This story had been my first foray into the Iron Man fandom. I have since developed and completed 'Just A Job'
- which, if you're a fan of continuity, you should read first-
and if I'm going to go beyond that, this seems like a good place to start. Reworked a bit, as I know the characters better now.
I hope you enjoy.
THE NEXT MISSION
It was dark, dark as a deep forest on a late summer's night.
She felt her breath catch as fingertips softly brushed across her cheek, paused for a bare moment on her slightly parted lips, then stroked down to her chin, half floating, sparkling across her skin as they dropped to her collarbone, slipping downward like the shadow of a ghost.
A shudder thrilled though her as his breath sighed softly across her neck, and his hands - gentle, precise, a most creative inventor's hands - drifted down to her waist… she heard him barely whisper. Miss Potts… Miss Potts… excuse me…
"Miss Potts?" The voice seemed to come from everywhere.
Pepper's eyes jerked open as she woke with a gasp, clutching the blankets tight, her voice quite a bit more frantic than was her custom. "What? Who's there?"
For a moment her eyes darted around the dark room in barely controlled horror, not sure where she was – and then, as the lights came up slowly, it registered.
Tony Stark's guest suite. Her suite. At least, the place that was always there for her if she wanted it...
"Yes, Miss Potts. I apologize for startling you. You did ask me to wake you at 7:30, or when Mr. Stark returned…" the elegantly cultured voice of Tony Stark's home intelligence paused.
"And which is it?" Pepper couldn't quite keep the hope out of her voice – although, since she was talking to a computer, she didn't quite know why she was even trying. I guess you're only trying to fool yourself, Pep. Although, knowing Jarvis, he probably could have told you that years ago. As if reading her mind, the voice went on almost apologetically.
"I'm afraid it's 7:30, miss. Perhaps, being a weekend, and seeing as Mr. Stark isn't here yet… you would like to sleep a bit longer? After all, you didn't retire until four AM. You do need your rest."
"Jarvis –" She considered complaining to the computer for lecturing her, and realized even in her semi-conscious state that it would sound ridiculous. "Thank you. I suppose that might be a good idea."
"Very well, miss."
She rolled over and pulled the blankets over her head. Oh, and Jarvis? Please get me back into that dream you interrupted, okay? She sighed, and tried to relax.
He had been gone since the morning before, and hadn't left any word since. While she knew that if something big had actually happened to Iron Man it would be all over the newsfeeds, she still couldn't keep herself from worrying. Suddenly a thought hit her, and she sat up. "Jarvis?" Why didn't I think of this before?
"Here, Miss Potts."
"Ah… do you know where Mr. Stark is?"
"My mainframe is connected to his suit, Miss Potts." She could have sworn there was a slightly annoyed reprimand in his response.
"Right." She bit her lip, waited a moment and frowned thoughtfully. "Can you tell me where he is?"
There was a brief pause as she imagined Jarvis double-checking his instructions. "I believe I can, miss. Although there seems to be a point six-five nanosecond delay through the satellite feed," Jarvis said, sounding a bit concerned. "So it is difficult to say exactly."
Her eyes closed. "Can you tell me approximately where he is, Jarvis?"
"How approximate, miss-"
"Jarvis!" She took a breath. "Just give me a clue."
"Of course. He is currently crossing the Pacific Ocean."
Her eyes widened. "Coming or going?"
"He appears to be on his way home. At his current speed, I would estimate just under two hours before he arrives."
Pepper exhaled. "Okay. I'm going to try to sleep again."
"Shall I inform you when he lands?"
"That would be lovely, Jarvis. Thank you." She rolled onto her side, pulling the blankets up tight. On his way home. He's probably okay. Or at least, okay enough to get home. Her eyes closed, and she tried to stop worrying.
But it was far too easy to worry about the man who also happened to be her boss. And even though their relationship had slipped into some new level since he became – she almost laughed – a super hero, they hadn't really taken time to define it. Hell, they hadn't had time to define it, at least not yet. It was always the next mission, he hadn't been joking about that. But when they were together, there was a new closeness… or maybe just an acceptance of the closeness they had always shared.
Which somehow made things more difficult. We're friends. That's all. She gave a little shiver under the blankets, and pulled them closer around her. If I were his… she searched for a word, and left it at that. If I were his, I'd never be able to handle it. I'd never be first in his life. I can almost handle us being friends. Things are weird enough…
It was safer that way, even if she didn't quite believe it. Couldn't be that you're just scared, Potts…
Exasperated, she took a deep breath, threw off the covers and sat up again.
"Excuse me, Jarvis? Is there orange juice? Or cranberry?"
"Yes, miss, both. Shall I make coffee as well?"
"No, thanks, but you can cancel the wake-up call." She stood up and caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror on the closet door. Oh, nice look, Potts. You'll have to shower and change before he gets home. Shaking her head and pulling her hair back into a ponytail, she padded out into the hallway toward the kitchen, still wearing soft gray knit pajama pants, and one of her boss's white undershirts that had accidentally shown up in her laundry. She kept it, because it was very comfortable to sleep in. It has nothing to do with the fact that it's his, or that there was still the faintest scent of his cologne... She shook her head, leaving that train of thought behind.
Distractedly turning a corner, she realized she had inadvertently walked into Mr. Stark's private wing. And directly in front of her, she realized as well, was his bedroom. Pepper sighed at her own subconscious and walked in.
It wasn't as if she had never seen it. Plenty of times she had to pick up a forgotten document, or drag him out for a meeting, or just make sure whoever he had brought home didn't get lost trying to find her way out of the house. Everything from picking up dry cleaning to taking out the trash.
She grinned to herself momentarily, but this room held other memories as well. It was where she had sat up with him after Afghanistan, making sure he wasn't alone. It was where she had seen him at his most vulnerable.
She took a deep breath, blew it out. "Jarvis?"
"Yes, Miss Potts."
"May I have one window, please?"
A single panel faded to transparency and the ocean shimmered in the dawn, traces of pink still reflecting in the early light. Pepper looked out across the water for a few moments, until she realized that what she was looking for was a familiar light streaking through the sky. You are not going to stand here for two hours, Pepper!
As she sat on the side of the bed and ran her hand over his pillow, a gentle smile touched her lips. Being in here made her feel more relaxed, made her feel closer to him. Made her feel like everything just might be okay. Then she yawned, and with a shrug, stretched out on top of the luxurious spread and closed her eyes. I am exhausted. I'll just close my eyes for a minute, then I'll grab a shower…
Jarvis, absently monitoring everything from her breathing to the frequency of her brainwaves, decided it would be a good idea to darken the window once more.
Approximately two hours later it was light outside, but still quite dark in the protected bedroom.
"Twelve percent on the windows, Jarvis."
"Very good, sir."
Tony Stark slumped onto the side of the bed, sitting even before the light came up dimly. His elbows dropped to his knees, and he rested his head in his hands.
"Can I do anything for you, sir?"
"No." The weariness of his voice was nearly painful. "Thanks. Did you upload the suit?"
"Doing it now, sir. Cataloging the flight details."
"Good. Double check on the mechanical inventory diagnostics. Make sure I didn't leave anything behind, okay? And the stabilizer on the left hand -"
"Doing it now, sir."
Tony nearly sighed. "Right. Thanks."
On the other side of his bed, Pepper stirred, frowning, and opened her eyes. "Mr. Stark?"
It was surely a sign of his mental state that when he turned just enough to see his personal assistant lying on the other side of his bed, wearing what appeared to be one of his undershirts, he barely reacted.
"Miss Potts." His voice was leaden as he turned away, and she sat up, reaching to put a hand on his back, but stopping just short of actually doing it.
"Are you… okay?"
"I was – waiting. It got late. Sorry that I'm –"
He gave no indication that he had heard, or that he had any response.
"What happened out there?" She waited for a few seconds before she tried again. Her voice was gentle, but she couldn't hide her concern. "…Tony?" She waited again. Nothing. But she could feel there was something there, something so big that she couldn't leave it alone. "Jarvis said last night you were heading for West Africa…"
He sat for a long moment, his back to her, his head bowed. Eventually, he began to speak; so quietly, though, that she had to lean closer to hear.
"I was tracking down some of my rifles." She nodded silently. Once Obadiah Stane was gone, his computers had eventually given up a fascinating amount of information. Pepper knew that Tony himself had gone through them all, and was slowly trying to undo whatever damage he could.
"There was a village. Two, actually. Although one was more of a gang than a village. The gang had evidently been given a couple cases of rifles and ammo. The SI-37 line."
Pepper frowned, and spoke softly in the pause. "Those are pretty vicious."
"Yeah. Especially against an underdeveloped village, where the biggest artillery they have is a herd of goats." He rubbed his hand back over his hair.
"Who would do that?"
"People who want the land, the mineral rights, and figure that if their mob kills off the people, it will save them time in the long run." He took a breath, tried rather unsuccessfully to sound simply annoyed. "And these were particularly nasty, as they decided it would be quicker and easier for them to poison the village well."
Her eyes widened. "Good Lord…"
"Yeah." He shook his head. "It's a wonderful world." He pulled his undershirt over his head and threw it carelessly toward the closet. "At least the poison wasn't Stark technology."
Pepper waited behind him, not knowing what to say.
"The gang was stupid and badly organized. It didn't take long to round up the rifles and get rid of them."
"Okay, so that's good…" She spoke firmly. "Isn't this what you've been trying to-" He began to speak again, not hearing her. His tone was flat.
"But I had a bad feeling. I went back to check on the village… There was this little girl, who'd gotten sick from the bad water. Big eyes, dark hair… they called her Maji. A beautiful little thing. No more than four or five." His head dropped forward again, and she waited until she heard him take a deep breath and continue. "Long story short, I figured out how to use the suit to help dig a new well. It didn't take long, I got involved with setting up a pump… and by the time the men of the village and I had finished…" She saw the fingers of his right hand clench and unclench. "Maji was dead."
Her mouth opened, but no sound came out as he flopped back onto the pillow, his hands over his face. When he spoke, his voice was laced with sarcasm.
"Tony." She reached over and put a hand softly on his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault. You know it wasn't -"
With an abrupt movement he pulled his hands away, turned and stared at her, his dark eyes wet and filled with anger. "They thanked me, Pepper. Thanked me. This little girl is lying there dead, and –"
"You saved the village."
"But what, one innocent little girl is acceptable collateral damage?"
"I didn't say that –"
"And here I am, standing in my armor like some god, and there isn't anything, anything I can do."
She waited. Pepper Potts didn't remain Tony Stark's personal assistant by not knowing when to be quiet.
"And the father, her actual father, looked at me and nodded when the head of the village thanked me." His voice caught. "He reached out to shake my hand."
Pepper waited as he stared at the ceiling. His eyes, always dark, seemed more so than usual.
"I pulled off my glove, I took his hand, I said I'm sorry…" He dropped his forearm over his eyes, not wanting to see what his memory served up. "...and he just nodded. There was nothing I could do. Nothing… but help dig the grave."
Pepper inhaled sharply, willing herself not to react. It was difficult. "Oh, Tony..."
"Yeah." His breathing was harsh for a minute, and she waited for him to get himself under control. "I may have left some parts behind. I don't know."
Confusion knitted her brow. "Why?"
"Because I needed to help the men dig without my armor. I needed to just be Tony Stark. Not 'Iron Man'. I needed to just be human…" his voice faded, and she slipped her hand down his arm, taking his hand in hers. "Dammit, Pepper…"
"She was only a kid…"
"Tony…" She rested her hand on his head, leaning on her elbow as she looked down at him. "You did everything you could."
"Yes. I know you did." Her fingers stroked his hair, and he turned abruptly, curling into her.
"I wish I knew." A shudder ran through his body as he clung to her, and she wrapped her arms around him. For half an hour he lay wrapped in her arms, not quite weeping. Eventually he quieted, and his breathing slowed.
Pepper blinked back her own tears as she held the man she cared for more than any other in the world. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly before whispering to the room.
"Jarvis. Darken the windows. Don't wake him."
The room faded slowly to black. Tony shifted for a moment, making a small sound, but rested into her arms once more.
In the quiet, in the dark, Pepper Potts did everything she could to hold him together, knowing that she would be there when he woke – indeed, knowing that no matter what their relationship was, she couldn't help but be there every second he might need her.
…please feed the author…