Disclaimer: if I owned Iron Man or anyone associated with it, I'd probably still write fanfic, but then it wouldn't be fanfic. It'd be canon. Lucky for the Iron Man 'verse I'm on the outside looking in. Credit Stan Lee, Universal, Marvel, and whoever else for intellectual property. Credit Jon Favreau, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, et al for bringing them to life.

Author's Note: So. This started out as one of the Pepperony100 vignettes. And then it got wildly out of hand, and the next thing I knew I had alternating points of view on the happenings of IM2. Although, I'm sure no one is going to complain that I gave them a story five times longer than what I had originally intended to write. :)

I included some reference points along the way, as you can see, to orient the reader as they move through the story. Each quote from the movie references the scene in question. For this story, I am using deleted scenes and press photos as canon as well as what was actually in the movie. Which is how we start with Tony and Pepper in an air plane waiting for Tony to launch himself out over the Expo, and how little snippets of other things show up.

Also, I didn't hit up EVERY scene in the movie, only ones involving both Tony and Pepper (even if one of them is only present in word/thoughts/etc), so there's no scenes with Fury in them, of Coulson babysitting, or of Natalie kicking ass, etc.

As always, please enjoy and comments are always appreciated.


Tony: "There is something seriously wrong –"

Pepper: "Yes, there is something seriously wrong with you."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Oh, god.

Tony is sick to his stomach, wracked and weakened by nausea. He's been ingesting most of his nutrients in liquid form for several weeks now, not just because it sometimes keeps the nausea from appearing but also because it was easier coming up when the nausea wouldn't be pacified.

He's done a good job of hiding his worsening illness from Pepper so far. She's noticed that he's been letting more and more and more of his daily obligations fall under her purview, which has kept her from taking note of his reduced appetite, the way his evenings have been ending earlier and starting later, his increasing desire for privacy…

However, the length of the flight from LA to Flushing for the opening ceremonies of the Stark Expo kept them in too close proximity for her to let go of the fact that he hadn't eaten anything all day. That he had, in fact, spent most of the flight sleeping – and she starts…haranguing him. There's sympathy in her at first – which is why he eats something, to make her happy – but that had disappeared as soon as he'd started throwing up.

She…hardens. Becomes brusque and disapproving. His reaction to Pepper's change in attitude is a proof of Newton's Third Law – equal and opposite. Pepper becomes serious, he over exaggerates and becomes unmanageable. She insists there's nothing wrong with him, he insists there is. She demands they press on, he demands they cancel everything.

He wants to tell her what's really wrong, wants to share the burden of an uncertain future with someone, wants to make the most of every moment in Pepper's company. Wants to rest and know that she'll take care of everything not because it's her job but because she understands and cares. But, instead Pepper is upset because she believes he's a better man and he hasn't given her an satisfying alternative for his symptoms. And Tony finds he's afraid of what the amazingly dedicated Pepper Potts might be willing to do out of pity or loyalty if he provides an alternative explanation.

He's not strong enough right now to allow her to be weak on his behalf, if that makes any sense at all.

Pepper tests his resolve, of course, simply by being herself. As he watches her kiss the helmet, he feels drunk for the first time that day. He wants to close the bay doors and strip them both naked…after they make a quick entrance into the mile high club.

It amazes him just how easily Pepper arouses him. He feels like crap, they're mad at each other, closed off and nursing hurt feelings, both weak-kneed and about to pass out from lack of oxygen –

Wait, that last is just him.

Anyway, despite all of that, all he really wants to do is curl up with Pepper, somewhere dark and quiet, and breathe her in.

Floating on the tides of his emotions – in love with her but too vulnerable to her disappointment to risk being open with her – he gives her honesty while maintaining his emotional shields.

"You complete me!"


Senator Stern: "Mr. Stark, could we please pick up now where we left off. Mr. Stark –"

Tony: "Yes, dear?"

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Pepper could have told everyone what the result of making Tony appear before a Senate sub-committee concerning the Iron Man armor would have been…if anyone had bothered to ask her. She's certainly heard enough griping from him about the government's attempt to meddle in what he sees as a very personal and private agenda.

At which point she usually waves a magazine cover in his face and reminds him that no one had forced him to blurt out on live TV that he was a "super hero."

His words, not hers.

She'd expected the government's attempt to regulate Tony in some manner from the moment Agent Coulson had helped to cover up the battle between Tony and Iron Monger. Things wouldn't have gotten this bad in the first place if he'd made more of an effort to cooperate with S.H.I.E.L.D. and their liaisons. Being enveloped into an existing (if hidden) arm of the military would have gone a long way to prevent televised Senate hearings (for example). But Tony is Tony, headstrong and almost violently opposed to outside interference in his life.

Pepper watches – resigned but not surprised – as Tony's attitude becomes increasingly intransigent. His attitude is understandable; the government's determination to appropriate something he created as a private citizen as opposed to a project created under a contract, is – frankly – appalling. However, he's only shooting himself in the foot by making (hugely) inappropriate jokes and avoiding meaningful dialogue. She honestly doesn't care if he feels as if Senator Stern has been out to get him for years (and she's not convinced he's wrong), or that he's delighting the fanboys up in the gallery. If he doesn't want to spend the next ten years fighting lawsuits – personal and corporate – he needs to tone down the attitude and look for opportunities for compromise.

Which is what she tells him more or less word for word during the recess. Tony – distracted and waving at random members of the crowd – assures her that he knows what he's doing, that he has it all under control, and that they're playing directly into his hands.

Fed up, irritated with both Tony and sub-committee, Pepper calls him a hot-headed reactionary. He grins – still waving to the audience – and ignores her until she moves away to reclaim her seat. Then he's all conciliatory smiles and what she assumes are sweet words, though she can't hear him over Senator Stern's calls for order. Using hand motions that are far more polite than the ones she feels like using, Pepper gestures for Tony to turn around and pay attention. Mulish, pigheaded…man…that he is, he doesn't listen to her until he can use his response to be greatest comedic effect.

She's going to kill him. She is going to straight up going to murder him. She will schedule him for so many meetings, and audits, and…and…party planning committees…

No, his planning parties would only cause more headaches for her and more demand for him to plan parties.

Pepper occupies her self by alternating between plotting all the different ways she can make Tony pay and appreciation of Tony's digs at Justin Hammer. (It's Hammer's own fault. He must have known that bringing up Howard would make Tony even more ill tempered.) It's not until she hears a familiar but unexpected name that she actually gives up entirely. The shock on Tony's face as he turns around to look down the aisle at Rhodey matches the shock she feels.

This is not going to turn out well. She groans softly and starts to gather her things. As soon as Rhodey and Tony sit down, she slips out of her seat and leaves. She has better things to do with her time than listen to Tony become even more obstinate. Things like arrange for either bail of a change of clothing for when he gets himself thrown in jail for contempt.

When Happy finds her a couple of hours later, she's arranged for up to 6.35 million in bail money, checked the trunk of the car to inventory his luggage (mostly dirty and smelling strongly of burning metal), and treated herself to a caramel macchiato (non-fat, no whip, dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg) while communicating with the lawyers at SI.

She's relieved her plans won't be needed. She's relieved that they'll have more time to make actual plans for the next attempt to pry the Iron Man armor out of Tony's control. She's relieved by this hint that perhaps Tony isn't as out of control as he's been acting.

What she is not, however, is prepared to forgive Tony immediately. She's still irritated with Tony and his adolescent behavior. In truth, he should be in jail right now for contempt. He needs some sort of consequences for his behavior, and her silence has always been her best weapon.

Once Tony gives up trying to justify his actions and apologize for what she feels (not for what he's done but for what he thinks she's feeling), it's a very quiet trip home.


Jarvis: "Ms. Potts is approaching. I recommend you inform her –"

Tony: "Mute."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Tony knows he has issues. He doesn't trust a lot of people; he sometimes has trouble identifying his feelings (much less verbalizing them), preferring to act on them than figure out the whys and wherefores (if he does at all); he has longer lasting relationships with robots than he does with people (he's been threatening and insulting Dummy for almost twenty years); he's an adrenaline junky with a heart full of shrapnel…

He could go on. He's as cognizant of his shortcomings as he is his strengths. Never has Tony pretended that there are things he can't do, thought it was silly when there was so much he excelled at.

Right now though, he wishes he was more eloquent, that expressing himself was easier. There are…things…he wants to tell Pepper. Not new things, because he's been in this situation before. Has already faced the knowledge that he will leave her without having been honest with her about what she means to him, about opportunities he feels he's waster, about dreams he's had for his future…that he'd like her to be there for.

He's faced death once already, knowing then that he would leave her without receiving that kind of honesty in return.

Tony has the chance now but he knows he'll never get the words out in a million years, and if he did, it would never be in a way that made sense to her.

Giving her his company is the closest he's ever going to come to telling her what he feels for her…while sober, at least. He's told her any number of completely inappropriate, utterly honest things while drunk. But the company, that means something. The last person who exerted that much control over his company had tried to kill him (may have even indirectly and posthumously succeeded), and he is giving it to her.

Hell, knowing Pepper, making her CEO is probably a more meaningful gift than anything he could buy her.

For days he's been anticipating the look on her face when he tells her. He knows she'll be caught off guard despite the fact that he's only making official what she's been doing for years. The fight he picks with Pepper when she comes down to the shop is deliberately leading, setting her up for the big punchline. And Pepper does not disappoint. Yeah, she catches him off guard with the drinking question (it shouldn't have), but after that…

He remembers each and every time he's been the cause of that soft, wondering glow on her face. It's not often, and he usually dispels it by saying the wrong thing in short order. Which is why he has drinks standing by.

They sit side by side, Pepper occasionally giggling, and Tony feels…warm. Content. Like he could sit there all day, listening to the soft sounds of Pepper's delight.

The champagne, the quiet joy, the deep sense of relaxation he feels…he imagines this must be what a wedding reception feels like once all the guests have gone home.

Not that he knows. Or will know. Probably. Even his luck wouldn't stand that much pushing.

Tony refills their glasses and tries to blank his mind. Thinking too far ahead won't get him anywhere.

Besides, Pepper is still giggling softly beside him.


Tony: "I need someone now. I feel like it's her."

Pepper: "No, it's not."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

It's not that she's jealous. Pepper is not the jealous type. Besides, Tony's "Babe Radar" gets pinged so often that there'd be no point in getting jealous. If she were the jealous type. Which she's not.

If she were the jealous type, she would have to fight to keep her tone even, Tony's gushing would annoy her, and she would do her best to poke holes in his blatant…adoration.

Which she's not.

Exactly.

What she is, Pepper tells herself as she tries to ignore Tony's baiting, is still stuck in Personal Assistant, take-care-of-Tony-whether-he-likes-it-or-not mode. It's not personal, it's professional. Habitual. An unconscious reaction to Tony's own ingrained behaviors.

It's definitely not personal.

No, what this is, Pepper reminds herself as she tries to ignore the way Tony flirts with Natalie (with an intensity he hasn't flirted with her with in years. Not that she wants him to), is concern for a colleague. She's seen the HR records that immediately pre-date her employment with Tony. He'd blown through five personal assistants in eight months, during which time he'd – apparently – had a really good time personally and lost quite a bit of focus professionally.

The way he's sizing Natalie up makes Pepper suspect that he might be gearing up to run through the same routine if she doesn't step in and do something. He has too much on his plate right now to start a marathon of…one-on-one interviews. They don't have time for it, not now, and not during the next few months of this transition.

So, really, this isn't personal at all. It's good business.

And even more so, it's good for Tony.

Looking out for Tony is still one of her priorities. Sometimes looking out for Tony means saying no to him.

Which is why she says no to his assertion that he "wants one" without a hint of regret.

It's not personal, and it's certainly not jealously. She's just looking out for him.


Tony: "Got any other bad ideas?"

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

For all his intellect, it's not as if thinking has actually gotten him anywhere to date, not when it comes to his current situation. Perhaps that could be attributed to a lack of planning at the front end of things, but honestly, Tony hadn't expected to actually live long enough after his escape from the Ten Rings to enjoy himself. He'd just refused to die in a dark, cold hole in a nameless mountainside. So palladium poisoning hadn't been at the top of his list of things to worry about.

Besides, he's never been one for what-ifs. Hindsight isn't going to fix anything now, he's run out of true options, so thinking is mainly a masturbatory act at this point. He might as well do and be.

That philosophy had gotten him down to the race course and into the car, after which there'd been no more time to think. Tony has memories of emotions, flashes encapsulated by mental Polaroids: Joy as he speeds and slings himself around the sinuous curves of Monaco's streets. Disbelief as the vehicle in from of him explodes, treating him with a sight that raises its own ghosts. Panic as he's attacked while wearing nothing more protective than fire-resistant coveralls. Frustration as Pepper shrills at him, as if any of this is his fault or something he could have anticipated (as if anyone could plan ahead for madmen wielding articulated plasma whips).

Terror as Vanko comes to and starts hacking away at the reinforced, state-of-the-art, bulletproof Rolls Royce shell around Pepper as if it was no more substantial than aluminum foil.

He remembers urging Pepper to calm down right before icy determination comes to the fore as her screams turn from panic to terror (as if she's experiencing all the same emotions he is, just on a delay), followed by a fury that burns through everything else. A fury that mounted as he stared down at the amateurish arc reactor in his gauntleted palm.

Lastly, he descends into numbness as physical exhaustion combines with the stiletto blade of Vanko's words, leaving much of what Tony believed about his family's legacy bloodless and eviscerated.


Pepper: "I don't think this is the best time."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Most people don't realize it, but Tony (while extremely intelligent) operates almost exclusively on impulse. He is…tempestuous, tossed in sometimes contradictory directions by his emotions. Passionate, yes, but often chasing temporary whims instead of setting goals and following through.

People look at what Tony creates and they see SCIENCE. What they don't know is that Tony's creative process is more akin to art than a distanced, clinical process.

When he's pulling the Michelangelo routine in his shop, seeing a completed whole out of the elements of his business, it's…enthralling. If Pepper didn't always have more pressing demands on her time, she would spend more of it watching the beauty of Tony at work.

When he's not in his basement, that gut-driven impulsivity and disdain for social mores (much less self control) has created some truly epic nightmares for her. She'd thought Afghanistan and its aftermath had been the apogee of his self-destructive disregard for consequences.

She'd clearly been wrong. The last weeks have been spent watching Tony make increasingly irresponsible choices. It's not an absolute plunge. There's moments of sanity, where his actions have a discernable rhyme and reason. But mostly it's as if she's watching from the outside as he systematically destroys what he'd seemed so determined to build.

It was confusing, and disappointing, and…hurtful. Pepper pulls back, unable to support him in what he was doing and unable to bear the looks he gave her, like he can't figure out why she's doing what she's doing.

If that is what he's thinking, then it's a mutual bewilderment.

Unable to guess at what he is doing, Pepper has – the last several months – become even more precise in her schedules, and her plans, and her agendas. As Tony has abandoned any sort of order, she's become more structured, shoring him up as much as she can wherever she can see weakness but without risking her heart.

Pepper is used to being the strong one, to providing for him without question, but holding herself back from investing herself in him fully is the only way she knows to protect herself right now. He has become so erratic and so… disarrayed, that she can't risk the chance that he might pull her down with him. Yet neither can she leave him.

Waiting for him to exhaust himself is…painful.

On the flight home from Monaco, she's glad he gives her so much time to compose herself. She's still shaky, still sees Tony on that race course – alone and defenseless – every time she closes her eyes. Still feels sick to her stomach when she remembers how certain she'd been once he was encased in the Mark V prototype, that it wouldn't be enough… That she was going to watch him die in front of her.

That she was going to be helpless to do a single thing about it this time.

Having found his smoking, motionless body once before only reinforced her belief that the suit couldn't keep him safe. That it was wearing the suit that was going to get him killed.

Their plunge into an increasingly dark unknown hits another of those hopeful updrafts. Tony makes her a (completely inedible) meal once he returns from licking his own wounds. He sounds masterful, convincing, as he talks about their (his) need to get away, to escape from whatever is dragging him (them) down.

She can see truth and conviction in his eyes. He's trying to tell her something. He's trying not to tell her something. He's telling her as much of the truth as he can, or that he's willing to.

She'd go easier on him if their truths weren't mutually exclusive.

She can't leave. Someone has to remain behind to hold down the fort while he figures out what the hell he's doing. By necessity her position makes Tony one of many rather than the center of her attention.

It's…poignant. Tony has so few people to lean on for support (mostly by design) and she's spent years blunting the consequences of his "full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes" attitude. But he's shifted their roles, perhaps permanently.

She doesn't want to say no. She wants to drop everything and be whatever it is that he needs. But there are some things people have to face and overcome on their own.

Saying no to Tony is usually easy. This time, looking into his weary face, it takes so much strength that even Pepper is surprised she manages it.

Tony returns to California with her and retreats to his concrete womb. It's not the help he needs, but she has bigger, more immediate worries.


Tony: "Can I ask you something personal? If this was the last birthday party you were going to have, what would you do?"

Natalie: "I would do whatever I wanted to do, with whomever I wanted to."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Memories and emotions tumble through his mind, sliding into new combinations before falling away. Infinite combinations with no predictability.

Pepper is proud of him, but unwilling to rub his ego by openly admitting it, her blue eyes are warm; his father's blue eyes are distant, distracted, looking through him and past him, focused on "important work"; Rhodey, so entrenched in a military mindset, trying to be loyal to the uniform and look out for Tony at the same time. Failing at it. Tony himself, unwilling to meet Rhodey halfway; Obadiah trying to convince him that metal wasn't the only thing that comes in shades of grey; Pepper dressed in grey; his father's hair turning grey; his own skin crisscrossed by grey…

He has time. He's running out of time. With Pepper he has no time left.

What he wants is Pepper. What he can't have is Pepper. He's put off telling her the truth for too long. Telling her now will only increase the possibility that he'll permanently alienate her. He knows she's disappointed, that he is disappointing her. It hurts, but it would hurt more to have nothing.

He's empty, and dying, and so fucking lost. He compensates with booze, and anonymous beauties, and artificial intimacy with Porn Star edition Potts (artfully portrayed by Natalie), taking warmth and admiration where he can find them. While he can find them.

He tells Pepper he loves her, and he means it.

He tells Pepper she's a drag and she's welcome to leave, and he means that too.


Tony: "I thought I was coming over to basically apologize, but I'm not –"

Pepper: "You're not."

Tony: "– that goes without saying."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Pepper is a CEO. Theoretically, she is answerable to a very small number of people. In reality, everything that Tony has done wrong in the last week has spilled over on to his company, and therefore onto her.

Pepper is tired of it.

Pepper is tired of being viewed a planet trapped in orbit, in eternal, loyal proximity to Tony Stark's sun.

Pepper is tried of making excuses for his thoughtlessness.

Pepper is tried of being caught by surprise whenever Tony the sincere is supplanted by Tony the ass and of being taking for granted.

Rhodey expects her to control Tony. Tony expects her to clean up his messes. Everyone else seems to either expect her to scurry back to the safety of Tony's shadow or to cave because she's "inexperienced" (and an awful lot of the talking heads seem to take exception to the fact that she's a woman on top of everything else).

Pepper expects that if she quits it'll be to preserve her sanity and physical wellbeing.

She also expects she could eventually forgive Tony, despite his self-centered attempt to apologize without apologizing. It is an attempt (which is always half the battle with Tony), and he's trying so hard to focus, and his brown eyes are so soulful and earnest…

At the same time, she's pissed that he's taking something that's about them and distilling it into something solely about him.

She shuts him down because there is no time to deal with his hubris and/or whatever it may be shielding. There is no time. There is politics, and Iron Man, and lawyers, and Stark Industries. There's the damn Expo all the way across the entire country, which is the only thing keeping their stock afloat.

She shuts him down because there is no time for "them" right now. There is only time for Stark Industries. That Tony is the heart of SI and that she's the (acting) brain is immaterial. She has to go, and he has to stay.

They'll both be here later to hash things out.


Tony: "Get ready for a major remodel, fellas. We're back in hardware mode."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

It's not hope, really, It's bigger than that, more consuming than that. Creation. There's nothing beyond the instant, the current inhalation, the current exhalation. Creation is all-consuming. That his remaining time is limited if this lead doesn't pan out is less than an afterthought. He's too consumed by discovery and possibilities. The possibilities are all he can see, whether it's the potential for success or catastrophic failure.

It's a little more than an afterthought that he prefers legendary amounts of failure over fading to nothing.

When it works (he won't say against all expectations because he so rarely fails that it feels as if success is his default setting) he feels a personal connection to his triumph that is deeper and more meaningful than he's used to. It's not what he feels about being Iron Man, it's more personal even than that. What it feels like is…family. Which is totally unexpected; as a teen the dominate emotion he'd felt about his family had been frustration. This is something that goes beyond gratitude or even…fondness.

He doesn't know how to explain it.

Not that he has anyone to explain it to.

He feels freed. Not just from illness, or fate, but somehow free from the familial expectations he hadn't know he was still carrying. It feels good to finally be able to lay his past – most of his past – to rest.

His optimism lasts until he gets a phone call from an untraceable number.

Apparently his past isn't as ready to move on as he is.


Justin Hammer: "Today, my friends, the Press is faced with quite another problem. They're about to run out of ink."

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Pepper would give just about anything to be anywhere other than the main pavilion tonight. It's not just that she has better things to do, bigger matters to deal with, generals and senators and congressmen to be calling and harassing about the appropriation of the Mark II. It's more that she'd rather be…getting a root canal right now, for example, than listening to Justin Hammer's presentation.

To be objective, there's not a huge difference between Tony's brand of grandstanding and Hammer's. In fact, the only difference is that Justin has always lacked Tony's wit, charm, and – most importantly – his ability to laugh at himself. It's that last quality that's the most important, especially in someone of Tony's intelligence.

Pepper's often thought that one of the reasons Tony's relationship with his father had been so strained (from what she understands from a decade's worth of silence and outbursts on the subject) was that Howard had lacked that particular quality and Tony had more than his fair share.

One of the reasons Tony can't stand Hammer is that Hammer is primarily concerned with humorless self-promotion.

The reason Pepper can't stand Justin Hammer is that he consumes without returning a single thing of value. People could say what they liked about Tony (and usually did), but at the end of the day what he created came down to more than his bottom line (even if he did usually find the most self-aggrandizing way to meet his ends).

And, as Pepper sits watching Hammer present what should be a presentation about the Armed Forces but is instead about the glory of Justin Hammer…

As she watches Hammer blame others for his mistakes…

As he blames her for deliberately orchestrating what happens to be the natural consequences of his actions…

It occurs to Pepper that she's never disliked Tony (and she has quite a basis for comparison) as much as she dislikes Justin Hammer.


Tony: "Yes, for the moment, I'm not dying. Thank you."

Pepper: "What do you mean you're not dying?"

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Tony is not surprised to find Pepper in the thick of things. Pepper has never been a shrinking violet. She can usually be found taking command whenever things go wrong or don't measure up to her standards (a description that sums up the current situation).

However, Tony is very surprised, completely thrown off his game, when he realizes he and Agent Romanoff are on a party line. He's so taken off guard that he's momentarily speechless.

"Uh, is that you? No, I'm not." He doubts it will work, but denying everything is always a good place to start. However, his mouth runs away from him, adding "Not anymore" to the end of his denial.

"What's going on?"

The pitch of her voice rises incrementally; maybe it'd be better not to have this conversation face to face, as he'd imagined doing.

"I was going to tell you. I didn't want to alarm you."

"You were going to tell me?" Pepper sounds even more distressed. "You really were dying?"

"You didn't let me –"

"Why didn't you tell me –"

Well, what the hell did she think he'd been trying to do?

He knows that she knew something was up, and that he hadn't confided in her. She'd asked that much on the flight home from Monaco. But really. Really. What explanation had she actually come up with for his behavior?

Never mind. He doesn't want to know.

"I was going to make you an omelet and tell you!"

The rising tide of his frustration with Pepper is broken by Natalisha. Redirected. Her quip about saving the argument for the honeymoon ratchets up Tony's stress level because what he doesn't need, in any shape or form, is Pepper associating anger and irritation to (possibly, someday, in the future) being married to him.

And of course the Expo is still falling down around their ears, so he and Pepper can't even have the chance to hash this out and clear the air between them. All he can really do is ask her to postpone this so that he can focus on not dying (through no fault of his own this time).

"Great. Pepper?"

"Are you okay now?"

If he had the time, he'd celebrate the concerned tone in her voice.

"I am fine. Don't be mad." Tony knows he's said the wrong thing the moment the words echo inside his helmet. He tries to rush past. "I will formally apologize –"

"I am mad!"

He knows, he just disregards it. "– when I'm not fending off a Hammeroid attack." (He's been saving that once since the Senate hearing.)

"Fine."

She doesn't mean it, but she does sound that special kind of pissed off that she only gets with him. He can't help but bait her further. It's not just second nature. It's fun. Pepper allows so few people to cross her.

"We could have been in Venice."

"Oh please."

Tony severs the connection, allowing himself a split second to grin.

Pepper is going to make him pay, but he kind of likes it when she's bossy.


Ivan Vanko: "You loose."

James Rhodes: "All these drones are rigged to blow. We gotta get out of here, man."

Tony: "Pepper?"

xxxxx xxx xxxxx

Pepper has never mentioned it explicitly, but she's not a fan of heights. She's not afraid of them, exactly, but neither does she seek them out. She travels by plane because they are the most efficient use of her time. She enjoys views; from the top floors of board rooms in LA, New York, Chicago; all of Tony's houses come complete with breathtaking vistas; she even enjoys looking out of airplane windows once cruising altitude has been reached and as long as their no turbulence.

But Pepper gets an unsettled stomach from elevators that descend too quickly, and suspension bridges that sway in the wind as if they're more fragile than anything built to endure the elements should be, and she's worked out several routes through the main SI campus that allow her to avoid the three sky bridges.

It's not cowardly. It's a quirk. It makes her loveable.

So, when Tony sweeps in to rescue her, it's actually the most disturbing part of her day. Considering her day has included self-propelled, homicidal robots firing live rounds into a glass ceiling that had collapsed in on her (for the second time in her life), threats against her wellbeing from a man who thought nothing about working with cold-blooded killers to advance their own cause (also for the second time in her life), and nearly being blown to bits (again), that's saying something.

Tony's flight is erratic, arcing them up, spinning them around, and landing without much grace. By the time they stop moving, Pepper is blind and deaf from the explosions, unsteady on her feet from the vertigo caused by being jettisoned off the face of the planet, and feeling more than a little crushed by Tony.

She is – and any rational person would agree – entitled to a short display of hysteria.

"Oh my god! I can't take this anymore." It still feels like she's moving; Pepper covers her face with her hands and tries desperately to regain her physical equilibrium. She'd settle for that since she doubts she'll regain her mental balance any time soon.

It's been a hell of a week.

"You can't?"

"I can't take this." The words come unbidden, without permission, and without a care for the consequences.

"What are y- Look at me!"

Tony sounds indignant. It barely registers. "My body, literally, cannot handle the stress. I never know if you're going to kill yourself, or…or…or wreck the whole company –"

"I think I did okay!"

He's smoking, the suit is missing parts of its exoskeleton, and he's been dying.

He's clearly no judge of "okay."

"I quit. I'm resigning." She pauses to catch her breath. "That's it."

There's a moment of silence as she and Tony absorb her unguarded words.

Pepper's not proud of herself; they've gone through this dance before. She's told him on multiple occasions in times of extreme duress that she's going to quit. Out of all those times, only once had the words even been intentional and not squeezed out of her by the pressure of being who she is at her worst while he's being who he is at his worst.

All those other times, Tony has let the words go without comment, somehow recognizing them as a release valve for her frustration and stress. Only that one time had he challenged her and convinced her to stay.

As they stare at each other now, both frozen by the declaration, Pepper waits for him to either brush her words aside or challenge them with noble intentions. Something about how he has to do this but he can't do it on his own.

She doesn't know which option she prefers.

This feels too serious for either.

"What did you just say? You're done?" His words aren't a strategy or a gambit; Pepper waits for something she can respond to. "That's surprising. No, it's not surprising. I get it. I – You don't have to make any excuses –"

"I'm…I'm…I'm not making any excuses." They haven't gotten that far yet.

"Well, you actually were just making excuses." No, those were reasons. The impossible man is just so impulsive that he can't tell the difference. "But you don't –"

"No. I wasn't making –"

"– have to. Listen –"

"– an excuse." They drift towards each other; no matter what they're saying, no matter what she's done, they've each been the most constant relationship in each other's lives for a decade now. "I'm actually very justified –"

"Hey, hey, hey. You deserve better."

"Well…" She looks down, discomforted. This isn't a speech to make her stay, or him ignoring her feelings. This is…acknowledgement. Maybe even acceptance.

Pepper doesn't know what to do in this situation. It almost feels as if they're suspended, she's so…

Weightless.

Free of duty, or responsibility, or obligation.

Tony reaches down and brushes his metal covered fingers against her unprotected ones. "You've taken such good care of me." For all that she can see his suit, and feel his unyielding hand still brushing hers, Tony sounds as vulnerable as she.

Pepper meets his eyes and really listens to his words, because his honesty deserves nothing less and because without duty, responsibility, and obligation, he is the one thing of weight and mass in her world.

"I've been in a tough spot, but you got me through it, so… Right?"

"Thank you." Pepper means it. Tony listening and responding to her needs, is… Significant? Meaningful? It certainly brings her blood pressure down, seems to dismiss some of the chill in the night air, and loosens the knot in her gut. There's a new pressure in her chest as she gazes at him though, something heavy that makes her heart pound.

"Yeah." The way he dismisses her gratitude isn't painful. It makes her think he has arguments held in reserve for just this occasion that he's holding back out of respect for her desires.

"Thank you for understanding." Because she can see in his posture and the harsh lines of his face how hard this is for him.

"Yeah, yeah. Let's talk clean-up."

Pepper allows the moment to slide past, aware it's the most recent in a long chain of moments they've stepped back from. Aware too of how uncomfortable he is with the stark reality of their emotions.

Tony Stark has changed in many ways, but in more he is still the man she's known for as long as they've worked together. He will always be a risk taker, and always be distracted by blips on his "Babe Radar," but he will always care about her too – she knows that – and he will always be more than a little awkward with emotional intimacy.

Because he's proving just how deeply he cares about her, she just doesn't have it in her to make him squirm by pressing.

"I'll handle the transition. It'll be smooth." She has no idea what their future will be from here, how much she's resigned from or how much he thinks she's resigned from. Their transitions of power are just one change they're going to have to face, and she's not sure if that's the only transition she's referencing or all of them as a whole.

"Okay. What about the press?" Pepper listens to him with half an ear, her thoughts too consumed with change to give him her full attention. She feels drawn towards him, perhaps not so willing to allow this moment to pass as she is to seize on any opportunities offered to her. "…had the job for week. That's going to seem…"

Tony isn't backing away from her, isn't trying to create distance between them or protect himself in any way. He's watching her and talking and the tone he's using is the tone he uses just to hear his own voice…

"Well, with you it's like dog years." Pepper doesn't even know what that means, only that a rejoinder is expected. She can smell burnt oil, overheated transmission fluid, and overworked man and it's as familiar to her as the $2,000 an ounce cologne sitting in his bathroom cabinet back home.

"I know."

She wonders if he's actually listening or if he's just as…drawn…as she is. "It's like the Presidency –"

Tony is just there, without warning of intent.

Pepper is just welcoming.

His lips cling to hers, and Pepper…surrenders. Sways into him, into the sweetness of the kiss, and alien planes of the suit. His facial hair is scratchy, his lips are firm, and Pepper is completely given over to the sensations of him.

Hands made bigger by gauntlets cradle her ribcage, holding her close, as if she might leave or push away when all she wants is more of his textures.

Her lips slide against the warm suede of his, her fingers stroke through soft, damp hair, caress the side of his neck where his blood pounds, trail over damaged and devastated metal…

She pulls back, needing to see his face, his eyes…his intent. His motivation. His reaction.

Her reaction is surprisingly…calm. Tony kissed her, and she kissed him back, and all of her plans are in complete disarray.

Pepper feels – Pepper is – completely grounded. As if the last few weeks has been them as two ends of a downed power line, spitting angrily at all passerby. And now that the circuit of them has been completed, there is only…current. Agreement. Unity.

She actually smiles.

Her reaction must not be what he was expecting, because although Tony doesn't let her go, he asks, "Weird?"

Pepper's eyes focus on his lips. "No, it's not weird." It may even be right.

"It's okay, right?"

Pepper nods, already leaning forward to reforge the connection. "Yeah."

"Run that by me again."

Tony leans into her advance, and this time Pepper slides her fingers into his hair from the first, determined to hold on to him, but their lips no more than touch when they're interrupted.

On a random rooftop in the Bronx, where no one should be able to track them down, they are interrupted.

"I think it was weird." They spring apart and Pepper misses Tony immediately, body and emotions raw from the disruption. "You guys look like two seals fighting over a grape."

Says the man dressed up like a rock 'em, sock 'em robot. What's worse, it's Rhodey, who's always looked at her as if he's suspected the depth of her soft spot for Tony.

The excuses – real ones this time – come pouring out of her before she can stop them, a conditioned response. Pepper, after all, is not one of those women.

She suspects she may end up being the right woman.

Rhodey brushes off their attempts to save face; Tony wraps his arm around her back and his hand around her shoulder; Pepper obligingly moves closer. She lets the men talk as she concentrates on the warmth still on her lips and wonders just how many hours she and Tony can steal before clean-ups and transitions consume their time.

After everything she's done and been through in the last few hours alone, Pepper reasons, she has the right to a little selfishness.

Rhodey leaves and Tony turns to her. He looks energized, playful. "How are you gonna resign if I don't accept?"

Pepper laughs, because this is normal, and Tony is taking her hands in his which is not but feels like it should and there's just…joy, inside of her, and hope.

And she is not alone, and he won't be alone, and maybe being them is enough to make this work out.

And she wants this - the fighting, and kissing, and respecting, and teasing, and working – to work out.

Very much.