Disclaimer: I don't own diddly.

AN: Takes place during the first film. I realized about halfway through writing this that it actually doesn't mesh with canon but since I'd already begun, I didn't much care.

Of or Pertaining to the Heart

He lets his eyes fall closed as they go through a tunnel and his head slips back against the seat. For the moment he's content just enjoying the dark and the soft drone of Pepper on her phone and the cool of the air conditioning. He keeps his eyes shut when the car comes out into the sun again. It's nice to close his eyes and know what'll be waiting for him when they open, know it's something nice.

Pepper hangs up and sags back into the seat. Her arm falls into the space between them, brushes against his, and he's just about to twist his hand to take hold of her fingers when- "What's that?"

He opens his eyes, raises an eyebrow.

She's frowning, not the "Tony, you need to start being an adult sometime before you hit retirement age" frown he loves, but a new one. There's fear in this frown, it hovers in her eyes like a ghost. With her phone she points and he realizes it must have shown through his shirt in the dark of the tunnel.

"It's fine." He tries to be casual, he's the master of casual, but some of the desperation must seep in because her eyes snap up to his face once before fixing back on his chest.

"Can- can I see?"

"Pepper." There's no reason for this. She doesn't have to see it, not yet anyway. He'd planned on telling her first; a simple, cold, unemotional explanation of the bare essentials that would hopefully take the edge off before she actually saw the thing.

"Tony," she returns, all steel and resolve.

He sighs and begins awkwardly unbottoning. Between the sling and sitting in the car it's difficult. She swats his hands away and does it herself. He's had fantasies about this, had more than one dream that started out like this in the last few months. Funny how none of them involved her looking over his war wounds.

He keeps his eyes on her face. He sees the way her brow furrows as her knuckles brush up against the metal through the cloth, hears the half-gasp she can't quite stifle as she pulls his shirt open. She touches the face of the reactor and he feels the gentle vibration all the way down to his heart. Her fingers slide over it and it's his turn to gasp when she touches the seam between his skin and the metal.

"I'm sorry!" she says and her hands fly up, trapped between them like birds with nowhere to land. "Did I hurt you?"

"No! No, I'm fine." He hurriedly closes up his shirt. If she has more time to look, she'll see more than just the reactor.

She folds her hands in her lap, looks down at them and it's almost worse than having her look at the reactor. "What did-" she begins and thinks better of it. "What is it?"

This is a question he can handle. So he explains and he watches as, for once, she just lets him go - lets him talk mad science as long as he wants - without interruption. Not once do her eyes glaze over as he goes off on a totally unnecessary tangent about palladium and he realizes that maybe she's taking the time to study him, to look for other wounds not on his body.

"So," she says slowly when he stops, "it's keeping you alive."

Her voice breaks a little on the last word and he feels a fresh wave of anger. It wasn't really a question but he nods anyway, careful not to hold his fists too tight or she'll notice.

"And it's-" She takes a deep, shuddering breath and blinks rapidly. For once he has the decency not to say anything. "It's not going to- stop?"

"No. It's not gonna stop."

She nods, settles back in her seat. This time he does take her hand loosely in his own and she grips his tight.

"Good," she says. "Good."

"So we're okay? You understand that I'm okay?"

"Yes, Tony. I understand."

"That's a relief." He shifts positions harder than he should and jostles his arm. "I was worried for a second we might have some waterworks."

Pepper snatches her hand away to cross her arms over her chest. It's worth it when he sees the annoyed, "I shouldn't smile but Tony's just so charming" smile on her face.

"And to think I actually missed you," she says.

"You missed me?" he asks eagerly.

"For about five minutes when my laptop died, then I remembered we have a whole tech department of 20-somethings eager to impress and got over it."

"Oh really? Do we need to rewatch those sexual harassment videos, Pepper?"

She laughs, one loud crack that has Happy lowering the privacy screen an inch to check on them. "This coming from the man who watches them for ideas."

"Not that they've done me any good," he says, letting his eyes rest on her legs. He doesn't even try to hide it, figures he's earned it after three months in the desert.

"You're hopeless," she sighs but her hand returns to the seat between them and she doesn't pull back when he squeezes tight.