The sound of ringing filled the helmet as Tony hurtled through the atmosphere. His mind was in a constant state of motion, giving the machine a run for its money. Between juggling flight time calculations and mentally reviewing his living will, he still had time to wonder at how light the bomb felt on his shoulders. He had always pictured them heavier to match the weight of the deaths that followed them. Then again he had always imagined himself to be a bit of a romantic towards such things. More than anything else, one thought presses intensely against the front of his mind. He wants to hear her, one more time.
He does. Though it’s not quite what he imagined their last conversation would be like. “This is Pepper Potts, I can’t come to the phone right now. Please your name and number after the beep. If this is Tony, don’t leave me an hour long message. The last time I turned off my phone you filled my inbox and I missed my dentist appointment because of it. I’ll get back to you as quick as I can.”
Her voice echoes in his head and he tries to remember every detail, every inflection, and every facial expression that matches them. He keeps her picture up, and leaves a message. It’s broken up in some places where he has to struggle to catch his breath in the rising altitude, and it doesn’t even cover twelve percent of what he wants to say. He hopes she knows that. He hopes she listens to it and is able to pick out exactly what he means; he hopes she knows that there are some things he can’t say. He doesn’t want her last memory of him to be him sobbing on an answering machine cause he’s about to die and it sucks. So he keeps it light, even manages to make himself chuckle.
A part of him is kind of glad she didn’t answer. If she had answered… he didn’t think he would manage to finish the job. He would back out. How could he not? There was a beautiful, intelligent woman who loved him, who knew him in ways that he didn’t even think were possible, who could make even the worst days seem fantastic just by being there and he was about to lose it all.
For the first time, he felt panic squeeze his innards and he struggled to fight through it. Who was her first kiss? How many stories about her life hadn’t she told him yet? What did she think about lunar colonization? There were so many things about her that he had yet to find out. He had thought he’d have decades to spend with her, he thought he’d grow old with her and that he could spend that time learning everything about her. He wouldn’t be able to do those things now. He would never find out if she had ever had a pet rabbit. These thoughts combined with the slow realization that he would never see her grow old brought on a terror more intense than anything he’d ever felt in his life. Fighting aliens, being hooked up to car battery in a cave, none of that could compare.
There is a loud rush in his ears as he breaches the portal, then a deafening silence. The suit freezes up and the bomb slides out of his immobile arms and continues flying through space towards the enemy. Still being propelled by his previous speed, Tony drifts slowly towards the creatures’ ship. Everything seems frozen until the explosion of light and heat. Pieces of alien equipment go flying and Tony is pushed back.
As the flames rapidly expand towards him, Tony smiles. The fear is gone.
It’s not so bad, he thinks idly. Lack of oxygen is tearing apart his lungs and soon the suit will crumple into itself… if the fire doesn’t get to it first. There are worse ways to die. He closes his eyes and loses himself in a fond memory.
It’s like an old projector movie, dark around the edges and sepia colored. They are sitting on the roof in lawn chairs in swimming suits. It’s raining in the middle of July and nothing has ever felt better on their overheated skin. She’s laughing hard and he wishes he could remember what he said to make her laugh like that but he can’t. Her hair is wet and clinging to her pale skin and he wonders how many freckles she has. He never got around to actually counting them. He hears the metal screaming and sees white behind his eyelids. Then it’s done.
“Hey Pep, you really need to change your answering machine… I just wanted to tell you I’m not gonna make it to dinner, busy saving the world and all… I just… Figured if I was gonna go out anyway… I should do it for the best girl a guy could have… You’re in charge now for good this time. I expect good results, no excuses… Keep the guys in line, they’re gonna need someone to slap them around when I’m gone. Especially Cap… oh, and Pep… I love you.”
It had been nearly four weeks and Pepper had listened to the message around two hundred times. The first few days had gone by in a numb blur. There were people who were counting on her. There had been a funeral, and a press release, and a fund for rebuilding New York. The city was planning on putting a park in one of the areas that had been decimated by the battle and dedicating it to Tony, putting up a statue and everything. She had fought until they agreed that the statue should be of Iron Man and not Tony.
It was at the beginning of the second week, after all the work was finished, that she broke down. To say that she wept would be an understatement. She cried and screamed, threw things, smashed thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and liquor bottles. Then sat amidst the broken glass and sobbed until she couldn’t breathe. JARVIS must have contacted him then because moments later she was being lifted off the floor by very concerned Bruce Banner. He picked the glass out of her skin and patched her up the best he could with the rags and Band-Aids Tony had lying about his floor. Then in the morning after she had calmed, he took her to the doctor’s office. She had required stitches in both of her hands and her left leg from wounds inflicted by larger pieces of glass.
There must have been some hushed conversations that she wasn’t privy to going on because after that day it was nearly impossible for her to find time to be alone.
First, Natasha had insisted they go shopping together. It was strange at first, but before long Pepper discovered that she enjoyed the other woman’s company. Nat saw things differently than most people; her observations of other shoppers were very colorful and managed to get a few halfhearted chuckles out of the grieving woman.
Steve had shown up with flowers at her door a day later. After nearly an hour of talking about anything but Tony, they had decided to go out to eat. Pepper wasn’t generally a fan of hotdogs but the ones being sold by the street vendor outside the building were delicious. The two walked around the block, eating and chatting amiably.
Then there was Clint. Pepper had never met the man before he showed up with Natasha. The girls had planned to see a movie together and he had decided to tag along. The movie was some romantic comedy that nobody seemed really interested in seeing. Clint spent the first half of the movie starring incredulously at the screen as though he couldn’t believe how terrible it was. Natasha was making a remarkable attempt to pay attention to the movie. Towards the end Clint started throwing sarcastic comments about the movie around the nearly empty theater until Natasha started bickering with him. The two fought like siblings and Pepper couldn’t stop herself from giggling into her hands.
Bruce was much more subtle about taking up Pepper’s time. Living in tower made it easier for him to simply wander upstairs with a pot of tea. He would sometimes just show up and they’d watch TV together. He was quiet and didn’t feel the need to keep Pepper constantly engaged, which was a nice change. He also wasn’t afraid of saying Tony’s name around her. Pepper found herself confiding in him more so than the others. He never judged her and he didn’t try to give her any advice. He just listened, and that was really all she needed from him.
So after four weeks had passed, Pepper had asked them all to join her for a picnic at Tony’s park. It had been a lovely day, they had sandwiches and tea. Clint and Natasha spent most of the time arguing over television shows while Steve tried and failed to keep up. Bruce seemed content just to listen and Pepper watched the other people at the park.
There were a fair number of people out and about, some recognized her and offered smiles and small waves. Children ran around screaming and playing.
As they gathered their things to leave, Pepper stopped in front of the tall stone ironman statue. She sighed deeply and ran her fingers over the golden name plate at the base that stated simply ‘In remembrance of Anthony Howard Stark, the Iron Man.’
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Pepper jumped, not hearing Steve join her. “Why did you have them change the statue?”
“I just thought he’d like this better.” It wasn’t the whole truth. If Steve knew that, he didn’t show any sign of it. He smiled and nodded, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders and walked her back to the car.
The truth of the matter wasn’t very complicated, it was just personal. The statue should be of Iron Man because Iron Man died to save the World.
Tony Stark died to save her.