Virginia Potts was accustomed to losing people, more so than most: her mother at twelve, her father at sixteen, herself for a period afterwards. Each time her life had combusted, she'd raked the ashes and learned to live anew in what little remained. She'd established herself around the pain and uncertainty, in the same way that a tree will eventually envelop a stationary object, given time and enough room to grow. Loss had tempered her, strengthened her, until finally Pepper found herself constantly tensed for an emotional blow. It wasn't an ideal state of being, but it was the only one she knew. She lived her life firmly grounded in the practical, forming few attachments, depending on no one but herself.
Pepper was well-liked at Stark Industries; she was poised, quietly confident, and eminently trustworthy. She had a wicked sense of humour and was known, above all, for her kindness and consideration. She was invited to a lot of staff parties; she put in appearances at the odd event, but she was understandably too busy for a lot of the socializing that went on after hours. No one ever noticed that she didn't really seem to have any close friends, or family.
When Tony Stark disappeared, Pepper was distraught, but a part of her simply accepted this turn of events as inevitable. Of course Tony was gone. Because—in spite of the frustration and the chaos and the complications he had wrought in her otherwise neat, orderly life—she liked Tony. She cared about him.
The people Pepper cared about always left her, one way or another.
Getting him back, therefore, was a possibility for which she was entirely unprepared.
Within moments of Tony's feet touching the tarmac, Pepper is astonished to find herself sliding into the role of coolly efficient personal assistant as easily as she slips into her Louboutins every morning. It helps that he doesn't give her a lot of time to get maudlin, because she's quite certain she would have worked her way up to it sooner rather than later. He doesn't grin when he sees her, doesn't even crack a smile when she breaks out her most cutting comebacks—she doesn't know how to take that. She has to remind herself that it's not about her.
Tony tells her he wants to call a press conference. She holds off on doing it right away, hoping to convince him to change his mind. Even when he faces away from her, she can't stop staring at his eyes, half-lidded and quicksilver dark.
Pepper is surprised by how much of him she's forgotten or misremembered in three months—or maybe it's that so much has changed that it's impossible to take stock of it all. Are those new lines in his face, or is she simply not used to seeing him look so solemn? Is that a silver thread at his temple, or is it a trick of the light? His skin is unusually dark, although that could have happened during his escape—Rhodey figured he must have walked across the desert for miles. His voice has a brittle quality, as though he's speaking over a long-distance connection.
When he leans forward to say something to Happy, his shirt gapes, and she catches a glimpse of the glowing thing in his chest, the tiny reactor Rhodey told her about. She finds she has to sit on her hands to keep from throwing her arms around Tony, even though she's never been a particularly demonstrative person, and he's never been the sort of boss who warranted hugging.
She does agree to the cheeseburger suggestion, thinking maybe it'll distract him from whatever he's got planned.
Later, they sit quietly in the back of the Bentley while, on the other side of the privacy glass, Happy expertly navigates the PCH. Scenery flashes by in technicolour; spring in dizzying, riotous bloom. He seems perplexed by it, which isn't surprising; it was still winter when he left. It rained buckets the night she got the call from Rhodey.
Pepper feels as though it's spring inside her brain, too—a whirlwind of disconnected thoughts flourishing so thick and fast she can't seem to trim them back. She can feel her heart fluttering; she's absolutely terrified of something she can't quite articulate.
She silently takes inventory of the man she has (she realizes, belatedly) always considered her exclusive property: one head, unruly black waves curling at the nape of the neck. Two brown eyes, set into ink-stained hollows that betray his extreme exhaustion. One mouth, continuously tucked and drawn into a grimace that she supposes is meant to pass for a smile. A pair of shoulders, narrower, but with that same defiant set to them. Two aimless, restless hands, one of which is in constant contact with the door handle—as though he expects to have to make a break for it at any moment. She doesn't include the thing in his chest because she doesn't yet know how to classify it.
Sum total: he both is and isn't the man she thought she'd lost. A pale imitation, a pod person, a spectre. An imposter wearing her boss's skin—she wants to shake him by his lapels and demand to know what he's done with the real Tony Stark. It's almost worse than if he hadn't come back at all. She hates herself for even thinking it, but there it is.
They've barely spoken since the airfield, except to banter and bicker. There are thousands of questions she wants to ask, and tens of thousands of questions she wants to hear him ask. She longs to tell him the most intimate and inane details of her life—about the weather and her garden and office gossip and a painting she bought for her living room. She needs to hear at least one off-colour comment before she can be quite convinced that he's really there.
Tony turns from the window to look at her, his eyes darting between her face and some point in the middle distance over her shoulder. He looks about as stunned and disoriented as she feels.
"Why are you sitting like that?" he demands, abruptly, firing the question at her like a projectile.
She shrugs awkwardly, and shifts her hands into her lap. Deflecting.
He presses himself into the leather seat, feet braced against the floor, as though he's expecting an impact. "I don't know why you insisted on coming with me. I don't need a babysitter," he grouses.
"Then stop behaving like a child," she shoots back. She doesn't mean to be so sharp, but it's been such a long day, and she can't seem to say or do one right thing.
Wordlessly, he turns his attention back to the window.
She wonders if this is how it's going to be with him from now on, and if she should quit—not right away, of course, what he needs right now is consistency and stability. But in the long run, it might be easier for him to work with someone who doesn't feel the loss of who he was quite so acutely. Someone who doesn't have any point of comparison.
She also can't help but think that maybe he hates her, for reminding him of everything that he's lost.
She's so absorbed in her own thoughts that she nearly misses it when he says her name softly, almost under his breath: "Potts."
She glances up at him; he's watching her expectantly, but she can't figure out what he could possibly want.
"Hmm?" She doesn't trust herself to speak.
"It's so much greener than I remember." His voice is deeper now, fuller. Warmer.
"What is, Tony?"
He smiles at her—actually smiles—and in the brightness of it, Pepper's heart swells and bursts into blossom, full of an emotion she distantly recognizes as hope.