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Velveteen Rabbit

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Velveteen Rabbit
Chapter One

 

"Do you know how short life is?" Tony asks, sauntering out of his office and depositing himself beside Pepper's desk.  He props one hip against the edge.  He is nearly sitting on her desk calendar.  

 

At the moment, Pepper is primarily concerned with how to reconcile Tony's private affairs with his responsibilities to Stark Industries.  Acting as CEO to the company is rather new to him.  Though he has occupied the title for nearly twenty years, most of the day-to-day decisions had been delegated to Obadiah Stane.  To prevent another occurrence like Stane's betrayal, Tony has seen fit to begin a campaign of micromanaging his executives to death.  As his assistant, it falls to Pepper to schedule all of his appointments, in every arena.  She is responsible for the mental gymnastics needed to keep Tony observing his underlings to an acceptable degree.  She keeps his extracurricular activities on the calendar.  She calls his therapist's office to offer profuse apologies; Tony has missed his last three sessions without warning.  Trying to fit make-up sessions into his already overloaded schedule is a thankless duty.  Pepper knows he has no intention of keeping them.   

 

Even if she had the time to listen, Tony's philosophizing on life would be of little interest to Pepper.  She doesn't consider Tony much of an expert on life.  He's an expert on hedonism, which she suspects he thinks is largely the same thing.  Odds are good this is just a lead-in to his latest disaster. 

 

Unless they involve being on the wrong end of a missile, life is too short for Tony Stark to clean up his own messes.

 

The way he lives, Pepper supposes ‘short’ is Tony's only reasonable expectation for the future.  He drinks to excess.  He drives recklessly.  He not only pilots a world-class suit of battle armor into war-torn nations, but he feels the need to share it with the world.  He's a public figure with enemies who know where he lives.  As much as he would like to think differently, Tony is human and just as vulnerable as any man.   

 

While Pepper doesn't doubt his life will be a short one, she does find herself grudgingly respecting some his choices.  He acts out of a sincere belief in what he is doing.  He has proven himself willing to make sacrifices so that others are not punished for his mistakes.  As much as she would rather dismiss him or talk him out of the risks he takes, Pepper can't deny the good he accomplishes as Iron Man.  She knew Tony when he was selfish, when he didn't care about accountability or hurting others.  Now, he is a superhero.  

 

But superheroes live extremely complicated lives, and she is a personal assistant with deadlines.  Pepper really cannot devote her day to his prattle.  Some days, the most inconvenient part of her job is that Tony always requires access to her.  She could assist him much more efficiently if she wasn’t readily available to him.

 

Seeing that his dramatic question has garnered no interest, Tony throws himself into the chair opposite her desk.  That she has a chair for visitors has always struck Pepper as rather grating.  She's his assistant, not his receptionist.  It isn't her job to entertain his appointments when he makes them wait.  It certainly is not her job to entertain her boss.  

 

"This is actually directly relevant to me," he adds.

 

"I have a lot of work to do," Pepper reminds him.  "As you should know, since you are responsible for all of it."

 

He leans over and splays his hands on her desk.  "Stop thinking about work for just a few minutes.  Focus on me."

 

"I'm always focused on you," she retorts dryly.

 

"Yeah," he says.  "Good.  That is exactly what I want to talk about.  You.  Me.  Life."

 

Pepper revises her stance.  She can't talk him out of his flights of fancy and he's too personable for the silent treatment.  She might as well humor him.  "So," Pepper says conversationally, "life is short."

 

"Yes," Tony agrees.  "Very, very short."  He withdraws his hands from her desk, posture growing less urgent now that he has her attention.  "You know, I have always believed in seizing the day.  Regretting the things you did -- okay, great, I'm an expert on that.”  He pauses and Pepper thinks he might be finished until he adds a sharp, “But!”  Tony makes large, sweeping gestures towards himself, drawing her into his opinions, “ -- and this is just how I see it -- regretting the things you didn't do is worse.  The roads you didn't travel.  Travel all the roads, Pepper."

 

"I don't take unsolicited advice," Pepper replies, composed in the face of his manic energy.  "But thank you.  For your interest in my roads."

 

Tony leans over.  With his elbows on her desk, he props his chin on one of his palms.  "How are your roads?  They good?"

 

Pepper nods.  "Oh, yes, I am very satisfied with my roads."  She has no idea what they are talking about, but there's nothing unusual about that.  Tony has a well-stocked liquor cabinet in his office, one that is quite adequate for the particular thirst that tends to hit him in the late afternoon.  "Do you have any issues with your roads that I can help you with?"

 

"My roads are going to be a little less traveled that I'd like them to be," Tony answers.  "I've got too many things to run over."  He pauses, thoughtfully.  "Trample?  Pave?"

 

"I think this metaphor got away from you," Pepper says with a smile.

 

"Maybe," he concedes.  "Final word, I'm going with pave.  More positive connotation.  We're building something here."

 

Pepper arches her eyebrow.  "Do you mind sharing with me what this metaphor is for?"

 

"Life, Pepper,” he says airily.  “Life."

 

"Short and run-down," she returns with a twisted smile.

 

He nearly leaps out of the chair.  "Exactly!"

 

"So, where does this short and run-down road go?" she asks, hoping to get him onto whatever track he wanted to be on.  

 

"It goes to the end," Tony answers, dropping back into his seat.  "The living end.  The end of living."

 

The conversation path is completely circuitous, so Pepper decides to end the cycle.  "I'm glad we had this talk.  If you are looking for something to do, I do have the minutes from this morning's R&D meeting for you to look over."

 

"I haven't even made my point yet," Tony frowns.

 

"Life is short is not your point?"

 

"Yes.  Yes, it is, but in an exceedingly more personally relevant way."  He leans back, draws himself up in his chair and declares, "Pepper.  I'm dying."

 

"I think that we have," she says slowly, "covered that life is short?  So in a way, aren't we all?"

 

"Yeah," he replies readily.  "But some of us faster than others."

 

Pepper furrows her brow.  "Tony, what's this really about?"

 

Tony rocks back and forth, agitated.  "I'm sick."

 

"I only have Midol."  Of all of his tricks, feigning illness is the one she has the least amount of patience for.  In addition to being utterly juvenile, he drinks to the point of making himself sick fairly regularly.  Comparatively, faking an illness is half-assed.  When she didn't know him very well, Tony trotted out not feeling well fairly regularly, only to make a miraculous recovery once his eye caught something he liked.  Pepper has learned if she refuses to indulge him, Tony will drop a ruse quickly enough.  When he has caught a bug, Pepper pampers him too much.  She invariably feels guilty for not believing him.  Fortunately, he's not sick often -- Tony is something of a germophobe.     

 

He leans over, elbows on his knees.  "Pepper."  His voice has dropped.  "I'm really sick."

 

He's persisted through her first dismissal, so Pepper shoots another one.  "Aim for the trash can."

 

Tony slams his hands on the desk.  "Listen to me!"

 

Alarmed by his display, Pepper doesn't say another word. 

 

Tony rubs his face with both palms for a long time, collecting himself.  He's exhausting to watch.

 

"I'm sick," Tony repeats after he's recovered himself.  "It's the Arc Reactor.  It's poison.  JARVIS caught it a couple weeks ago."  

 

"Tony," she drawls, half in caution, half as a warning.

 

He licks his lips.  "JARVIS estimates -- and based on the patterns, I agree, you can check over our data if you want -- I've got less than a year to live."

 

"I don't believe you," Pepper says, but the thing is -- she does.  A large number of foreign objects have been introduced into his body.  It was always suspicious that he didn't reject any of it.  Even if his body could handle a machine embedded in his sternum, he was still living on borrowed time.  He was going to die in a fire fight or from the shrapnel or from the compromised integrity of his ribcage.  Tony had told her once, point blank, that he should not be alive.

 

Pepper has always known his life would be short.

 

He rolls back in the chair, pushing away from her.  Tony wipes his palms on his slacks.  "Of course you don't.  Why would you?  You're the person who's stuck by me through -- everything.  That kinda record is too good to be true.  You were always too smart to waste your time with a guy like me."

 

She wants the details, but Pepper has a hard time forming questions.  "How long have -- when did JARVIS discover this?"

 

"About two weeks ago."

 

"I don't believe you," she says again.

 

"Great," he says, abruptly standing.  "I'm the Velveteen Rabbit.  Your belief will keep me alive."

 

She doesn’t correct him.  Normally, she would tell him how the story actually goes, but in light of the coming storm that is his life, it doesn’t seem to matter.  She stands as well and walks quickly around the desk.  He is stalking down the hallway, a dark cloud of self-pity.  Pepper is faster, spurred by urgency.  She stops him in his tracks with a hand on his arm.

 

"Show me the data."  He's been wrong before.  He could be wrong again.

 

***

 

He's not wrong.

 

Pepper is a mathematician, not a doctor, but the data JARVIS presents to her is conclusive.  She can see that Tony's body is fighting.  Sudden downward slopes in the charts show her that he has attempted to devise stop-gaps.  The effectiveness of Tony's attempted solutions is dramatic, but not permanent.  There is poison inside of his body.  It is not wearing off.  It is not being rejected or allowed to run it's course and be expelled.  It is not being diluted.  Eventually, even with treatment, he won't be able to fight it any longer.

 

The drive from the downtown Stark Industries Complex to Tony's mansion had been a long, uncomfortable affair.  Tony had derailed most of her attempts at small talk and she had stopped trying.  Pepper thought she would know what to say to him when she saw the information that had him so off-kilter.  

 

She doesn't.  

 

Pepper feels numb.  The printouts are both her lifeline and her enemy.  She clutches them to her chest.  After a long moment, she finds herself sitting in one of Tony's cars.  He has been working on restoring the Shelby since he fell on it in the MK II armor.  He's been able to replace the seats, but not the body.  Because the doors and roof are gone, it is easy for Tony to slide in beside her.

 

When Pepper finds her voice, she asks, "Does Jim know?"

 

He winces.  "Not yet.  I wanted to tell you first."

 

She nods.  "Thank you.  For telling me."

 

Rakishly, Tony grins.  "Why keep good news to myself?"

 

"Tony, that's not funny."

 

"Sure it is," he counters, but Pepper has little patience for his gallows humor.  "I need to be able to laugh about this.  I've got months.  I need to believe that I have something good in my life or I'm not going to last that long."

 

"There has to be something you can do," Pepper says, despite holding the very evidence of all that he's done, of all that has not been working.  "Some specialist you can see."

 

"The specialist in arc reactor technology is me," Tony says, "Or my dad.  He's been pretty tight-lipped about the whole thing.  You know dead guys.  They aren't real helpful."

 

"You can't just give up," Pepper protests.  "What about -- what about Iron Man?   You're alive for a reason."

 

"Turns out the reason wasn't good enough," Tony says.  "I'll turn the mission over to Rhodey.  I'm not thrilled about the military having the suit, but there's still so much more to be done.  My weapons are still out there.  Stane isn't going to win just because I'm dead."

 

Finally, all Pepper can say is, "It's not fair."

 

Tony shakes his head.  "Hey.  Look, I've lived more than anyone I know.  I can say a lot of things, but needing more time to accomplish great things isn't one of them."

 

"You still have so much more to contribute to the world."

 

"I am deeply sorry for the world's loss, trust me."

 

"You are really going to just sit here and tell me there's no hope?" Pepper asks quietly.  "You were gone for three months -- for three months, there was nothing, but we hoped.  And now when you're right here -- right next to me! -- now there's no hope?"

 

"Well, the thing is," Tony says, "this time, I'm gonna leave behind a body.  And that is generally a hope-killer."

 

"You can't die."

 

"We're all dying," he returns with a lopsided smile.  "I'm gonna get there early, but they haven't been calling me a prodigy my whole life for nothing."

 

"I can't take you making jokes about this," Pepper says, sliding out the other end of the car.  "Why are you just accepting it?  Since when do you let the world rule you?"

 

"I'm not letting anyone rule me!  I'm not accepting anything!  I haven't found a solution yet.  I wanted to be honest with you."  Tony shakes his head helplessly.  "I thought you would want that."

 

Pepper eases back into the seat.  "I do," she says, "I'm glad that you told me, I don't know what I'd do if...if it just happened and you never..."

 

"Yeah," he agrees heavily.  "'If I never...' is kind of a recurring theme for me right now."

 

"Thinking about your bucket list?" she asks softly.

 

"In a manner of speaking," Tony answers.  "I have this one thing that I've been meaning to do.  Now seems as good a time as any, especially when you remember I'm not gonna get another shot."

 

"Really, only one thing?"  

 

"I like to focus on a project," Tony replies.  "The suit.  Clean energy."

 

"It's just..." Pepper sighs, "with your resources and lifestyle, I expect you'd be able to finish a pretty long list."

 

"And I'd have you on my back," he reminds her, "because I'm not writing up a will or deciding what happens to the company once I can't do the job anymore."

 

"I can't believe that you tell me you’re dying and you think the company is what I'm worried about," Pepper huffs.  "I care about this company because I care about you.  You've poured your life into it and I've poured mine into you."  He's her boss, but he's also her best friend; Pepper isn't above acknowledging that.  The ten years she's worked for him is the longest and most involved relationship of her adult life.

 

"Which," Tony suggests, "when you think about it, is why this works out so well."

 

She frowns.  "Why what works out?"

 

"That thing," he reminds her.  "That I've been meaning to do."

 

"Which is?"

 

Tony licks his lips.  "It's you.  Have I not been clear on that?  In the past ...year?"

 

"I am not a thing," Pepper hisses, "to cross off a list.  What is wrong with you?"  She can't remove herself from the car fast enough.  The lack of doors on the vehicle further enrages her -- she would certainly love something to slam shut.  The best she can do is forcefully drop the printouts she had been holding on the seat as she goes.

 

"Pepper!" Tony shouts, scrambling to catch up with her.  "I didn't...that's not what I meant!  I need you to stick with me here."  

 

She pays him no mind.  This is a trying time for him, she has no doubt, but any sticking with him that she does will have to happen after she's cooled down.  And been issued profuse apologies.  And while she normally doesn't hold out for gifts, this occasion may warrant it.

 

"JARVIS!" He shouts.  "Lock-down!"

 

The thunderous clicks of every lock in the workshop just fuel her ire.  "JARVIS," she calls, "Reverse lock-down, authorization code --"

 

"Pepper," Tony howls.  "Listen to me!"

 

"Papa Echo Papa Papa Echo Romeo," she finishes.  The doors shifting into stand-by is every bit as audible as Tony's initial lock-down.  "I don't know," Pepper says to Tony, "what you think you can say that's going make that okay."

 

Tony grimaces.  "It came out wrong," he says.  "I think we can agree that that thing that I said was not the thing that I meant to say."  

 

"That was way too many 'that's."

 

"Well, you just used two, so."  

 

Pepper squares her jaw.

 

"All right.  Um.  I am not expecting anything, let's be clear with that.  Or not-that.  Can you stop glaring at me?"

 

"No."

 

"Because that's making this really difficult."

 

"I would like to be hearing an apology," Pepper explains.  "Many apologies, actually.  Profuse apologies."  

 

"I think," Tony says slowly, "that you should know that I think that I might be..." He stops.

 

"Sorry?" she supplies.

 

"You know what?  I'm just going to come out and say it."

 

He doesn't say a thing.  "Well?" Pepper prompts.

 

"I'm in love with you," Tony declares.  "And that," he makes a sweeping gesture with his arms, "is the end of today's revelations."

Chapter Text

Velveteen Rabbit

Chapter Two

 

"You're in love with me?" Pepper sputters, unable to keep the sheer shock out of her voice.  She knows Tony is attracted to her.  She knows that he has certain expectations for what life as a responsible adult-slash-superhero should entail, serious relationships being one of them.  Love wasn't even on her radar.  

 

"Yeah," Tony answers.  "Pretty sure." He shrugs.  "But the good news is I'm dying so you don't have to deal with the awkward for long."

 

She shakes her head.  "I don't know what you expect -- "

 

"-- I don't expect anything --" Tony says loudly, drowning out the sound of her voice.

 

"-- me to do with this," Pepper finishes helplessly.  She can't turn him away -- he's dying, and apparently she is all he wants.  The guilt at refusing him the only thing he’s asked for at the end of his life would be unbearable.  But she can't lead him on out of pity, either.  It wouldn't be fair to him to spend his final days being lied to by the woman he loves.  And she can’t quietly accept his feelings or allow him to override her own desires.  It wouldn't be fair to herself to surrender her life and her body to a relationship she doesn't want and a friend who will be taken from her.

 

"If you're looking for suggestions," Tony offers, "I have a pretty good library of fantasies.  Very extensive.  Or," Tony adds, when she doesn't rise to his bait on cue, "I hear you are pretty good at rejection speeches.  You know, I stopped making them myself.  I just figured -- why deny the world your gifts?"

 

"Tony," she holds up a hand.  "Stop.  Let me just..."  Pepper doesn't finish the sentence.  There is nothing she can do.  She likes to think of herself as a capable person, someone who finds the sliver of solution in the haystack of Tony's problems.  But there is nothing here she can change, nothing she can fix for him.  Her job has always been to make his life easier, to smooth out his wrinkles and get rid of the complications.  There is nowhere to turn.

 

She walks purposefully to the workshop's living alcove.  Removing herself from a showdown makes her feel more in control in a situation that is pure chaos.  Pepper sits primly on the sofa and crosses her legs at the knee because it is a normal thing for her to do.

 

His voice comes from several feet behind her: "I needed to tell you."

 

Pepper straightens her skirt.  It was neither crooked nor riding up, but she needs to do something with her hands other than dig her nails into her scalp and scream.

 

"Heads up," he calls, "I'm gonna keep saying it.  It'll lose the dramatic factor after a few more times."

 

"Oh," Pepper exhales, "I doubt that."

 

"Sure it will." He walks around the couch.  "I love you, Pepper."  He drops down onto the cushion furthest from her.  "Listen to that.  It's mundane.  I'm bored with it already."  

 

Her mouth quirks.  "Really?"

 

"No.  Not even a little.  I think it's spectacular."

 

She flushes.  "I don't know what to think."

 

"Don't think," Tony advises.  "Let's make out."

 

"You really think that's a healthy reaction to all of this?" Pepper asks.

 

"I think," he says pointedly, "I want to kiss you."  The desire in his expression is raw.  Tension emanates from his body.  Pepper feels as though if she doesn't allow him to release it, the pressure may crush her.  She watches his eyes, his gaze unyielding.  Her mouth feels dry.  Pepper licks her lips.  His own lips part, yearning.

 

Pepper had almost kissed him once, nearly a year ago.  She'd found herself at a precipice, holding his arms to keep herself from falling over.  She never figured out why that night was different from any other.  The graceful way he moved was not new to her, nor was the sight of Tony in a tuxedo.  He was charming to a fault, honest about the ways she was necessary to him and aware of her comfort zone.  He had always been that way.  But that night, poised on the balcony of the Disney Concert Hall, was when Pepper knew she would do it; she would go home with him.  She would go to bed with him.  She would be another woman to come and go from his bedroom.  But she wasn't willing to do it sober.    

 

Tasked with the duty of getting her a much-needed drink, Tony disappeared and never returned.  At the time, Pepper assumed he'd lost interest.  He had been bewitched by her dress and enjoyed making her flustered, but once he was away from her, the spell had been broken.  Any number of attractive women would be drifting through the ballroom, willing to run off with him at the slightest word.  They wouldn't ask him for favors.  They wouldn't fret over appearances, reputations or looking like a woman willing to trade sex for a promotion.  He wouldn't be expected to converse with them the next day.  She and Tony were close and his rejection hurt, but Pepper told herself it was for the best.

 

After the smoke cleared, Pepper learned that Tony had not rejected her.  He had not lost interest.  He had taken up his mission as Iron Man, and Pepper came in second.  Tony was focused, Tony was driven, Tony believed with his entire being that the Iron Man was the right thing to do.  These were attractive qualities.  More than wanting to sleep with him, Pepper would follow Tony straight to hell if that's where his mission took him.  But she was not so resilient that she could weather being the terrified, yet proud girlfriend Tony envisioned.  Pepper wasn't so unselfish that she was willing to be second to his quasi-suicidal mania, however noble it appeared. 

 

So when he tried again to make that romantic connection, she said no.  And when he kept on trying, her answer didn't change.

 

Today, spurred on by the knowledge that he will die, that the what-ifs must be answered now or forever hold their peace, she gives Tony a different answer.

 

Her heart is pounding when Pepper acquiesces with a brief, "All right."

 

Tony is fast and aggressive.  The words have barely left her lips when he slides across the cushions, colliding against her.  His lips have found hers before Pepper has time to react to his sudden invasion of her space.  His hands splay against her cheeks, coaxing her into tilting her head at just the angle he wants.  His mouth opens, hot and wet.  Tony licks and sucks on Pepper's lips, begging her to open up as well.  She does, and he devotes long moments to stroking her tongue with his own.

 

His hands travel down her back, low enough to haul her body against his by her hips.  There's a roughness to the way he handles her.  He's focused, controlled.  He knows what he wants; he pushes and prods her to join him there.  Tony seeks and exploits the places she likes to be touched, trying to find what it will take to make Pepper need him as he needs her.  

 

His shoulders are strong and sculpted beneath her hands.  Pepper feels his muscles ripple at his every movement.  Tony’s invisible weakness is intangible.  He is present, sturdy and warm.  His lips are soft as they move with hers.  His breath is hot as she breathes him in.  His kisses are need and passion and fire.  She is a moth, fluttering closer and closer to his light.  Her desire grows, from uncertain and shy to heady.  Tony bares her down into the sofa cushions.  

 

Once he has settled himself above her, his lips travel over her face and down her neck.  Pepper cradles his head as he nips at her pulse point.  She groans his name when he teases her nipples through the scratchy lace of her bra.  She rolls her hips at the feather light pressure of his drifting fingers.  As Tony threads his fingers into her hair, the tingle on her scalp sends ripples of pleasure throughout her body.  Pepper works her thighs together, growing desperate for friction. 

 

It is when his hand finally begins its tortuously slow crawl up her thigh, slipping beneath her skirt, that something else within Pepper shifts into focus.

 

She cries out, "No!"

 

Tony rears back, wide-eyed.

 

It takes a few huffs for Pepper to regain her composure.  She pulls down her skirt, adjusts her blouse.  She can only imagine how she must look to him -- lips swollen, hair mussed, clothing undone.  Wanton.  Her own voice is bewildered in her ears.  "I'm not going to sleep with you."  She's often wondered what it would be like to go to bed with him.  However much she tries to picture someone else, her thoughts inevitably drift to him when she touches herself.  But she can't actually go through with it.  Tony put her second to his needs a year ago.  He'll come in second to hers today.  Pepper will not put herself through the anguish of regret.  She will not watch him wither away as she lies on her back.

 

He's hurt by her sudden change of heart, but stopping while they can is kinder to him as well.  If she goes through with it -- however much she wants him physically -- he will think he’s won her over.  He will think she has accepted his feelings and anything else he’s offered up with them.  Pepper has been responsible for so much of his being these ten years.  She can’t be the caretaker of his heart as well, not when she knows how this is going to end -- Tony will be gone soon, leaving Pepper to pick up the pieces alone.

 

Tony closes his eyes tightly.  "Pepper, I didn't --" he stops himself.  

 

"I think," Pepper offers cautiously, "that everyone's emotions are running very high right now.  We've both got," she swallows, "a lot to process."  

 

"Yeah," Tony says.  "Okay, sure."

 

"I think I should go," Pepper says.  "I'll see you tomorrow."  After a long moment, she adds, "Mr. Stark."  She needs that distance.  She needs to remind herself why choosing the love of a dying man would be a mistake.  

 

"Ms. Potts," he returns hollowly.

 

***

 

Over the next few days, Pepper finds building Tony's schedule more arduous than usual.  Not because the people she needs to speak to are difficult to get hold of, but because she is very aware that soon, Tony will be unable to meet the rigorous demands of his day-to-day life.  Revising his will and finding candidates to replace him as CEO of Stark Industries will be larger priorities than balancing his responsibilities to the company and his active social life.

 

Soon, Tony Stark will be forced to disappear from the jetsetting scene.  The media will notice; the invasion of his privacy will escalate.  Torrents of questions will plague him as rumor-mongers spin the reality of his illness into sensationalized gossip.  His final months will be anything but peaceful.

 

As of now, Pepper spends most of her free time researching life with a terminal illness, trying to determine what he will need from her, as a friend and co-worker.  Emotional support and patience are obvious requirements.  Luckily, she is practiced at providing both.  However, Pepper worries he will be resistant to physical support.  Becoming an invalid, or the fear of being seen as one, may be more than his pride can handle.  She suspects he will drag his feet when it comes to settling his affairs.  Prodding him to see his lawyers is a duty Tony predicted, but not one she looks forward to. 

 

She watches how he eats and is pleased to see no change.  Pepper has read that terminal patients may begin refusing food.  When they have no future, people may cease to see a reason to take care of themselves.  On this particular metric, Tony has an advantage: the Iron Man is keeping him alert and motivated.  Though the prospects for his future are dim, he refuses to give up his mission as long as he is physically capable of fighting.

 

This, too, he will lose.  It has not escaped her notice that Tony has begun building new suits of armor for Rhodey.  The armors don't make it through missions unscathed and Rhodey will need replacements.  She wonders if Tony has shared his intentions with his friend yet, but can't bring herself to ask.

 

Pepper knows she's grieving already.  The phone number of Tony's celebrity psychologist tempts her from the virtual rolodex.  Tony has abandoned the idea of therapy entirely.  Pepper considers making appointments for herself.      

 

Within a few weeks, Pepper begins attending church.  She doesn't tell Tony because he is a stringent atheist; he once told her, long before it was immediately relevant, that he wanted a physicist to speak at his funeral.  Physics is where immortality lies, he explained, not some notion of the soul.  He also spent a memorable Christmas party some years back lecturing her on why a virgin birth was impossible, as though he was laboring under the impression she was unfamiliar with human reproduction.  He was drunk enough not to remember it later; Pepper wishes she could say the same.  She considers religion somewhat fanciful herself, but a resource is a resource.  If God is out there, Pepper supposes it falls to her to win Him over to the cause.

 

In all likelihood, Tony knows, or at least suspects, what Pepper is up to.  She has altered her schedule to keep herself at the house as much as possible, unwilling to leave Tony alone anymore than necessary.  This has meant adding weekend time to her workload.  She arrives conspicuously later in the day on Sundays, always after services.  Pepper would like to invite him along sometime, but she doesn't think the offer would be well-received.  She's become wary of making suggestions that may seem intimate.      

 

Pepper always ends her workday with a final debriefing.  She waits until Friday evening on the sixth week to drop the bomb she had been avoiding.  The last two items on her list are particularly unpleasant.  "We need to discuss your will."

 

"Have your eye on something?" Tony asks.  He had been beneath one of the cars when she came down to the workshop.  She had directed her daily review at his feet until now.  For this discussion, he rolls out.

 

"I know you'll put this off," Pepper says honestly.  "That's the only reason I'm bring it up so soon.  It needs to get done."

 

Lying on his back, he asks, "What do you want?"

 

"Tony," she says sternly, "please.  There will be -- there have already been -- intense legal battles over your estate.  You need to choose how you want to allocate your resources and funds.  You have no immediately apparent heirs."

 

"Too late to make one," he says thoughtfully.  "Knew I should have frozen my sperm."

 

"I expect you'll want to leave substantial amounts to green energy research.  I'm working on putting together a portfolio of non-profits for you to look over.  Are there any other causes you'd like to donate to?"

 

"Fire fighters.  Wounded veterans."

 

"Okay," Pepper says, typing a note into her phone.  "I will look into both of those."

 

"Seriously, though," he says, hauling himself upright.  "How about you, what have you got your eye on?"

 

"I do not," Pepper frowns, "have my eye on any of your possessions."

 

"I could leave you the house," he offers.  "You're here about as much as I am."

 

"That's very generous," Pepper says graciously, "but no, thank you."  She wouldn't be able to stand roaming his estate, knowing he'll never go thundering down the stairs to his garage again.

 

"The cars?" he tries.  "How about the hot rod?"  He gestures towards the perpetually unrestored auto.  "When you're lonely, you can gaze upon it and contemplate ...the obvious daddy issues it represents."

 

"Please stop trying to give me your things."

 

"You've been here ten years," Tony points out, "You've earned some swag."

 

"You pay me," she reminds him.  "Quite a bit, if you'll recall."

 

He waves his arms dismissively.  "I'll leave you everything.  You can sort all this out later."

 

"You will not," Pepper declares.  "Moving on, something else you need to start seriously considering is the transfer of power regarding your position within Stark Industries and stock ownership."

 

"Nope," Tony declares, pushing off the roller.  He ambles toward a workbench.  "Not thinking about that."

 

"Well," she shrugs, "You have to.  If you had done research regarding the transfer to the next CEO, you would know that you get to choose your successor.  The appointment is subject to board approval, but we have a number of vice presidents and department heads who would meet any requirements they have."

 

"No," He says pointedly.  "I'm not turning the company over to anyone who thought I was crazy when we stopped making weapons.  I'm not turning it over to anyone who would start those divisions up again and I'm not turning it over to anyone who would bow under the pressure of the board.  No."

 

"Stark Industries is your legacy," Pepper says placatingly.  "I know you care very much about what happens to this company and what your name will mean after you're gone."

 

Her soothing understanding has made him stand a bit straighter.  "It'll resolve itself," he says.

 

"Nothing resolves itself," Pepper shoots back.  "You just think it does because my job is to resolve it for you."

 

He shrugs.  "It'll resolve itself."

 

"I am going to put together a list of candidates," Pepper declares.  "You will see each of them.  And then we will discuss this further."

 

"There is nothing to discuss," he counters, "Starting now, I'm tabling it indefinitely.  What else you got?"

 

Pepper sighs.  "That's everything for today," she says, giving her dossier a final once-over.  She has not neglected any of today's business.  "Unless you have something...?"

 

He slaps a wrench into his palm a few times and says, "What do you say to dinner?"

 

"I can absolutely make reservations if there is someplace you would like to go tonight," Pepper answers.  Among the numerous contacts programmed into her phone are many of Tony's preferred dining establishments.  "What time do you want to be seated?"

 

"I mean," he says, setting the wrench down on his workstation, "what do you say to having dinner with me tonight?"

 

"That would be just fine," she says briskly.  It is Tony's first attempt at anything more personal since he had his hand up her skirt.  Like all of his romantic advances in the past year, it hinges entirely on catching her off-guard.  He's searching her for vulnerability.  He won't find it.  Phone in hand, she begins scrolling through her contacts.  "Is there anywhere in particular you have in mind?"

 

"You don't date much, do you?" he asks.  "Generally, guys like to see a little more enthusiasm than that."

 

"Oh," Pepper answers, feigning ignorance, "this is a date?"

 

"I asked you out, you agreed, and now we proceed to the date portion of the evening, yes.  Is this going too fast?  I promise not to do anything outrageous like hold your hand."

 

"Or give me all of your worldly possessions?"

 

"Promise that, too," he concedes.  "Under duress."

Chapter Text

Velveteen Rabbit

Chapter Three

 

Tony decides to forgo reservations.  If they have trouble being seated, he plans to bribe the host.  Pepper disapproves, but she can't deny the effectiveness of his proposal.  He also elects to drive them himself, rather than have Happy take the Bentley.  Pepper agrees readily to that choice.  Driving puts a cap on how much he'll drink.  They are going to an expensive, but still public, venue.  There will be witnesses.  Spending an evening out socially with her besotted boss raises enough of her red flags without Tony making a spectacle of himself -- or her -- in the process.  There will be rumors, of course, but as long as the gossip doesn't gain creditably, Pepper can deflect questions with a work-related fabrication.       

 

Pepper isn't dressed appropriately for the restaurant he chooses.  Her workday pantsuit, inconspicuous make-up and plain ponytail are very much out of synch with the ambience of the establishment.  She considers twisting her hair into something a bit more elegant, but refrains.  Though Pepper is out with him, she doesn't want to give Tony the wrong impression.

 

Over cocktails, it hits her that she's no longer sure what is the right impression.  Pepper had thought she could never give him what he was asking for, but he appears satisfied with her attention.  Indulging him is easy.  As the evening wears on, Tony’s charming and enthused company does little to convince her to end this charade.

 

"Next time," Pepper says as they wait for the valet to bring Tony's car around, "Give me some warning about these excursions."  True to his word, he does not try to hold her hand.  Tony's palm rests lightly on the small of her back instead.

 

Tony is perturbed.  "What?"

 

"I wasn't dressed appropriately."

 

Tony steps away from her and gives Pepper a very deliberate once-over.  "You look great," he pronounces.

 

"Business formal," she explains.  "I have dresses at home that I would much rather wear out."

 

"Oh," he says with a shrug.  He slides back into her personal space and wraps one arm low around her hips.  "If you insist."

 

"I walked into that," Pepper reflects when they get in the car.

 

"Little bit."

 

"So, about next time," he offers conversationally as they cruise the highway back to his estate, "How does tomorrow sound?"

 

"You're going to be in New York tomorrow night," Pepper reminds him.

 

His brow furrows.  "Van Dyne’s party," he recalls.  "Am I packed for that?"

 

"You are."

 

"Are you going?" he asks.

 

"No," Pepper says with a shake of her head, "I'll be holding the fort down here."

 

"When I am going to see you again?"

 

She smiles.  "I'll be on the tarmac like always."

 

He watches her out of the corner of his eye.  "When do I get to see you in one of those dresses I've heard so much about?"

 

"Let me check your schedule," she replies neatly.  

 

***

 

As it turns out, he's free the following Tuesday, due to a last minute cancellation by a client.  The whole thing strikes Pepper as fishy, especially given that the sudden gap in the schedule frees her up several hours early.  She has more than ample time to get ready for a romantic evening.  Though the client called her, she can't shake the feeling that Tony must have planned it.

 

They take his car again, and much like the previous outing, Tony returns her to his garage when their meal is over.  She's left her car parked out front.  Unlike the previous outing, he doesn't let her slip away for the night without a kiss.  Cradling her face in his palms, Tony tells her again that he loves her.  The admission still makes her heart drop into her stomach, but the touch of his lips is a sweet balm.

 

He's a strange sort of gentleman, Pepper reflects at home.  Since the disaster that occurred the day of his initial February confession, he has been taking things textbook slowly.  However, she can't help but feel there's an edge of manipulation to everything he does.  She told him she would not sleep with him, but Pepper has gone along with everything else he's suggested.  Tony is responding to her mixed signals by boxing her into corners.  

 

The crux of his issue lies in Tony's vulnerability.  He played his hand by making his feelings known.  Until Pepper makes her choice, taking control of the situation is his only recourse.  He gave her a few weeks to process his news, a window of opportunity to make a decision.  When she did not, he moved forward with what he wanted.  They are at a crossroads, with two potential ways to move ahead.  She could end this game altogether, or she could help him feel secure in their budding affair.  Morally, she feels there's only one real option.

 

But the fact is, Pepper didn't spend a decade of her life making his easier only to give up at the end.

 

The next morning, Pepper begins her daily run down of his day with a good-morning kiss.  Tony knows he is desirable to her.  The balance of power shifts.     

 

***     

 

The transition is too easy.  As heavy subjects become verboten one by one, Pepper drifts into spending Tony’s idle hours with him.  He’s always been a demonstrative person, speaking in gestures as much as words.  Reading the intent behind his action is a skill Pepper acquired long ago.  For the first time in a long while, Pepper is learning new things about Tony.

 

Reviving the Stark Expo is the final initiative he intends to make as CEO.  The Expos of his youth are some of his best memories of his father.  He wants new generations to be wowed by the majesty of scientific achievement.  He wants the Stark name to mean innovation, and for that innovation to be accessible to the public at large.  Because Pepper is not the only one making new discoveries, Tony learns that she thinks the Expo to be a gross misallocation of funds and resources.

 

She learns the physical signs of his illness -- the dark, veiny patterns that appear on his chest and spread outward over his body.  Because Tony gets absorbed in projects, he lets his rising blood toxicity get out of hand before he medicates himself.  Pepper watches the signs carefully, learns to send him marching to his private med lab before he falls over.  It works out for them both -- Tony is humiliated when he needs to be lifted off the floor.  Pepper has a difficult time not crying in front of him when she has to help him up.  

 

She learns him in other ways.  He likes it when she runs her fingers through his hair.  His ears are sensitive; he is putty in her hands if she kisses them.  His entire body goes rigid if she sucks on them.  He laughs if she bites him, regardless of her target.  As Pepper becomes more and more familiar with his body, the boundaries between the workday and her off hours become blurred.  By late April, the morning dossier includes an admission she has difficulty making.  “I want to sleep with you.”

 

Tony surreptitiously glances around the workshop before asking, “What, right now?”

 

Pepper smiles wryly.  She had intended to make him aware of her choice, not demand he take her this instant.  Pepper offers a compromise, “Tonight.”

 

Tony drives a hard bargain.  “When I get nothing done today because I’m picturing you naked, you need to accept that it’s your fault.”

 

“You should be used to working while picturing me naked,” she replies.  Pepper harbors no illusions.  She’s sure he has wasted hours of his time daydreaming about her with his dick in his hands.    

 

His smile tells her he’s impressed.  It takes him a beat longer than usual to think up with a come-back -- a fairly feeble ‘I can neither confirm nor deny’ -- and he isn't looking at her face when he says it.  Confirmed, she thinks.

 

***

 

Pepper had never noticed before, but Tony’s bedroom is cavernously large.  His furniture is minimalist, mostly whites and rounded edges.  The decor does nothing to hide the vastness of the room.  In the capacity of Tony’s personal assistant, this has never been a space that welcomed her.  It is one of the few rooms in the house that she does not feel belong her nearly as much as they do to Tony.  Any other time she has entered, it has been on a mission.  Rouse him from bed.  Retrieve his dirty clothing or return the fresh pieces.  Now that she intends to stay until morning, the atmosphere is completely different.

 

She makes a move for the bed first, turning down his thin comforter before lying down, facing him.  She regrets the move immediately -- it’s not sexy.  Perhaps she should have lead with a strip tease.  Nonetheless, he follows.

 

They have not even begun when Tony asks, "Do you want to stop?"    

 

"I want assurance," Pepper answers, shuffling her back against the sheets.  Tony can read that she's become unsure of herself, but not gauge the source is her own misstep.

 

Kneeling above her, Tony laughs.  "Fresh out of that."

 

Pepper smiles ruefully.  She'll miss his laugh the most.      

 

"Seriously," he says when he has calmed down.  "You want to stop, you say so, we stop."

 

"Got it," Pepper answers.  "I'm just nervous," she confesses.  "I don't think you'll be able to fix that."

 

"You don't?" he purrs.  "How about you let me try?"

 

Tony leans down and spreads himself over her.  His body is a comforting weight that grounds her in the present.  She needs that, proof that he is here and with her.  And when he is gone, she'll still have the knowledge that he was once solid and strong.  That he had shared himself with her, loving her.

 

His kiss is soft at first.  Comforting and encouraging.  Pepper has to hand it to him, she does begin to relax.  He makes it all so simple.  As their mouths move together, it becomes hard to recall why she was ever reluctant to sleep with him.  Pepper could lull the hours away basking in his affection, but in bed, she wants his ardor to rise.  She guides him into a more passionate kiss.  

 

Growing impatient for more -- driven by his bruising and lascivious kiss  -- Pepper's hands scramble for the hem of his shirt.  His activities as Iron Man keep him as fit as possible; Tony doesn't let the fact that he is sick prevent him from working out if he can help it.  His abs are toned.  As she runs her fingers along them, Pepper can feel them quiver.  She smiles against his mouth.

 

He retaliates by unbuttoning her blouse.  This done, they part quickly, just long enough to shed their shirts.  Pepper slides her top out from beneath her and drops it over the edge of the bed, where it flutters to the floor after Tony's.  She quickly follows this action by undoing the front catch of her bra.  It falls open and Tony grins widely at the sight.

 

He wastes no time palming her breasts, rubbing her nipples between his fingers.  His lips soon follow the trail blazed by his fingers, reverently kissing the soft flesh.  Pepper weaves her hands through his hair while he does so.  She sighs.  This man worships her.  Pepper lightly traces the shell of his ear with a finger.

 

Tony groans, the throaty sound filled with lust.

 

"Is this a fetish?" she wonders aloud.  "What other secrets are you hiding?"

 

Tony doesn't move away from her body before shaking his head with amusement.  His scrapes his beard along her breast.  "Killing me, woman," he mutters against her skin.  The phrase slams her out of the moment.  She'd nearly forgotten the reality of their situation.  She's stricken, until he elects to fasten his lips around her left nipple, alternating sucking and lightly nipping with his teeth.  He toys with the other with his fingers.  The sensation whites out her mind, leaving her with only the warm, wet dexterity of his mouth.  She runs her hands up and down his back.  Beneath her palms, his muscles flex with the movement of his shoulders.

 

He switches, lavishing the same attention on her right nipple as he had the left.  He sucks with greater ferocity now, causing her to take hold of his hair in one fist.  She means it as an encouragement, not a warning.  Though he seems to understand this, after a few more seconds of this attention, he drifts away from her chest, kissing his way down her stomach.

 

"Not fair," Pepper whispers, reluctantly releasing her grip on his hair.  "I can't reach anything."  She raises her knees around his torso, squeezing him.  The motion makes her skirt ride up until it bunches at her waist.

 

He clamps one large hand around an offered knee, teasing the crease with his finger and trailing down her thigh.  Both his hand and mouth are on the same mission, seeking the same promised land.

 

His finger reaches it first, sweeping her panties aside to lightly explore.  She bites her lip.  Pepper squirms.  He moves so carefully, he's almost tickling her.  It's far from unpleasant, but it also isn't what she wants.  She's hot and wet where his fingers are.  She clenches futilely at every shallow dip inside they make.  He knows how ready she is for him. 

 

"Tony," Pepper implores.

 

"Yeah?" he answers, breathlessly transfixed.

 

"I want..."  Her request morphs into a moan of pleasure as he thrusts two fingers deeply inside of her.

 

He whispers, "Tell me," as he slowly withdraws.

 

"I want..."  Pepper's hips buck upwards, meeting the force of another thrust of his fingers.  She cannot create words any longer, she can only move with his friction, with his pleasure.

 

"Do you want my mouth?" he asks idly.  His thumb lightly rubs against her clit, moving with delicate grace.

 

She huffs and groans and moans, "Yes."

 

"You want me to eat you?  Make you come in my mouth?"

 

"Yesyesyes!"  Pepper falls back among the pillows -- bereft, limp and needy -- when Tony withdraws his hand.  Teasing her, he slowly drags her panties down her legs before discarding them.  "Tony," she whimpers.

 

He drops his face between her legs.  Tony's fingers return to her pussy, joined by his lips and tongue.  He clamps one powerful hand around her thigh, stilling her.  The other hand works against her clit as he licks her pussy.  Pepper's hands descend again into his hair, pulling and tugging, pushing and guiding.  He adapts quickly to her wordless directions, moving his lips to her clit.  He alternates between sucking on it and pressing against it with the flat of his tongue.  Tony soon finds the combination of gentle pressure and rhythmic motion that makes her hips buck wildly.  Though both of his hands take hold of her hips to steady her rocking, she continues to roll with his ministrations.  She trembles and cries out for him.  Tony is ceaseless in his devotion, even as Pepper comes against his lips.  As the cascades of pleasure work through her body, he continues to lick and nuzzle her.    

 

They rest quietly afterwards, Tony’s cheek pillowed on her thigh.  When Pepper begins to stir, Tony loudly kisses the inside of her leg.  She sits up, somewhat wobbly.  When he sees her go for the skirt, Tony obligingly pulls it off for her.  

 

“I love you,” he whispers, caressing her calves.

 

“Hey, you,” Pepper calls out softly.  He meets her eyes, all cocky self-assurance.  “That was...” she murmurs, trying to find her ability to speak.  “You’re amazing.”  Tony preens, quite pleased with himself.  When she's confident she can move, Pepper is intent on making sure Tony stays pleased, albeit in a different manner.  She crawls down the bed, settling herself along side him.  Tony leans over to kiss her.  His damp lips smear her own essence on Pepper's skin.  As Pepper licks the salty cream from her lips, Tony's dark eyes are locked on hers.  His moan is a small preview of the sounds she hopes to drive out of him.  Pepper's hands slip down the front of him, opening his fly.  His eyes slide closed as she reaches inside his pants and begins to stroke him.  

 

Pepper anticipates a distinct reaction.  Tony, as usual, is a bit difficult.  

 

"You're not hard," Pepper observes carefully.

 

"Yeah," Tony agrees, slowly cracking an eye open.  "About that.  Thing is, I'm pretty sick.  Not everything’s working the way it used to."

 

Pepper withdraws her hand.  "You should have told me."

 

"I didn't want you to change your mind."  Imploringly, he claps a heavy palm to each of her shoulders.

 

"But," she protests flustered, "you can't..."

 

"I can," he corrects, nodding at her with a conspicuously raised eyebrow.  "I just did."  He's cocky, for a man with erectile dysfunction.

 

Helplessly, Pepper asks, "How can I return the favor?"

 

"This was great for me," Tony answers.  "Don't worry about it."

 

"I wish you would have said something," she whispers sadly.

 

His hands travel slowly down her arms and up again.  "Would that have changed your mind?"

 

"Of course it would have!" she cries.  She had known when she made the choice there was a good chance she would come to regret sleeping with him.  But she had also known that she would absolutely regret passing him by.  She had thought that, by climbing into his bed, she would at least have the chance at building a happy memory with him.  But that, too, has been stolen from them by the illness that has ravaged his body.  

 

"That's what I thought,” Tony admits, stiffly holding his head up.  “And that's why I didn't."

 

Vexed, Pepper demands, "Why did you --"

 

"Jesus Christ, Pepper!  I still want you!"  

 

Utterly defeated, she tucks herself against his torso.  "I'm sorry," Pepper says into his shoulder as Tony’s arms wind around her.  She nuzzles his neck, where dark, veiny latticework marks him.  It was stupid to have thought she could have him.

 

Tony has never held her before.  Everything about his embrace is awkward.  "It's okay,” he tells her hair.  “It's gonna be fine."

 

***

 

When Pepper wakes, Tony is still asleep beside her.  She slips her arms around his waist, spooning him from behind.  Rather than being warm and welcoming, he is cool and clammy to the touch.  She draws herself up on one arm, prods him in the shoulder with the other.

 

"JARVIS," Pepper calls, "lights on!"

 

She has to squint in the sudden brightness, but with the room illuminated, Pepper can see that Tony is pale.  The irregular lines that demonstrate his condition have spread across his body.  She rolls him onto his back.  His breathing is loud and labored, eyes open and glassy.  

 

"Tony!"  Pepper cries, shaking him until his eyes fix on her.

 

"Pe--Pepper," he rasps.  "Box.  On my desk.  Downstairs.  Get it."

 

She grabs an armful of discarded clothing off the floor -- her panties, his t-shirt -- and tugs them on as she races into the hall and down the steps.  The tile floor of the workshop is freezing on her bare feet.  It is sudden and jarring enough to ground her panic, keep her thinking straight.  Now that she is thinking critically, it strikes Pepper how tremendously poor Tony’s directions had been.  He has a number of desks scattered across the workshop, each with a different function.  She dashes from place to place, trying to find the mysterious box.  

 

She finally spots a large wooden case set upon an otherwise empty table.  Pepper seizes it, tucks it under her arm and runs thudding up the stairs.

 

Tony is more cognizant when she returns to the bedroom.  He takes the box from her hands roughly when she offers it.  Wasting no time, he pops it open and selects one of several thin metal sheets.  Next, his hands travel to his chest, unscrewing the Arc Reactor.  He pulls a burnt, chewed-up relic from within and replaces it with the fresh sheet from the box.  Immediately, the Arc is placed back into its metal-lined cavity.

 

Tony collapses onto the mattress with a huff.

 

Pepper cautiously eases onto the bed beside him.  "What did you do?"  Until now, he has always medicated himself in private.  

 

"Replaced the palladium core," he explains.  Every breath he takes is long and deep.  “Palladium.  It's toxic.  Who knew, right?"

 

"That helps," Pepper observes, watching the lines on his skin fade.

 

"Yeah."

 

"Tony."

 

His head lolls to face her.  "Yeah."

 

"The poison...” Pepper offers with a furrowed brow, “it's coming from inside the Arc Reactor."  She had known that, of course.  He was always clear that the Arc Reactor was the problem.  

 

"Yeah.” He affirms, pausing in his deliberate breathing to grin.

 

"You..." She pursues her lips, trying to parse what she has heard and witnessed.  "You just poisoned yourself."  All along, his method of self-medication had been to put more toxins into his body.  The burnt-out piece was dangerous.  He would replace the used palladium with new, and wait for it to hurt him again.    

 

"The Arc can't run with anything else," he replies.  "I've tried every element, every combination I can think of.  Nothing's worked."

 

"You are doing this to yourself," she states carefully, trying to will it to be incorrect.  All along, Pepper had thought the poison was in his bloodstream, unable to be removed or diluted.  All along, he had been doing and doing and doing this to himself.  Over and over.  Hurting himself, until eventually, the successive poisonings would weaken him.  Make his body shut down.  And he would die.

 

The mirth at escaping a sticky situation drops off his face.  Flatly, Tony states, "The Arc Reactor keeps me alive."

 

"You...fuck you!"

 

He stares, jaw falling open.  

 

His shock at her choice of language does nothing to temper Pepper's fury.  "The Arc Reactor?" she cries, venom-tinged.  "The Arc Reactor doesn't keep you alive!  The...the...the electromagnet does!"  It's hard to speak, hard to think straight.  He did this to himself.  All along, he knew he was doing it to himself.  She draws herself up on her knees.  Her hands are shaking.  "Because...the shrapnel!"

 

"Yeah," he replies, recovering from the surprise.  "The electromagnet that's powered by the reactor."

 

"What is wrong with you?" she screams.  "Take it out! Take it out!"

 

"I'll die," he answers, rousing enough to prop himself on his elbows.  "Not in a couple months.  I do that, I’ve got a week."

 

"What is wrong with you?" she hisses.  "You are going to die because...because of your invention?  Because you can't admit it doesn't work?"

 

"It works," he shoots back.  "My dad --" 

 

"-- If it worked,” Pepper interjects rancorously, “You wouldn't be dying!"

 

He doesn’t match her anger.  "It's not a problem with the Arc Reactor."  

 

"Take it out!"  She shouts again.

 

"I will die," he hisses, sitting up.  “Why don’t you get that?”

 

"Take it out and replace it with something else!”  Pepper orders.  “Build a new battery!”  She crawls to him on her knees.  “Tony, Tony," she pleads, cupping his face with her hands, "I know you love your father.  I know the Arc Reactor was his baby.  You can't let yourself die because his design wasn't perfect."

 

"I'm not letting --" he protests.

 

She won’t let him.  "-- You're not fighting either!"

 

"I've tried everything!"  he bites back.

 

"No, you haven't!" she insists. "Because you haven't tried starting over from scratch!"

 

"The power output the suit requires --" he recites, in a resigned, dull tone.  Pepper does not allow that, either.

 

"It doesn't have to power the suit!" Pepper cries.  "It just has to power you!"

 

He takes her wrists in his large hands.  For a moment, she thinks he is going to push her away.  He holds on.  "You're a genius, Pepper."

 

Chapter Text

Velveteen Rabbit

Chapter Four

 

Tony disappears down to his workshop, possessed by a creative frenzy.  Pepper is heartened by Tony’s excitement at the prospect of designing something entirely new.  Her anger cools, morphing into a strange, retroactive fear.  

Tony had been allowing himself to die.

Pepper had watched his behavior closely enough to know that Tony had accepted his illness as far as the stages of coping were concerned.  But what he had been doing to himself went by beyond acceptance: he was choosing to die.  Pepper had always known Tony’s arrogance was dangerous.  He took needless, reckless chances as a matter of course.  Choosing to die rather than accept an invention’s imperfection was a frightening low.

She begins making telephone calls.  She can’t predict how long it will take Tony to create a new battery from scratch, but Pepper does know he won’t be making any of his scheduled appearances this weekend.  The weekend schedule is a pleasure to clear.  Because they are all social obligations, Pepper won’t need to figure out how to superimpose what he will miss onto upcoming weeks.

The immediate business taken care of, Pepper appraises herself.  She will not be paralyzed by the fear that it may already be too late.  She will not spend the rest of the day wearing little more than Tony’s purloined t-shirt.  Her suit is dry clean only, so as much as she would prefer to wash it after it has spent hours on the floor of Tony’s bedroom, Pepper reluctantly changes back into it as is.  Her clothing is her armor -- sharp, plain suits that accentuate her femininity despite conservative cuts.  She is battle-damaged, but still strong enough to continue.  The phone calls she needs to make to cancel Tony’s Monday appointments will be more difficult than the weekend calls.  On a Saturday morning, Stark Industries offices all over the country should be empty.  Suited up, Pepper is prepared to invade her contacts’ weekend plans and call them in their homes.

***

 

The thunderous sounds of Tony’s heavy footfalls on the staircase jolts Pepper awake.  Her system, in the thralls of caffeine and adrenaline, had finally succumbed to a light catnap on the living room couch when he returns to command her attention.  She’s been living on little more than hope and coffee for the past several days.  As she reorients herself, Pepper’s eyes are drawn immediately to a plain little thing in his hands.  The treasure Tony cradles is a solid silver-grey cylinder of about the same dimensions as his deadly arc reactor.  It doesn't glow.

 

Squinting, Pepper wonders, "Is that --?" 

 

"Yeah," Tony answers.  "This one puts out three months of power.  We'll have to switch them out regularly for now.  Future iterations will have a longer lifespan."  He turns the thing, appraising it.  He hasn’t emerged from the workshop in three days.  Surely, he has every facet of the device committed to memory.

 

"And there's nothing toxic in it?" Pepper asks.  

 

"Not going to be an issue," he replies.

 

Unsatisfied with his answer, Pepper presses him, "What does that mean?"  

 

"I've minimized toxic discharge to the degree that it can be contained within a special chamber of the device.” Tony explains.  “None of it will enter my bloodstream."

 

"You're still putting poison into your body," she observes, rising from the couch.  She takes the machine gently from his hands.  

 

Tony just grins.  "That has always been a hobby of mine."

 

She presses her lips together.  "What if it breaks?"

 

"It won't."

 

"What if it something happens when you're Iron Man?"

 

Tony is frank about his chances when it comes to damage to the armor.  "If enough force hits the suit that it gets through the armor, through the arc reactor that powers the suit and breaks this guy -- who doesn't have a snappy name yet, brainstorm that later -- I'd be toast anyway."

 

"So," Pepper asks, "None of this has given you any second thoughts about Iron Man?"  The machine he’s built may save him from one certain death, but Tony is still courting others.     

 

"Pepper," he says, "It's not the same thing.  I have to do what's right."

 

She respects the conviction, even if she doesn’t agree with his choices.  If Tony has reevaluated his life in the wake of his illness, he’s still committed to his dangerous brand of justice.  Pepper sighs.  "Why haven't you put this in yet?"

 

"Because my arms still don't bend that way,” he says, placing his palms on her shoulders.  “I need you."

 

He leads her down to the basement.  As they walk, Pepper wearily wonders, "I have to do this every few months now?"

 

"At first," he replies, shedding his shirt in a fluid motion.  He drops it behind him.  Pepper delicately steps around it as she follows.  "There'll be upgrades.  Longer running, flashier.  Look at that thing.  It needs some pizzazz."

 

She sees that Tony had set up the garage medical station before coming upstairs to debut the new battery.  The table and monitors are all prepared for the transfer.  Tony hops up onto the table and sanitizes his chest before attaching a number of diodes.  The monitors that surround him buzz to life as his vital signs are relayed.

 

"I recall telling you I was never going to do this again," Pepper says.  The sight is miserably familiar.   

 

"Well," Tony intones, "You're the one that wanted me to live, so now you get to take one for the team.  Plus, if you'll recall, you told me never to ask you again.  This was more like telling."

 

"No surprises," Pepper declares.  "Tell me exactly what to expect."

 

"I am going to unscrew the arc reactor," Tony says, narrating his actions.  He pulls it out halfway, leaving all the wiring connected.  "And then Mr. Thirsty here is going to drink up all that discharge because I know you don't like it and I don't want it interfering with the new device.  Mostly the new device."  He slides a small, clear tube into the cavity, wedged in the space between the reactor and the hollow column in Tony's sternum.  The discharge is opaque and gooey.  It is a disgusting sight, watching it all travel through the pipe, but Pepper can't tear her eyes away.

 

"You're turn," Tony announces, withdrawing the tube once its work has been completed.  "Nothing new here.  Unplug the arc reactor, plug in the new one.  Also -- no exposed wiring.  You can touch the sides all you want.  And make it fast because the goal here is to save me, not kill me."

 

She hesitates.

 

"Pepper," he says.  His voice is just breathy enough for her to know he is not being earnest when he begins to plead with her.  "I want you deep inside me."

 

"Stop it."

 

"Seriously, let's hurry this up.  It's chilly down here.  My nipples are getting hard."

 

She presses her lips together.  "I need you to stop talking and let me do this."

 

"Then do it," he jeers.

 

"Tony," Pepper warns.

 

Pepper hands him the new device.  With one hand to steady the arc reactor, she reaches the other into the cavity and unplugs it.  Quickly, she sets Tony's killer aside.  He pushes the silver machine into her hands with urgency.  Pepper accepts it, takes hold of the long, thick wire and plugs it into the outlet formally occupied by the reactor.  She lowers the body of the device inside the hollow cavity in Tony's chest.  It takes only one clockwise twist to secure the machine in place.

 

"See, now, that wasn't so hard," Tony observes.

 

"How do you feel?" 

 

Tony thinks for a moment.  "About the same."

 

Pepper nods.  "The effects of the poisoning should start to wear off now that you’ve removed the Palladium.  It will take some time."

 

"How are you?" Tony asks, plucking the sticky diodes from his chest.

 

"Still nervous," she answers honestly.  Doomsday scenarios race through her mind now that the dull, silver circle has replaced the glowing blue one.  What if it stops?  What if it isn't powerful enough?  What if it cracks?  What if it poisons him just like his last implant?  What if the poison is worse?

 

"Nothing to be nervous about," he says, hopping off the medical table.  Pepper imagines he meant it to be reassuring, but his fingers are tapping the plate erratically and he's not looking at her, but at something behind her.  

 

She turns to see what it is.  The only thing in the workshop out of place is his t-shirt, lying in a heap on the ground.  

 

"Hey," he says, chidingly.  Pepper turns back.  He leans in to kiss her, but she slides out of his trajectory and folds herself against him, head tucked against his neck.  She's not ready to celebrate.  Though he holds her tightly, Tony is not sturdy enough to keep her from shaking.  "I'm fine," he whispers.  "I'm great."

 

“You should get some rest,” Pepper advises, drawing herself away from him.  

 

He gives her a rueful half-smile.  “Not a bad idea,” Tony admits.  He allows her to step out of the circle of his arms, but catches her hands on the way out.  “How about you?”

 

Pepper hesitates.  She’s exhausted and the idea of retreating to his bed is appealing.  With so many unanswered questions about the device, she isn’t eager to leave him unattended.  Should it fail, he will need immediate help.  She pictures him, nude in his white sheets.  Suddenly, the image of the man she woke up with three nights ago invades her mind -- pale, clammy and glassy-eyed.  Unresponsive.  “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep right now,” she answers honestly.  

 

Tony sets his jaw.  “You were sleeping upstairs just now,” he points out. 

 

“Well,” she drawls, “I’m wide awake now.”

 

Tony looks her over carefully, assessing.  “Have you been here the whole time?”

 

She nods.  “I didn’t think I should leave you here alone,” Pepper confesses.  “Not after what happened on Saturday.”

 

Tony purses his lips.  Her comment has damaged his pride, but he’ll get over it.  He’s created something worth being proud of; his ego will rebound.  “Don’t break that record,” he says.  “Come to bed.”

 

“One of us,” Pepper decides after some hesitation, “should make an appearance at the office today.  I canceled all of your appointments for the upcoming week.  Focus on yourself --”

 

“-- Who, me?  Never.”

 

“-- And feeling better.  JARVIS can keep me appraised of how you’re doing.”

 

“Hey,” he chides.  “No.  At least come back.”

 

“I’ll see what I can do.”

 

***

 

JARVIS keeps Pepper up to date on Tony’s condition as he recuperates.  Though she makes sure she knows how he's doing, Pepper has also kept her distance.  The balance of their relationship has shifted yet again.  Pepper doesn’t know where she falls anymore.  Before he was ill, she had easily dismissed Tony’s romantic advances.  His attempts at wooing her had painted a clear picture of the woman he expected her to be.  He had ideas about where in his life she should fit.  Though she found him alluring, Pepper wasn't interested in being an entry on his maturity checklist or playing the role of a superhero's girlfriend.  His illness had changed that: It became impossible to divorce the affection for her best friend and the lust for a beautiful man from the grief, the guilt, the pity -- the desperation to make the most of the time they had left.  Her desire to be with him had been shaped by his condition.  Without it, she was unsure of where their relationship should go.  

Tony returns to work the following Monday.  The effects of the poison are not entirely gone, but without continued exposure, he should make a full recovery by the end of May.  Pepper is especially grateful this will all be over with before his birthday.  What could have been a sober, final year will be a lively celebration.  He has a future again. 

The top floor of Stark Industries main campus sees very little foot traffic.  The few people who claim the executive offices are very well known to Pepper and Tony.  It is difficult for an unfamiliar face to gain access to his private spaces, which is the way Tony likes it. Should such a stranger meander into his sanctuary, Pepper is stationed right outside his office door.  She is the final resistance.

The young woman that strides with purpose towards Tony’s office is not a face Pepper has come to recognize.  Her youth -- and presumed inexperience -- bars her from any of the more prestigious positions within the company.  Her walk is confidant and self-possessed, unusual for an underling in the executive suite.

"Can I help you?" Pepper asks when the woman has nearly reached her desk.

"I'm Natalie Rushman, from Legal," the woman says. "I'm here to see Mr. Stark."

"Do you have an appointment?" Pepper asks.  Though she doesn't input every item on Tony's schedule personally, she is always armed with the most recent version.  She knows Tony's agenda doesn't include a meeting with anyone from Legal today.  Her duty is to obstruct the path of the unwanted visitor.  If possible, she'd rather do so politely.  

Ms. Rushman shakes her head.  "My instructions were to run this over just as soon as it was prepared," she answers, giving the leather portfolio she carries a strong tap.

"And that would be...?" Pepper questions.  Though she doubts Tony has any interest in what the woman has brought for him, Pepper can't turn her away without an hearing an explanation first.  The importance or relevance of her business is not dictated by solely Tony's level of interest.   

"Mr. Stark's will,” Ms. Rushman answers, “It has been updated according to the specifications he sent us."

Pepper frowns. Tony’s health has been improving steadily in the days since he built his new implant.  Even if he was still sick, the company legal department practices business law.  "Mr. Stark’s personal matters are not under the jurisdiction of the company’s legal department,” Pepper says.  “He has lawyers on retainer for his private use.”

“It was no trouble at all,” Ms. Rushman replies. 

"This should not have happened," Pepper says pointedly, "For Mr. Stark to use company resources privately is a conflict of interest and abuse of his power.  I understand that you might find him intimidating, but integrity is a virtue.”

Ms. Rushman shrugs.  "He's the boss.  He asks for something, he gets it."

"I'm very sorry Mr. Stark wasted your time,” Pepper says, but she feels more annoyance than regret. “I will personally make sure everyone who worked on that project is compensated for the time they lost." 

"Is he available?" Ms. Rushman asks.  “I don’t see any harm in giving this to him.  He doesn’t have to sign it if it is a problem.”

Despite the fact that Tony is in his office and technically able to take visitors, Pepper says, “He is not.  I’m sorry.”  

"Oh,” Ms. Rushman says, deflated.  “Do you know...” she begins cautiously.  “How is he?" The visitor drops her voice.  "There are rumors in my department.  This assignment has us all very nervous."

"He’s doing very well," Pepper answers, smiling tightly. "Thank you."

“I’m very glad to hear that,” Ms. Rushman says.  “I guess we were feeling a bit fatalistic.”

“I suppose so,” Pepper answers noncommittally.

Tony chooses that moment emerge from his office and prove Pepper a liar.

“Mr. Stark!” Ms. Rushman exclaims.  She eyes Pepper, who sits unresponsive to the silent accusation.  Tony doesn’t take visitors without an appointment.  Pepper doesn’t spare much sympathy for entitled callers who expect him to change his ways for them.

Tony raises his eyebrows at the unexpected greeting.  “Yes,” he drawls, “It is I, coming out of my office in my company.  Very shocking, completely unexpected.”  He turns to Pepper, “Ms. Potts, I am very disappointed in your dalliances on company time.”

“Surprisingly,” Pepper offers, “she’s here for you.”

“A present?  You shouldn’t have.”

“Mr. Stark,” the visitor interjects, “I’m Natalie Rushman, from Legal.”  She holds out her hand to shake.  Pepper discretely pulls the hand sanitizer from her drawer as the two exchange pleasantries.  Tony hates shaking hands.  He's paranoid about germs and hands are a hotbed of bacteria.  “I’ve brought the documentation you requested the legal department to prepare.”

“Oh, right,” Tony says vaguely.  “That.”  Ms. Rushman offers it to him.  Pepper intercepts before Tony can refuse, snatching it out of the other woman's hands.  “You know what?  Never mind all that,” Tony advises.  “Change of plans.”

Ms. Rushman nods.  “It was a pleasure meeting you, sir.”  She nods to Pepper as well before disappearing down the hallway.

“The company legal department,” Pepper chides as she drops the portfolio on her desk, “and your personal lawyers are not interchangeable.  What were you thinking?”

“I thought,” Tony says distinctly, “that you’d be proud of me for getting the ball rolling on this.”

“I didn’t realize I needed to specify who you should talk to,” Pepper protests.  “You are well acquainted with your lawyers.”  As she speaks, she offers him the hand sanitizer.

Tony ignores the barb, but takes the bottle.  That he will do this is the result of a years-long battle.  His germophobia also means he hates taking anything directly from another persons hands.  Reluctantly, he has learned to take items from Pepper.  “Exactly.  They think we’re chummy.”  He squirts a dollop of sanitizer into his palms and rubs in it vigorously.  “Just wasn’t in the mood for a lot of probing questions.”

“Are you ever?” she asks dryly.

“When they are on topics I like,” he answers.  “Speaking of which, please step into my office.”

 

Chapter Text

Velveteen Rabbit
Chapter Five

Pepper can smell the antiseptic. Tony has barely kicked the door shut behind him when his hands go to her face. Reverently, he strokes her jaw before leaning in for a kiss that is sweet and affectionate.

“Good morning, Mr. Stark,” she murmurs against his lips once Tony has pulled fractionally away.

“Ms. Potts,” he rejoins. Tony's hands slide back into her hair, where he plucks out the pins that keep her ponytail held secure. As her undone tresses fall around her shoulders, Tony twirls a lock in his fingers.

“Is there something I can help you with?” Pepper asks as he plays with her hair. It sends a pleasurable tingle into her scalp.

“You know, I did have something,” Tony answers, “but it’s been cleared up, thanks.”

She steps back. Tony’s hands fall to her shoulders. “What?”

“Nothing important,” he shrugs. “Why don’t you wear your hair down more?”

“It gets in the way,” Pepper replies dismissively. “What’s been cleared up?” she reiterates, staying focused on her target. She feels starved for his touch after going so long without; Tony's attempts to derail her with his playful caresses are nearly working.

“I had an urgent question,” he answers, settling his hands on her hips and pulling her to him, “but it has been answered to my satisfaction.”

“I have a question,” Pepper prefaces, pressed against him, “Did you know that this is completely inappropriate for your office?”

“A better question would be if I care,” he scoffs. “I’ve barely been able to get a hold of you for a week.”

“You needed to rest,” she says neatly.

“Since when are we back on working relationship boundaries, anyway?” Tony adds. “Thought we gave up trying to compartmentalize all this.”

“We did,” Pepper admits. “Maybe that wasn’t the right decision.”

Tony releases her and leans back, watching her face carefully. “I was starting to think maybe you weren’t interested anymore. You know, if you’re finished with someone, it’s a good idea to let them know about it.”

"No, it’s not that," is Pepper's answer. It's a knee-jerk response. She is uncertain about the status of their relationship, but the idea that she would just walk out without a word is almost insulting. They have accumulated a lot of history in the decade that they have known each other, but one thing they have never been to each other is cruel. However, their romance had been built on a foundation of Tony's illness. The fear, the desperation, the knowledge that his time was so limited drove Pepper to discard her usual rebuffs to his advances. In the face of an unlimited future, she wonders what kind of life they are capable of building together. Prospects are dim if he doesn't even understand that she respects him too much to silently abandon him.

Tony slides back into her personal space with ease. His hands return to her face, his mouth to her lips.

After they have traded kisses and caresses, Pepper confesses, "I guess I've been...waiting for you."

"That actually sounds pretty good," Tony says with some pride. "Is it sexist to admit I like that?"

"Little bit," Pepper answers.

Loftily, Tony says, "In the future, I'll keep my antiquated gender roles to myself."

She gives a short snort of laughter. "You do that," Pepper advises.

Fully committed to the bit, Tony clears his throat. “Now that you’re a modern woman, I expect tit for tat on flowers, chocolates and the like.” He settles one had on her hip while the other gestures at a pile of imaginary riches.

“You’ve never gotten me either,” Pepper reminds him, “So I owe you...” she pauses for pretend calculations. “Nothing.”

“Now that I know where we stand on mutual reciprocity, that’ll change.”

Pepper smirks. “Now that there’s something in it for you, you mean.”

Tony frowns. “You just don’t like it when I’m generous,” he declares.

“You haven’t given me anything,” she sputters.

“Because you don’t let me,” He protests. “I’ve got some time on my hands now. I could get you the moon.”

Grinning, Pepper shakes her head. Her hair flutters with the motion, spilling over her shoulders. “I don’t need any celestial bodies, thank you.”

His voice drops, rumbling into her ear, “What body do you need?”

Pepper shudders as his breath gusts over her. Tony follows the promise of sex in his voice by delicately pulling her loose hair out of his way to kiss a path down her neck.

“Pepper,” he grunts against her skin. She doesn’t know if he’s prompting her to answer his question or narrating his own desires.

Either way, she answers, “Yours.”

***

Pepper was ready to come home with him even before Tony started trying to coax her there. In his office, the sex had been fast and rough; over too quickly, but still immensely gratifying. Tony was healthy and alive, eager to prove to her how much better he was feeling. He had become everything she prayed for him to be. They rose victorious from the gauntlet of his illness together. They fought for the right to share each other.

Lying in bed with him, Pepper knows they have earned this moment. Though she is uncertain of their future, she won't declare them incompatible now. They both deserve the time to think about what they want without the promise of his death hanging over their heads. Pepper has not forgotten how easily he can disappear without another word when the need for Iron Man arises. She knows Tony doesn't bother with good-byes. She knows Tony's not honest about his real concerns. Tony is self-destructive and arrogant. She's never known him to be in a relationship before and she doesn't imagine he knows how to make one work. He pushes her into the directions he wants her to go in and stands stock still when she pushes back.

They have earned this time together. Pepper's not ready to talk about her doubts just yet. Instead she asks, "Do you remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit?" The question interrupts the quiet afterglow.

"I've read it," Tony answers cautiously. Pepper wonders if he remembers the declaration he made in February, when he first told her he was ill. Neither his answer nor his tone makes her think he knows the story very well. Most likely, he read it as a child and forgot the details over the years.

"Well," Pepper begins, "It's about a little boy and his stuffed rabbit. The rabbit was the boy's favorite toy and he played with it until it got very worn out. Then the boy gets sick. He gets better, but all of his things need to be burned. The rabbit will be destroyed. But, the rabbit is saved. He transforms into a real, living rabbit and is able to run out into the field."

"He transforms because the boy loved him," Tony supplies.

"Yes," Pepper confirms. Thoughtfully, she wrinkles her nose, trying to remember the details of the story. "I think there was a fairy or magic involved as well, but ultimately, the rabbit lived because the boy loved him."

Apparently, Tony remembers his claim after all, because he asks, "Am I the boy or the rabbit in this metaphor?"

"I don't know," Pepper reflects. Like the boy, Tony had fallen deathly ill and gotten better. Like the rabbit, he survived his trial through the intervention of another party. "I guess you're both. I'm not surprised -- it's your metaphor."

"Metaphor," Tony says dismissively. "I never claimed to be a poet. I say I’m the rabbit."

“You do have certain things in common with them,” Pepper readily agrees.

He eyes her suspiciously. “You have a problem?”

“You can be whatever animal you want,” Pepper replies. “Don’t let me stop you.”

He looks for a moment like he might protest, but instead settles back against the pillows. “Eh,” he snorts, again scornful. “Doesn’t change a thing for me.”

“It doesn’t?” Pepper asks, amused. “You mean your life isn’t deeply impacted by metaphor?”

“Oddly enough,” he answers, “It’s not.”

“Shocking,” she drawls.

“I don’t care,” he announces quite suddenly, “if you don’t love me. It doesn’t change my feelings about you. I’ve already got more than I thought I would. It’s a win for me.”

Pepper sits up, the warm circle of his arms no longer as welcoming as they had been a moment ago. She stares at him in muted shock.

Still on his back, Tony shrugs, his shoulders shuffling the pillows. “I just mean,” he continues, “it’s fine. Either way. I don’t care.” His fingertips tap softly against the small of her back. As nonchalant as his words are, his hands are anxious.

Tony isn’t on the same timetable as Pepper. She wants to see how they fit together before making any decisions she can't take back. He has other ideas. If there is a possibility she may leave him, Tony wants her out now. He will not be so vulnerable as to need validation from her. He would allow the the delusion that they can go back to what they were.

The delicate, erratic pressure of his agitated tapping makes her itch. Pepper shifts from side to side, trying to find relief. The movement of his hand adapts to her sway, his fingertips curl inwards. He’s scratching.

“I care,” she says finally.

Fluid, Tony rises. His hands move to her shoulders, pressing and pushing -- kneading her flesh. Errant fingers brush her neck before his lips do. Soft kisses and his warm breath are so much better than arguments, so much better than being told that he doesn’t care about her feelings.

He slips around her, bracketing her legs with his own. Tony tugs her until she's leaning against him, her back to the new battery. The unexpected coolness of the battery makes a startling contrast against his warm skin. When she's settled, he winds his arms around her waist.

“How much do you love me?” His voice is smooth and confidant. One phrase -- I care -- and Tony is finished doubting her. He’s convinced that the feelings are there; it’s only a matter of how deeply they run. He has no doubts about himself at all.

But she's not as secure as he is.

“Not enough,” Pepper answers. “Or maybe you don’t love me enough."

“I’ve let you decide a lot of things for me over the years,” Tony growls into her ear, “but you don’t get to tell me how much I love you.” His satin tone and smooth seduction is gone. He’s angry.

Pepper’s mouth goes dry. The easy out he had offered, his attempt to blind her to any vulnerabilities, has been obliterated. She hurt him. Pepper doesn’t have a band-aid in her bag of tricks.

She draws a deep breath, and presses onwards. Pepper had not wanted to have this conversation yet, but she’s on Tony’s timetable now. She has spent most of her life on his terms. This is a ground she can navigate. “I need you --”

“-- See, that’s a good start,” Tony interrupts. “We can work with that.”

“-- to understand something,” she finishes, ignoring his suggestion. She scoots forward, out of his embrace and off the bed. “I’m not going to play a part, Tony.”

“What?” Tony watches her dress. Clothed, she feels safe. Tony is by all appearances comfortable in his nudity. He makes no motion to hide himself.

“You have expectations,” Pepper explains, once she’s covered herself. “You say that you don’t, but you want your life to be something. You want me to be something. The hero’s terrified, ignorant girlfriend.”

He’s shaking his head, wearing an expressions of confusion and skepticism. “No. That’s not...at all.”

She adds, “I don’t think that you even like that role very much.”

“Considering it doesn’t exist,” Tony postulates, “I’m not attached, no.”

Whether he doesn’t realize what he has done or if he’s just not willing to admit it doesn’t matter. “Think about it, Tony,” she requests sadly. “Think about all the effort you had to go to to keep me from knowing about the Palladium. You lied to me. You didn’t want me to know the truth.”

“I was trying to protect you,” he argues fervently.

Slowly, Pepper shakes her head. “How does that protect me, Tony?”

Put out, he mutters, “You didn’t need all the grizzly details.”

“I think you knew,” Pepper says. “I think you knew that everything that was happening was preventable. You just didn’t want to do anything about it. You kept me in the dark, you lied. I found out when you were too sick to keep up the charade. You wanted to make sure that I didn't know.”

That riles him. “I tried everything --”

“No, you didn’t.” She declares. Pepper ticks off her fingers. “Tony, it took you three days to build a new power source. Three days. You were sick for months. You weren’t trying.”

“Pepper --”

She drops her hands. “You weren’t trying,” she reiterates. “If that’s how much you value yourself, if that’s how much you value me, I don’t know what I can be in your life.”

He watches her, steel in his eyes. The guise of the old Tony rises, shallow and heartless. His voice is cold, the voice of a man who has been betrayed too many times and isn’t going tolerate it again. “Then it’s high time you got out of it.”

There’s nothing left for Pepper to say.

After ten long years of service, the famous Pepper Potts has been dismissed.

She has spent the last several months trying to prepare herself for life without Tony. Even though she lost him once before, Pepper had accepted that she could never adequately prepare herself for his death. This scenario -- this reality -- that he has rejected her, willingly removed her from his life is not one that she had ever considered.

Ten years of her life she has spent by his side, tending to him, humoring him, caring for him. She has sacrificed much to be able to meet the demands he placed upon her. Friends and relationships had fallen to the wayside. Every time she has had to assess what was a greater priority, him or pursuing another goal, another dream, Tony had always won.

She had nothing else. Given a decade to do it, Tony had made himself her world.

Pepper has been utterly immobile since his proclamation. She’s not angry. She started this war. She doesn’t regret what she said. She understands he lashed out because it hurt. She feels empty. Tony has taken something from her and left a chasm in his wake.

“Why are you still here?” Tony grinds out.

Even in her own ears, her voice sounds hollow. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Not what it sounds like from here,” he bites back. When she doesn’t argue the point, he sighs. “Pepper, what do you want?”

There has always only been one answer to that question. “I want you.”

“Yeah,” he huffs, “I don’t know about that.”

“I want you being honest with me.” Tony watches her with an expression bordering on disapproval when she sits down on the edge of his bed. “I want you to not give up. You gave up on you, you gave up on me. You fight and fight and fight for Iron Man, but you won’t do that for anything else. I keep fighting for you. And Tony, I’m going to lose if you don’t start helping.”

“Pepper,” he begins, tone growing softer.

“Tony,” she echoes, “You scare me. I’m afraid of what you might do to yourself. You’ve given me lots of good reasons to be scared. Please give me a reason to believe in you.”

He gestures towards his chest. The power source.

Pepper smiles tightly. “That was me.”

“There is no pleasing you.”

His tone is teasing, almost welcoming. Pepper picks up one of his heavy hands to cradle in her own. “You stopped seeing your therapist,” she reminds him.

“I was dying,” Tony replies, watching her link their hands. “There wasn’t any point.”

She indulged him too much when he was sick. She always has. “Talking to someone about your illness would have been a really good idea. That would have been the healthy thing to do.”

“I didn’t want it getting out --” he protests.

Pepper is quick to correct him. “-- Doctor/Patient confidentiality --”

He’s matter of fact. “I had you.”

Pepper eyes him. Tony offers pretty words, but they are hardly a defense. “If I started making you appointments again, would you go?”

“If you made them,” he drawls, “They might get confused. Pretty sure I just fired you.”

She purses her lips.

Tony immediately clears his throat. “Ms. Potts, I’d like to offer you a position --”

“Done,” Pepper says pointedly. “I expect to see a new contract tomorrow --”

He delegates even the act of hiring her. “-- You better call -- who handles this? Legal? Finance?”

“Department heads are responsible for green lighting hires, human resources handles the paperwork which is sent to finance for payroll.” She finishes with a satisfied smile.

“See, I didn’t know that,” he shrugs, illustrating once again her necessity. “It’s my company, I’ve never gone through the hiring process.”

The company has records proving otherwise, but they have wasted enough time on this path. Tony’s eagerness to lead her down an entirely different road does little to make her confidant in his dedication to mental health. “If I made you an appointment,” Pepper reiterates, “would you go?”

He hesitates a moment before clipping a short, “Sure.”

Pepper sighs. “Okay.”

“That’s it? We’re good?”

She presses her lips together. They aren’t good, not by a long shot. The path she’s set him on will take work. Even with a lot of work on Tony’s part, she still has no guarantees that she won’t end up the only person fighting for him. But he has the future in which to save himself and is open to doing so. Pepper can’t ask him for more than that.

At least, not where he’s concerned. There’s still herself to consider, her role in all of this. A successful relationship require them both to assert themselves and she's left no room for failure. “I meant it about other things, too,” Pepper warns. “About me and who I am. Let me show you me.”

Tony smiles. “I have no idea why you thought I wanted anything else.”