The first thing that Pepper noticed was Tony's uneasy silence. Normally, he'd give her a kiss in greeting, or at least a smirk. Not this tense, rigid fear, and this hesitation in something as simple as leaving his room.
Oh, Tony, what has this done to you?
Pepper wondered in silent anguish. As if somehow reading her thoughts, Tony gave her a false, faltering attempt at a grin that never met his eyes.
Tony only squinted at the hallway, with the air of a hunted animal. Pepper barely hid the wince of realization.
He's afraid of coming out of his own room now? Has this damage gutted him that much?
"Tony." She prompted, as she held her arm out towards him. "Come on. You've been cooped up for too long. It will do us both some good to get some air."
He hesitated, then narrowed his eyes and stared at her open hand.
Tony's jaw tightened as he nearly snatched her hand in one of his and turned to slam the door shut with the other.
"Come on. Let's go." He said curtly, even as he clutched her hand like a tether.
At first, Pepper thought that Tony had some sort of idea where he wanted to go in his request for a short walk, but in reality….this was hardly a walk. Less than a week ago, Tony would have been charming his way out of this tension, this unnatural silence that had fallen between them. Less than a week ago, Tony had been whole, mentally intact, cognitively functioning, and able to glide through any stilted awkwardness with his infamous charm.
Troubled, Pepper turned to face him. "Tony? What's wrong?"
He grimaced as he gently brushed past her, made his way down the hall a few more steps, and abruptly halted. Pepper tactfully ignored the shaking hand that Tony had clenched over the door knob, that small sharp exhalation of the swear word.
Breathing out hard, he shook his head. "What do you say we stay in tonight?"
She glanced around at the Spartan walls that had become far too familiar over these last few days.
"Tony, are you sure? I thought you wanted to get out for a bit."
"I changed my mind." Tony gave her a failed attempt at a nonchalant smirk, and hitched his shoulder.
She arched an eyebrow. "Tony, what is it, really? You just said you were getting stir-crazy. It would do you some good to have something to stare at besides this room."
He folded his arms, scowling, and opened the door. Dubiously, Pepper followed him back into the room, quietly shutting the door behind her.
Tony ignored her and flopped onto the bed. Tucking his hands behind his head, he glared at the ceiling. With a sigh, he waved a hand towards her in dismissal. "You can leave, Pep. I'm not keeping you here." He said, curtly.
Pepper stiffened at the harsh words as if she had been struck. He heard her sigh, another one of those long, soft scrapes of breath, like a prayer for patience…he hated that.
"Tony, I know this is hard."
He lurched upward, and twisted around to face her. 'You have no idea how hard this is."
He jammed his thumb hard over the arc reactor, the pale light swathing his fingers, as he snarled, "I designed this. I built an arc reactor with left over scrap metal in the middle of a damn desert. I invented a suit that I used to take on an alien fleet, and it was all possible because of what was here."
He tapped his temple, and let his hand fall into his lap. Giving her a brittle smirk, he shook his head with a vicious choking snicker. "And now, I'm two steps away from being a mental vegetable. I've lost everything, Pep, and it's not coming back. "
He felt the mattress dip, the warmth of her fingers gently lacing over his chin. He let her roll his face towards hers, but could not answer the wordless questions in her eyes.
"Not everything." Pepper whispered. "You haven't lost me. Tony. Don't shut me out .Please." Her eyes burned with tears that she could barely blink away.
Tony wrapped one hand around the wrist she had draped over him, and felt the delicate bones flicker beneath her skin.
"You know, Pep….you're right. You've lost me." He shrugged out of her grip, and rose to his feet, ignoring her bewildered pain as he attempted to flee the aftermath.
"How can you say that?!" Pepper's spluttered question was as hard as a slap. "After everything we've been through and all that's happened? Do you have any idea what it's like for me, to constantly worry and wonder if you're even alive? To fear that every time the phone rings, it's somebody telling me that you've gotten yourself killed? I thought that I had lost you, Tony. Believe me when I tell you this, regardless of how hard and awful it gets for you…and us. I'd rather have you here, as you are, regardless of how damaged you think you are than not have you here at all."