This Bit of Normal

On my knees in a faceless crowd
We go blind when the stakes are high
I'm on my knees can you see me now
Whatever you do, don't leave me tonight

anna ternheim/damaged ones

They pick him up twenty-three hours after the original A-1 priority message came through in a water-logged spec of space south of the equator. The plane lifts off as soon as he half-crawls up the large hatchway, the strong base meant for heavier equipment lifting easily as they gain altitude.

Heavy armor clangs as he falls flat on his stomach, the faceplate flipping up almost as an afterthought, his face mashed into the slatted floor of the plane's cargo area. Pepper Potts crosses the distance between the portable lab and her wayward charge in a few long strides, high heels replaced by stylish flats, a large bruise along her hip reminding her, each morning, of the perils of stilettos on a retrofitted military plane.

Kneeling is easier in jeans. She grips a side of his head and turns it — gently — upward, clenched eyes now cast at the ceiling. There's blood; that is expected after so many hours in the suit, along with the pungent odor of sweat and smoke and tropical rain. She rubs at the dried blood drawn in a slash across one cheek, finger tracing lines she's seen etched into his face through ten years, and she's tempted to lick her finger and clean the residue off as a mother would with skinned knees or smears of dirt.

"Tony," she says softly, hand now cupping his cheek. She doesn't like how still he is or the amount of damage to the suit. There are holes and slashes and areas of gold where the pain has worn off. Pepper takes it all in, files it away, tries to determine if he's injured, marks a puzzle she has yet to complete.

She tries again, leaning closer, voice slipping between his head and the edges of the helmet.


There's a release, just along his neck, near the rubber that allows him to move his head; she thumbs it and pulls the gold and red off his head, tosses it in the lab's direction. His head slips onto her thighs, puffs of hot breath reassuring through the material.

"Wake up, sleepyhead." Her hand weaves its way through his hair, slick with sweat and matted to his head, bangs halfway to his eyes.

He groans and shifts, armor moving with the whir of vibrating servos and hydraulics, hitting the deck with thuds that betray the amount of power contained within the metal shell. Eyes crack open, slits of black on white, pupils wide and ringed in golden brown. The lighting, here, far from the starched white of the lab area, is poor, and she can see him struggling to clear his vision.

Then: "Pepper."

Her name is almost a prayer as he blinks awake. His face blanches, impossibly white as a china doll, and he twists his head away from her. "If I hadn't been in this damn suit for twenty hours, I'd think I have food poisoning."

The plane shutters in the tropical storm, a sudden bout of turbulence sliding the pair to the right; Tony's eyes go wide as he throws out an arm to stop their movement, red-clad fingers digging into the cargo tracks along the floor. His other arm snakes around her, secures them together, a tether as they traverse the rain and wind.

"Food poisoning?" she asks, amused and worried at the same time, sister emotions in her hectic life. "Oh, no, mister, you are not getting sick on me."

"Then get me out of this damn thing, and fast," he mutters.

That requires movement, which seems beyond him at the moment. Pepper is nowhere near strong enough to move Tony Stark, not even when he's clad in a tank and jeans, legs noodles filled with alcohol or empty of energy. Still, she loops an arm around his back and helps him to sit up. The plane shutters around them.

"Fucking storm," he swears. The words sound funny; he breathes through his nose, closes his eyes. Light from behind them casts deeps shadows into his profile, but bring the source of blood into shocking color. A gash along the joint between the faceplate and helmet, deep and seeping, blood bright where mixed with rain.

They can move without words, muscle memory and experience aligning their movements, each filling gaps left by the other. Pepper stands, and Tony leans. He wobbles and grabs her arm, already outstretched to balance him. Their feet move tried and true, a dance created from necessity, the steps unknown to anyone but them. It allows them to enter the lab area, to get him on the platform. He stands, legs unsure, as she backs away. Jarvis takes care of the rest, and when the last piece of armor is shucked from his frame, Pepper is there and catches him.

She always catches him.

Near the front of the plane, separated from the cargo bay by walls of honeycomb paneling, is a small seating area and bathroom, the couches comfortable but not up to the standards of the private jet, the bathroom small and grey and white. He's getting his legs back beneath him, but clutches his middle, ribs already bruised from a mission six days ago stinging. His chest and abdomen are hit the most, reactor glowing in his chest like a bulls-eye.

Tony falls into a chair and drops his head back, eyes screwed shut as the plane jostles around them. His stomach does flip flops up into his throat, learning acrobatics at thirty thousand feet as his head pounds in time with the rest of his aches. Pepper can see this in his face, in the way he moves, his body language one she's fluent in.

"Do you think some water would help? Ginger ale?" she asks, standing in front of him.

"Sure," he replies. "Whatever."

She wets a washcloth in the bathroom and drapes it over his eyes before looking for something to drink. There's a water bottle and a can of Coke and some crackers that expire in three years. She grabs it all and spreads it across the small table beside the chair.

"Looks like the flight attendants are on strike or something," comments Tony. The wash cloth shifts to his forehead so he can look at the bounty. He grabs the water bottle, twists off the cap, and tosses it in the air; he's after the water. He guzzles it down in ten seconds, parched from hours of moving, of fighting and saving and nature working against him.

"You don't let them on here," Pepper reminds him. "Or anyone else. And I don't have time to keep track of the beverage stock when I've got the lab to worry about."

"It's fine." Bottle emptied, he tosses it on the floor. "Just get some stuff on here when we get back, okay?"

Pepper frowns. "Sure." The word holds more. It says, I just flew ten hours to get you and you ungrateful ass. She backs these statements up with her eyes, then opens the Coke and takes a long drink.

The plane lurches. Tony slides forward. His face contracts. When they're level again, he dashes for the bathroom as fast as he can, which isn't very fast at all, his knees slamming to the ground with the force of his need. Pepper listens to him retch for a half minute, the sound mingling with the drops of rain hitting the insulated shell of the cargo plane, a strange symphonic soundtrack to her life.

She finds him leaning against the wall, small and weary, arms wrapped about himself. Strung out and tired but victorious, if the news reports are to be trusted.

"Hey, you did a good job," she tells him, sliding into the small space.

He doesn't respond, but she sees his hands unclench and smooth out around his knees. This is the man she fell in love with — not the playboy or the glory hound or the larger-than-life inventor. It is this bit of normal in an abnormal situation, the shell gone, the man remaining, unglued and naked. A slice just for her.

And despite the sweat and blood and bits of lubricant from where his skin is in contact with the suit's inner workings, she slides down the wall and loops an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. His head falls on her shoulder, hand groping for hers. His grip is strong; she anchors him. When the news outlets call tomorrow, his eyes will shine with pride at his victory, his tongue will be sharp with quips and come-backs about how he had to step in when the local government failed.

For now, she holds him as the plane levels, grips his hand, brings him back from the edge.

After he throws up again, her hand rubbing his back as he struggles through the nausea and pain in his ribs, he settles back against her and closes his eyes.

"Thanks for coming for me," he says into the bright white room and rubs his thumb along the back of her hand.

"I always will," she replies.

They fly that way, falling asleep curled together, until the plane touches down in the Californian sun.