes.

"Jarvis," Pepper calls, "how is Mr. Stark's temperature?"

"Hey! First names only in my shower!" Tony interrupts. His voice comes out no louder than normal, even though he tried to shout. The attempt has him coughing, his torso erupting into a heat he can't be comfortable with.

"His temperature reads above normal, Miss Potts," Jarvis responds—and there's the last name thing again. Tony thought all of them were past that.

The water abruptly turns off. The lack of drops hitting his skin leaves Tony tingling from head to toe, light pricks of muscle memory that make him think the water has only gone to a more comfortable temperature. Beneath him, Pepper shifts, probably wanting to get up, but it's a really nice position, laying against her, even if it's in the shower and they're both soaking wet.

"Come on, Tony," she says into his ear, voice low and rough. "You'll catch a chill if we stay in here."

He snuggles a bit. "Then turn the water back on."

One of her arms comes up to wrap around his shoulder, crossing his clavicle just above the arc reactor, hugging him even tighter against her chest. Almost ready to give in, he thinks. She rests her chin on the side of his head. He's already loving this new, vague state their relationship has entered, now they've both decided to step over the line they'd been toeing for years.

Then she whispers in his ear, "Are you going to get up, or is Rhodey going to have to help me carry you again?"

His head snaps up so fast that Pepper's jaw clicks together as her head bounces back, and she lets out a startled yelp. Tony files that away—at the moment, his wide eyes are scoping out the bathroom, searching for proof his best friend's been around this entire time. Finding the bathroom empty, he turns back to Pepper.

"You shouldn't lie to me," he remarks, "what with me being in such a fragile state."

"You!" she shouts, cradling her chin. Blood wells up along her bottom lip, and he realizes she must have been chewing it when he moved his head. "What about me? I almost bit off my tongue!"

"Now that would have been a travesty." Tony tips his head up and gives her a kiss, licking away the bead of blood along her lip—

"Really. You two just need to give me some time to adjust to this," remarks Rhodey from somewhere behind them. Tony groans—you need to stop showing up when things are getting interesting—and reluctantly turns in his friend's direction.

Who is wearing one of his shirts.

"Raiding my closet, now, Rhodey?" Tony asks. Rhodey glares for a moment, then flickers his gaze to Pepper for just a second—the international sign for Tony, you're being an ass. Not that he listens to anyone; he feels he's just being witty. "Gonna trick that out, too?"

"You make me want to shoot you sometimes, Tony. Why am I your friend again?"

"My fantastic personality? The private jet?"

"Play nice," mutters Pepper.

It's hard to keep up the pretense that everything's fine; Tony's head feels thick and heavy and his thoughts are sluggish. Sure, things get a bit fuzzy around the edges when he's been drinking a bit, but this makes it hard to keep working on those repairs he's going to have to make to the suit while conversing with Pepper and Rhodey. He's a man who lives on mental multitasking and he feels like he's missing out on something when he can only focus on one thing at a time.

Rhodey takes the silence as acquiescence, and holds out the front of the shirt for a moment. "Mine got wet getting your ass into there. Figured you wouldn't mind me wearing this while Jarvis dries it."

"Just so long as I get it back."

"Sure thing. You need help out of there? Or can I go back to work?"

He was fine before, when the suit touched down in the garage, and realizes he's lost more time. That should probably unsettle him, but he's alive and here and not alone. So what's there to worry about?

Gathering his legs under him, Tony finds Pepper's shoulder and tries pushing up. He gets halfway there, sways—Rhodey's in the doorway to the shower faster than he thought possible—and turns it into a lazy lean against the door. The move sends him gasping for breath and reminds him of the hit he took just before—

Before what? There's that blank between being hit and waking in the water, the water crawling up his legs through battle damage in the armor, higher and higher...

Pepper puts a hand on his back between his shoulder blades. "Bed. Now."

It's that tone she gets when there's no wiggle-room. No amount of banter or pestering is going to sway her—he's stuck. Literally. Between a Pepper and a Rhodey.

Part of him hates being ordered around. A larger part can't believe how lucky he is. On several fronts.


Rhodey leaves pretty fast when Tony starts talking about taking off the bottom half of the neoprene suit in the middle of the bedroom, grumbling about immaturity that has Pepper laughing quietly to herself in Tony's closet. She grabs some sweatpants and a faded MIT sweatshirt and throws them onto the bed while crossing the room to grab some underwear.

"Are you laughing at me?" he asks when she turns to hand some over. He's perched on the edge of his large bed, right arm wrapped around his midsection. The bruising has deepened, a large, roughly oval smattering of color and the red dotting of broken capillaries.

She puts on a smile, feeling it stretch across her face, and knows Tony will be able to see through it. "Absolutely."

"Not fair."

"Life isn't fair, Tony."

"Should be."

"Not even you are that powerful." She crosses her arms and shivers, the air cool against her skin under her soaked clothes. She slides her hands up to rub her forearms, wishing she had something warm and comfortable to wear somewhere in the house. But her items, whatever's left in the spare bedroom, are all business wear, back-ups in case of the unpredictable.

She'll just get him into bed, quiz Jarvis about what happened, and wrap herself in one of those big, soft, plush towels hanging in the bathroom. Maybe get some tea, though she'll need to go through the workshop, as the main kitchen is still in pieces.

"..per, hey, Pepper."

Snapping back, Pepper finds Tony looking up at her with the same expression he gets when one of the robots does something unexpected. "Yes?"

"I've got to get you out of those clothes," he smirks. But the effect isn't up to its usual sparkle; his brown eyes are tired and dull and his face is flushed from the hot shower (though she can't complain about the damp hair plastered to his forehead).

She gives him a smile of her own. "And I've got to get you into bed."

"God, Potts, I thought you'd never ask."

"Too bad I won't be joining you."

Tony frowns. "Well, that certainly just won't do. But you can't come in wearing those ruined, wet things. No, not at all. You can just leave them over there." He motions vaguely to the chair in the corner.

She has to remember they've crossed that line and come out on the other side - his comment is no longer innocent flirting, it's an invitation.

"I'll find something," Pepper comments and crosses the room. The movement warms her up, and with the way Tony's face has pinched and paled, he won't be getting changed on his own. Walking up to him, she leans to check the wound on his left arm. It's a scratch—a deep gouge in his skin that's leaking watery blood in a drip pattern of three little lines snaking down his muscled arm.

Figuring the shower cleaned it out enough for now, Pepper puts a hand on his shoulder and says, "I hope those pants are easier to get out of than wet jeans."

Tony grunts, hissing when he tries to move his left arm. The rivers of red move a bit faster.

"Can you stand up for a second?"

"Depends. Depends on what you're thinking of doing. Because, don't get me wrong, Pepper, but I'm not really up for anything but some pain killers and a few hours of sleep," he remarks. His words don't have their usual bounce - that lyrical styling that marks his wit and enthralls everyone. They're flat, tired, and a bit segmented by his shallow breathing.

He stands awkwardly with most of his weight on his left leg, and places a hand on the bed; his fingertips brushing the tangled covers. She tries giving him a reassuring smile, but can't hide her concern.

"Hey, Potts," he almost whispers, "I've been through worse."

Her hands rest on his hips, thumbs looping under the fabric to brush his skin. She can't ignore how his breath hitches when she starts peeling off the bottom half of the suit, her fingers trailing down the outside of his legs, halfway to his knees.

She stands, meeting his eyes for just a moment, and places an open palm on the center of his chest. The ring she wears on her right hand taps the edge of the arc reactor casing. She applies just a bit of pressure, then loops a hand around his arm to act as a counterweight, letting him down gently.

When Pepper kneels here, the carpeting is soft and warm on her chilled red speckled knees.

Sure, he's been through worse. Her hands pull the fabric around his knees and down his calves, where scars dot his legs, cuts and scrapes that weren't there before—just before. The scratch is there, deep and an angry, scabbing red. But being through worse doesn't make this any easier, and he should know that. He should know the hell he wrecks on her each time he flies off. And seeing all that in action doesn't make it better.

It made it worse.

But Pepper doesn't say any of that, because they've crossed that line between professional obligation and relationship, and both have wanted this for so long that neither want to do anything to mess it up.

Tony's legs are slick, water is trapped under the fabric, and his toes are pruney; she smiles at the sight, taps one, and knows this is different than all those times before she's helped him change after a party or bender.

"Counting my toes, are we?" he chimes from above. Pepper collects together the suit, then tosses it into the chair he indicated earlier.

"Jarvis," she says, looking at Tony, "were you able to complete a medical scan?"

"My scans are incomplete. I can only monitor vitals, Miss Potts."

"You can call her Pepper, Jarvis," Tony interjects.

"I feel it is more polite to address her as Miss Potts, sir. Perhaps you should have programmed me to be more familiar."

Tony chuckles. "Next upgrade, then."

"As you wish."

Grabbing the sweatpants from the bed, Pepper begins looping them around his feet, feeding them up the way the suit came down, letting her hands trace his skin, and hopes to stop their trembling with her warmth. Stopping at mid-thigh, she looks up, asks, "Think you can manage?"

"No. No I do not. I think I need you to dress me completely, seeing as I'm injured and all. Feel free to, you know, leave the clothes optional."

"Do you ever turn off?" Pepper grumbles. Not that she doesn't know the answer. In all the years she's worked for Tony Stark, she's only seen him dial down the sarcasm a handful of times, most occurring...

We all need our coping mechanisms, she decides.

"Yes, Pepper, I can manage," he practically whispers. "Get something out of the closet before you catch a cold and I need to kick you out. Which would hurt me more than it would you."

Being fluent in Tony, Pepper can only smile at the sentiment buried in there as she stands and nods and starts to wander off, wondering if she can find something in her closet of clothes.

"Please say you're not looking for something in your closet," Tony grunts from the bed. When she turns around, he has the pants on and is reaching for the sweatshirt. "Fuck. Don't leave yet, I can't manage."

"Have you seen your chest—"

"Absolutely. It's one of my brightest features."

" —and what that bruise probably means? Jarvis, please."

"From my incomplete scans, I have deduced that Mr. Stark has several cracked ribs. Standard treatment is rest and limited activity."

Pepper waves her hand in the air. "There. If you won't listen to me, listen to yourself."

"Jarvis is not me."

At this, Pepper actually laughs. She takes the sweatshirt and gathers it around the neck. "Really. You truly believe that."

"Yes," -- he stops while Pepper pushes the shirt over his head. "He's not nearly as good looking."

"I heard that, sir," voices the AI.

But neither really hear him because their faces are close, breath hot, and Tony leans forward and captures Pepper's lips in a kiss. It's sweet and gentle, but full of everything he's not saying. The quiet desperation that's fueled him since she bothered to look closer, the fear that she'll leave, the worry and need, and the eccentric enigma that makes up Tony. Not the man the world thinks they know, but the one she does know.

It's enough to make her shiver and lean a bit more to deepen the kiss, catching him by surprise for a second before he catches up. Her worry and fear and concern. Tony snakes an arm around her and starts to pull her down, deepening the kiss—

Then breaks off with a swear.

Pepper is pulling his arms through the sweatshirt before he recovers enough to speak. "I guess that would count as not-limited activity."

He hisses when she bends his left arm, but waves for her to continue.

And she is as gentle as she can be pulling it down over the telling bruise.

Sitting on the edge of his bed, Tony Stark waits until Pepper leaves the room to let down his guard. He'd have to be stupid to think she's not bothered by this whole thing, and though he's been called many things in his life -- stupid isn't one of them. Alone for the first time since she arrived, Tony shifts and tries to find a comfortable position, knowing laying back is going to hurt like hell.

"Better get it over with," he mutters, trying to psych himself up.

Tony leans to the side and instantly regrets it. He lands on his right side and pinches his eyes closed, focusing on his breathing to keep from passing out. The tactic feels vaguely familiar, as though he's done it recently—

—And he hears the fast rush of air passing around the suit when he opens his eyes, blinking back cobwebs and darkness and dreams. He finds he's soaring over the ocean, above the clouds, and isn't in control.

"Where are we?" he asks, or whispers, or grunts—he can only hear himself in his head and nowhere else.

"Protocol Four, sir."

Despite programing them himself, Tony can never remember which is which. But logic points to Jarvis saving his ass when he can't do it himself.

He banks, Jarvis banks, and his torso twists painfully—

"Sometimes," Pepper Potts is saying above him, wet hair hanging around her face, "I question whether you truly have a brain."

She sits on the edge of the bed, where Tony is laying on his side, wearing one of his SI sweatshirt from fifteen years ago and a loose pair of pants from her closet. He likes his clothes on her, and wonders why he never thought of this before.

"Promise you won't move?"

Considering he can't, Tony simply nods.

With his eyes closed, he just lets her move the covers and lift his legs. As he's tucked in and on his back he knows, right then, that he's never going to trust anyone else as much as this woman.

This woman, who (if the dip in the bed is any indication) has just lied down next to him.

"Just until you fall asleep," she tells him. "Because I'm pretty sure I have at least ten missed calls and my phone's in the car."

He actually opens his eyes and turns to her. She slides closer, loops her arms around his—careful!—and rests her head in the crook of his neck, pinning him in place. Her body warms him more than the hot shower and battles the chill in his bones.

He falls asleep that way: under the bright Californian sky outside the floor to ceiling windows.

When his breathing evens out and her hands are like ice, Pepper untangles herself and crosses to the bathroom. The tile is cold after the plush carpeting in the bedroom and the change shocks her awake.

Clarity, she needs clarity.

There are scratches and scrapes that need mending before he wakes up, her phone is still in her car, she needs to rearrange his schedule. Focusing on tasks keeps her head above water and keeps her from looking too closely at the problems with this situation.

So she checks her reflection in the mirror. Her tired face is haloed by wavy strawberry-blond hair that won't be tamed unless she takes an iron to it; just fantastic.

The first-aid kit is in the workshop. Pepper grabs it and a cup of tea, then gets to work cleaning and patching and mending, watching his chest rise and fall whenever it becomes too much. Up. Down. Blue and humming and he's fine.

Jarvis updates her with his vitals the entire time, and reports what she missed in the minute she was outside grabbing her things and closing the door to her car.

Laptop in hand, she realizes there's nowhere else she wants to be than upstairs with him.

—There's no way to get out of the damn suit.

He comes awake in the middle of his previous thought, his brain like the computers he's built, returning to the last line being edited. And that's the only clue time has passed. Because the view is exactly the same as the last time his eyes were open -- the dark blue below, the white specs here and there of clouds—if only altered by the sun moving through the sky.

There's a flaw in his plan, he reflects, because going in and out of consciousness while trapped within his armor isn't the most comforting prospect. Trapped with half the ocean up here with him, sloshing around—

His view goes dark. Pitch black. And then he's back there again, in that dark, cold cave, and fuck, isn't he over all that already? It's been eight months but not a day as the doors blast open and there are men with guns and he's stuck in this suit! Buttoned up and the progress bar's locked up --

-- We need to reboot the system! --

And they open fire—

Tony is awake with a sharp intake of breath and wild eyes, scanning the room to make sure he's here and now and back in Malibu where the weather is always warm and no one threatens him on a daily basis.

Pepper sits with her back against the curved headboard, laptop balanced on her knees, the clicking of keys a steady staccato beat that calms him like a good, Californian rain. She doesn't seem to notice he's awake; just keeps working, typing whatever it is she does, with her blue eyes focused on the screen as she goes to chew on her bottom lip.

And she lets out a yelp.

"Wow," Tony remarks, needing a distraction from his thoughts, "I didn't know your voice went that high."

"I believe that's a worse insult for men than women, Tony," she observes dryly. "How are you feeling?"


She closes the laptop to bring the full weight of her gaze on him. "Sore."


"Is that a statement or a question?"

"What time is it?"

"Around six," answers Pepper. "I've cleared your schedule for tomorrow, which was no easy feat."

"You are the most capable and amazing assistant," Tony tells her with sincerity, "and caring, well," -- he motions between them with a sideways smile that is more confused than joyful.

"Need I remind you that you haven't taken me on any actual dates?"

"I haven't? This won't do. Pepper, I need you to schedule me some time for this."

"Wouldn't that ruin the surprise?"

"For me? Not at all."

He expects her to simply roll her eyes and go back to the laptop, to move on with the day, let the moment pass. Instead, he's suddenly swatted in the face with a pillow -- one of his own pillows. By the time he pushes it off his face, she's opened the laptop back up and is clicking away.

"Feel better?"

A smile spreads across her lips. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do."

"Well, in that case," he shrugs. The small movement jars his arm, but the pain is not as intense as before. Peering under the blankets, he sees his upper arm's been wrapped in white gauze as well as his leg (though he doesn't remember even getting that injury). The wounds bound up while he was asleep. Letting the sheet fall, he turns to Pepper, this gorgeous, amazing woman who not only stayed with him when he came back injured, but has stuck around during all these months of running off and falling back on old habits— God, the birthday party, that will remain a regret for a long time—stayed long enough to patch him up and keep things in line.

He's content to simply remain lying there, not only because of her, but because he's sure not moving is the most comfortable option.

A buzzing sounds from over near Pepper; he knows this has to be her cell phone, put on vibrate for his benefit, and wishes he knew some way to get rid of the damn thing. Because here he was, enjoying a nice moment sandwiched between being blown off a cliff and fighting whomever pops up next, and the damn thing has to ring. He watches as she answers, suddenly interested in who it could be calling after business hours.

"Hey, Rhodey," she answers. "No, he's awake."

When she frowns and hands over the phone, he knows this cannot possibly be good.

Pepper doesn't know if she should stay or leave.

Past situations would have her politely get up and leave him to the conversation, coming in once she heard him hang up to take notes on what he didn't want to forget.

But now? Now she's not so sure. The last two weeks have been wonderful yet awkward, something that could have been avoided if he'd just taken her resignation whole and not simply reversed their temporary role-shift. Because do you really want to get out of the game completely?

She'd surprised herself when she realized that no, she didn't. That she did enjoy her job, and so long as he was able to recognize that she wouldn't simply be there as employee and friend, then it would work. So they went back to their old positions and Pepper found she didn't feel as though she would burst apart from the stress at any moment.

Maybe there was something to Tony's general avoidance of all things work.

Perhaps she could play off leaving as wanting to get something to drink, and for that, she'd need to leave the room. If he asked, well, she was only thirsty after sitting next to him for the last few hours to make sure he was okay. Yes. That could work. Sliding her laptop to the foot of the bed, she turns to get up—

And feels his hand wrap around her wrist.

"Hey, wait a minute," he says, placing the phone against his shoulder. Pepper can only imagine the hum Rhodey's hearing through the phone. "He's just yelling at me. Won't take much more time." He hears something on the other end and goes back to the phone. "What? You know you don't have a leg to stand on. So I didn't call you before I left, did you ever think there wasn't time?"

Pepper leans back against the headboard, surprisingly happy when Tony's hand slides down from her wrist and takes her hand. Things may be going less linearly and more sideways (their relationship not as steady as normal), but maybe that's what happens when things suddenly shift between a hopeless romantic and a reforming playboy. Whatever she's observed in him before when it comes to romantic behavior —or lack of it—is only the tip of the iceberg.

It's been so long since Pepper Potts allowed Tony Stark to surprise her.

The hand tightens on hers as Tony speaks, "There wasn't. I had to get in there," -- he pauses, probably interrupted, and lets go of her hand for a moment to run a frustrated hand through his bed-mused hair. "Fine, next time, I'll call you while I'm in the air. You can figure out how to," -- another pause; he grabs her hand again. "Rhodey, I had to do this. They had weapons, my weapons. I'm all for teamwork when keeping the peace, but this was personal."

The story is becoming clearer to Pepper, sitting there in the orange rays of the setting sun. How Tony probably ran off on his own because he discovered a cache of weapons from before, from when his name was stenciled on the crates of things that blew up. And how, because of all the missions like that he'd run before, he felt he could take care of it and get back before anyone noticed.

Whatever Rhodey's saying on the other line has Tony agitated; his hand grips her tighter, and wow, is he strong. This time when she goes to bite her bottom lip, it doesn't hurt as much, so she does so as she sits there, waiting. Maybe Jarvis could put it on speaker, just Rhodey's audio so she didn't have to sit here and wonder.

"Yeah," Tony barks out. "Later." He hits end a bit forcefully and tosses the phone across the room. Pepper watches the black plastic bounce against the white dresser and fall, silent, to the floor.

"That was my phone," she comments, pointing with her free hand.

Tony leans his head towards her. "If I broke it, I'll get you a new one. Promise. I just...sometimes, Rhodey is such a cog in the machine, it frustrates the crap out of me."

"Why? What did he say?"

"More military double-speak for going off without permission," he huffs. "This is why I don't want to be under military control. Like I have time for them to talk it over."

"He was worried, you know. When I called him for help."

"Good. Maybe he'll remember that next time he wants to rip my head off for doing the right thing."

Pepper sighs. Those two may be long-time friends, but they'll never see eye to eye on some things. When bothered, Tony turns to sarcasm and showboating. Rhodey becomes angry. Pepper can identify with that—it's hard not to be angry after prolonged exposure to Tony's act-first, think-second nature.

"We just want to help," she reveals softly.

The grip on her hand's relaxed enough she can feel him give hers a squeeze. "I know. Hey, I'm trying. That's what counts, right? Trying?"

"For you, maybe. Try harder."

He snorts, a short laugh.

"Tony," warns Pepper.

"Sorry, dear."

Seven-thirty in the morning finds Tony Stark awake and trapped in his own bed.

In the previous ten minutes, he woke, remembered where he was, felt the reassuring form of Pepper beside him, and decided enough was enough. There's work to be done to improve certain weaknesses in the Mark IV and add redundancy systems for pressurization. The idea came while he was asleep, helping him slide from a darker dream on the border of nightmare, math working itself out in the background.

Going through all this, he scooted out from where Pepper lay tangled around his side and started to sit up.

He promptly fell back against the pillows with a groan, stars exploding behind his eyes. He remembers something about injuries being worse the second day, and maybe he missed out on all that through stubbornness before he almost died from palladium poisoning. He may no longer be dying, but he's still trying to build his system back up—if only it would work on his time-table.

His ribs feel like they're trying to separate from his body by stabbing through his organs on the way out. The pain steals his breath. He focuses on taking shallow breaths, brain whirling, dizzy.

"Sir, your blood pressure has risen at an alarming rate. Do you require assistance?" Jarvis asks. If only I could adjust the volume. The disembodied voice is loud, bouncing through the headache blossoming behind his eyes and across the top of his head; did he have a concussion, too? Because he's gotten more than his share in the last year or so, and doesn't need any more.

At his side, Pepper begins to stir. Sprawled on her side, beautiful hair fanned across her pillow, she seems to be even more gorgeous than previously thought. Careful of his busted ribs, she has part of her head pillowed on his shoulder, an ankle thrown over his, and a hand resting lightly near her nose.

She doesn't move other than blink open her eyes and look up. "Hey," she asks, voice husky from sleep. "What's going on?"

He huffs and tries to speak, but finds it may be best if he concentrates on breathing for the time being.

"Jarvis," Pepper says, voice stronger out of concern. "What did you say?"

"Just give me a second, will you?" grumbles Tony before the AI can answer.

Pepper lifts her head, tilting it so she can look up at Tony, blue eyes sparkling in early morning sunshine, even if she is frowning. "Maybe we should get you downstairs to the medical scanner so Jarvis can check you out properly."

"That requires moving, right?"


"Maybe later," he decides.

"Mhm." She leans up, gives him a kiss that didn't last long enough for his liking, and pats his shoulder before getting out of the bed. Sometime during the night, she must have ditched her pants.

He watches her legs until she disappears into the bathroom.

By ten o'clock, Pepper is seated in one of the rolling chairs with a hot cup of Hawaiian coffee in one hand and her recovered Blackberry in the other while Tony sits in the crosshairs of the medical scanner he built years ago (probably to avoid doctors but it could have been created during a random spark of inspiration). Many gadgets have been created during such times, when a niggling of an idea comes to mind and pulls him along until a prototype's completed; Pepper has filed hundreds of patents on his behalf for items no one outside the workshop has seen.

Even with the day's schedule cleared, Pepper still has to field emails and phone calls and paperwork due days ago she has yet to get Tony to look at. Scrolling through them, she realizes there's really no day off for Tony. She remembers something about Monaco being his first vacation in ten years, and that's with him hiding out in the workshop for days tinkering with things.

The scanner makes another pass, red light crossing blue.

She takes a sip of her coffee her taste buds are forever ruined. Smooth. Perfect. With a bit of cream and sugar. Yesterday morning sits heavy on her mind, and she wonders what would have happened if she got there late, or had been stuck in traffic or Jarvis hadn't called her in the first place.

It's something she'll have to investigate later.

When the scan finishes, Tony stands gingerly and crosses to his desk, where large sheets of hologlass act as computer monitors, and settles into his chair with a groan. Instantly, a holographic outline of his ribs comes up, all sorts of notes and numbers floating around it.

Pepper pushes her chair across the floor, careful to avoid the white projectors dotting the tiles, sliding easily to sit next to him.

"What's the verdict?" she asks.

"Good news, I didn't break anything," he replies, scratching his chin. "I did, however, seem to crack a few ribs. Nothing major."

"Yes. Nothing major. Thank God for that. Shall I schedule your afternoon, then?"

He turns to her, almost speaking with his eyes—not gonna happen, Potts—and shakes his head ever so slightly. "Take the day off."

Instead of arguing, she places her phone on his desk, rolls her neck, and grabs her coffee cup. "I'll be upstairs if you need me."

He emerges later, when the sun is setting, and finds her on the balcony outside the kitchen, asleep in a chair she's brought out with her. Pink hues cross the sky, giving her skin a subtle glow.

Five minutes later, he spreads a blanket over her, tucks it around her shoulders, and sits at her feet with his head against her knees to watches the sun set.

His ribs hurt something fierce when she wakes him a little later, but doesn't matter; Pepper spreads the blanket out on the cement and they lie there, side by side, watching the stars.