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To Burn The Horizon

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"To Burn the Horizon"

Prologue: "Oh, why did we have to fire that gun?"

This isn't a fairy tale, but once upon a time...

The truth is, life is nothing more than a series of beginnings and endings, so this particular tale begins and ends in the same place: a tower balcony, high above a breathing city, up in a place where on a clear day you can see for miles.

When it begins, when it really and truly begins, it will be in a war of words and a shattering of glass and a long freefall.

When it ends – and it will end – it will be in a cloud of ash and earth and silence.

Ringing, resounding silence.

...after a long, difficult battle, the brave prince defeated the monstrous dragon and rescued the maiden fair...

And so, having at last slain Vanko and his army of drones, Tony Stark flies off into the night, Pepper Potts safely ensconced in his arms.

The suit's faceplate is shooting off sparks, a battle-casualty, so it kind of spoils the heroic effect he's going for, but with adrenaline-soaked victory spiking through his veins and with his chest no longer feeling like it has a ten-ton elephant standing on it, he really couldn't care less.

Tony guides his dying suit to a nearby rooftop and sticks a smooth, easy landing. He sets Pepper down and reaches up to swipe the hissing, sparking faceplate away.

His eyes are closed while he does this, so he doesn't see her move away.

She's well out of arm's reach when he lowers his hand, and he blinks at that because he thought she'd stay put. He expects to see her smiling at him, a little shaky, of course, but glad that he got her out of harm's way.

She's not smiling, though, not at all.

Instead, she's glaring, this mutinous, molten-hot stare that's equal parts exhaustion and rage and better-cover-your-balls-Tony-before-I-start-kicking. And, okay, those last two might be the same thing, but still.

Should have known better: this is no fairy tale.

Pepper isn't exactly a damsel in distress, and he isn't exactly a white knight, and whatever vaguely romantic notions he might have had about that gets shot right the hell down the instant Pepper opens her mouth and yells, "I can't do this anymore!" Her fists are pressed to either side of her head like she has the mother of all migraines. "I can't, Tony! I can't stand here and watch you do this to yourself! I never know if you're trying to kill yourself or-or if you're trying to wreck the company or what because you never talk to me like a normal human being!"

"Hey!" he protests, trying to salvage some dignity here because for crying out loud he did just kind of save the day. "I think I did okay!"

She barrels on like she hadn't even heard him. "You know what? I'm not doing it anymore! I'm done. I quit! Effective immediately."

His head is still buzzing from the fight, so he can't tell if the poleaxed feeling is from that or from Pepper's outburst. He doesn't even know what to say. All he he can do is just stand there, deer-in-headlights frozen, and watch her break apart.

Like everything else in his life.

Eventually, he summons up the courage to take a cautious step toward her. "Okay," he says as he does. "Hey. Okay. Slow down."

"No." She's a cat thrown into a barrel of cold water, all bristled-up and ready to claw at his face. That burning glare sears right through him. "I'm done."

"Yeah," he says, holdig up a hand. "Yeah, I got that. Just – listen to me, okay? Hear me out. Please?"

There's a long silence while she makes an obvious effort to calm herself down: she looks away, takes a couple of deep breaths, drops her hands so she can fold her arms over her chest. "Okay," she finally says. She doesn't look up. "All right. What?"

Funny thing, though, when he goes to reach for the words – any words – that might convince her to stay, he can't find them. Can't find anything at all, not even a coherent thought, so he just stands there like a landed fish, mouth working without a single sound coming out.

"I'm sorry" doesn't feel like it'll be enough, but everything else feels like it'll be too desperate.

Angry as she is, he doubts she'll believe him, anyway.

She's still not looking at him, and it occurs to him that he probably doesn't even the right to ask her for anything at this point. Is pretty sure of that fact, actually, because what has he ever really done for her? All he's ever done is ask from her, demand from her, take from her.

All she has ever done is answer, offer, and give.

That's her job, though. Her job.

So maybe it's not so hard to figure out what he wants to tell her.

"Hey," he murmurs then. "Come on. Look at me." She does, and when he sees that her ire has cooled, he eases toward her. "You have done so much for me all these years," he says, "and don't think I don't appreciate it. I do. I always did. So – thank you. For everything." He takes a deep breath, then, and: "You should go."

She blinks. A frown clouds her eyes. "You...?" She swallows. "You're not even gonna ask?"

He shakes his head. "No. You need – you deserve – better than this. I don't want you to go, but I don't want you to stay, either." Which, okay, so that doesn't make sense. He waves it aside. "What I'm trying to say is you need to go. You need to find your own way. Have the life you deserve."

"You don't want me to stay?"

She's beautiful, her eyes wide and clear, her cheeks flushed, her hair mused, her head high, and all he wants to do right then is kiss her. Just cross the few steps between them and kiss her in a way that means stay and I want you, and he can't help thinking it would be so easy to do it. It would just take a few steps, a quick reach, and a little tug.

In the end, though, maybe because he's too afraid to face the possibility of her rejection or maybe because he doesn't trust himself enough, he remains rooted to the spot. Says, "I don't want you to be stuck in all this crap. I want you to get away, to get free, and be happy."

He isn't sure if he really means it, thinks he probably doesn't, but it doesn't really sound like a lie, so who the hell knows?

She looks away again. "What about you?"

"I'll be fine."

"No, you won't."

"Yeah, probably not." He smiles at the top of her head. It's painless now, and easy, but he doesn't doubt it's going to hurt like a bitch in the morning. These things always do, in the daylight. "I'll survive," he says anyway. "Turns out I kind of have a talent for that."

Pepper looks up. Her eyes are too bright. "I'll stay on to help with the transition," she says. "Help you find a new assistant. Whatever you need."

It's as clear a sign as any that she's ready to move on, and he tries not to wince at it. It's his own fault. "Yeah," he says, clearing his throat. "That'd be great, thanks. I appreciate it." He turns to stare out at the still-burning wreckage just visible on the horizon, at all the dusky smoke columns drifting into the night sky with their fiery orange and red highlights like fingers pointing up and up and up.

Up, up, and away. Where he wants to be.

He doesn't look at her. "We need to talk cleanup."

Pepper says, "I'm already on that."

Of course she is. Because she's Pepper, and that's what she does. He makes the messes and she cleans them up.

"You'll have to come up with something to tell the press, too, you know," he says, half-joking. "Only making it a week as CEO, and all."

"I'll cross that bridge when I get there," she says. "I'll figure something out."

"Right." He glances at her again. "So – cleanup? What's the plan?"

"Right now, the plan is you go home and get some sleep. I'll handle this."

"But-"

"Don't." Curt and sharp, again: the cutting edge of a knife in a single word. "Just go home, Tony. We'll talk about this in the morning. There's not much left to do here, anyway, so you might as well just go. I'll take care of it."

"Are you sure? Because the sky is kinda on fire over there."

"The fire department is already on it. And you've already done enough for tonight. We'll talk tomorrow."

He hesitates before nodding. He wants to stay, but can't think of a reason to; can't think of anything else to say. So he says, quietly, "All right. Well, then, good night, Pepper."

And she says, "Good night, Tony."

It's not the last time he'll see her, but as he turns to fly away he finds himself wishing that "good night" hadn't sounded so final.

Thing is, he's always known, deep down, that she's not his.

It doesn't make it any easier, knowing that. Doesn't make leaving any easier, not when he can taste regret like acid in the back of his throat, and it takes him every ounce of willpower he possesses not to turn around and just go tell her everything.

He doesn't do it, though: she is not his.

Never was. Never will be. Could have been, maybe, if things had gone differently, if he wasn't such a coward, but things didn't go differently, and that's that.

That's that.

As he flies home, as the cool night air rushes over his face, he tells himself the blur in his eyes is just from the wind and that the damp on his cheeks is just from the dew in the air.

...and they all lived happily ever after.

Sitting across from Nick Fury a few days later, scanning a file.

His own file, as it happens: Agent Romanov's personality assessment for admission into the Avengers Initiative, and he's not even pretending he's not curious. He can't help but wonder what these people – including Fury – think about him.

Funny, though, since he still can't stand Fury.

He tries not to dig too deeply at that, though, not now.

"'Uh, Mister Stark displays compulsive behavior,'" he reads aloud, "'and is prone to self-destructive tendencies.'" He frowns across the table. "In my defense, that was last week. You know, when I was dying. I'm not now, so is that even technically valid?"

Fury's eyebrow quirks, but otherwise he doesn't react. Tony resumes his perusal of the assessment. "'Displays textbook narcissism.'" He winces, even as he's swallowing a laugh. "Agreed. Oh, here we go. 'Iron Man yes." And with that, he's on the verge of his first smile in days until his gaze strays down to the next line. He flicks a quick, irritated glare up at Fury. "Wait a minute. 'Tony Stark not recommended?' Okay, that doesn't make sense. You approve me, but you don't approve me? What the hell does that mean?"

"It means we don't feel you're cut out for the Avengers Initiative. Not yet, anyway. But you could be."

"Jesus Christ," Tony mutters, running a hand over his head. Words, just words, he reminds himself, but not even the vague promise of 'could be' makes them sting any less. "Okay," he says. "So what other hoops do you want me to jump through? I mean, I've got a new ticker, I'm trying to do the right thing for Pepper, and believe it or not things are stable-ish right now."

As stable as they can be, given their state of complete upheaval. He doesn't say that, though, because he doesn't want to give Fury the satisfaction. That, and he's pretty sure Fury already knows, since he seems to be an expert on All Things Tony Stark.

Asshole.

Fury leans back in his chair and studies Tony's face for a moment through a narrow eye. It makes Tony feel like he's on a set of scales, being weighed and measured, and yeah, he really hates that feeling. It's kind of a relief when Fury says, "That's what leads us to believe at this juncture we'd only like to use you as a consultant."

"Use me." Wrong choice of words there because nobody but nobody uses him. Tony feels himself shut down, cut off, like his mask sliding over his face. He huffs a laugh, bitter and cool, and rises. "Thanks, but no thanks." Sliding the folder back across the table, he adds, "You can't afford me, anyway."

If the past few days have taught him anything, it's that he doesn't actually need to belong to some secret club. He's reeling from the Pepper thing, true, and this thing, okay maybe this has rung his bell a little too, but at the end of the day he's still Iron Man, he's still one of the smartest men on the planet, and he's still standing.

He's still alive.

As he sits there staring into Fury's one expressionless eye, it hits him that while being excluded from Fury's little club here sucks – because it does, it stings, there's no denying it – it's not the end of the world.

He doesn't need it, not the way he thought he did.

Turns out he kinda has a talent for survival.

Fury's face betrays nothing. He simply inclines his head and says, "Don't think for a second we won't be watching you, Stark, because you know we will be."

Tony Stark shrugs again and turns away. "You do that."

He walks out of the room, mind already turning over the modifications he wants to make to his security system.

Because, hey, life goes on, doesn't it?

(Didn't they?)

xXx

This conversation
It strikes me
No need for words
It's understood
-Waldeck, "Why Did We Fire The Gun"