It’s taken far too long to get here, but finally, Pepper can’t stand it any longer. She’s watched Tony be thrown from buildings, through buildings, been hit and shot and struck by arcs of electricity. She’s seen him pushed, kicked, punched, drowned, strangled, and choked. Pepper has watched, helpless, as Tony battled magic and mayhem and chaos, has charged into firefights and through burning buildings and thrown himself into the line of fire again and again and again--
Pepper can’t take it any more.
She’s tried, God knows she’s tried, but closing her eyes doesn’t help, and praying doesn’t help, and every time she thinks that this is it, this is the moment she’s going to watch him die.
She can’t do it.
“Tony,” Pepper says quietly.
He looks up, eyes heavy-lidded, red with exhaustion. They’ve been in the workshop for hours, working on their own projects. All the paperwork in the world can’t put off this conversation, though, and Pepper has promised herself that this is it. She can’t put it off any longer, she has to tell him.
“Tony,” she says again.
“Yes, Pepper?” Tony smiles at her, and it’s a heartbreaking sight. Pepper knows each and every one of his smiles, and this one is all for her. This is the way he smiles when he’s safe, and happy, and his eyes meet hers across the room, when he curls his lips and says without speaking that he loves her, loves her--
“I can’t do this any more,” Pepper says.
Tony blinks. His eyes drop down to the table in front of him, holograms of his latest innovation hanging in the air. A wave of his hand and it all disappears, saved to a computer and leaving his work surface blank. “Do this.” He repeats, voice devoid of any inflection.
“We’re-- we’ve been together for a year,” Pepper says. “And you’ve been. Hurt. I hate seeing you hurt, Tony, but it’s even worse because I know you won’t stop.”
“Do you want me to stop?” Tony asks, and there’s something terribly raw in his voice, the way he asks the question.
If she asked him to stop, Pepper thinks, maybe he would. Maybe he’d give up Iron Man for her, maybe he’d -- stop fighting. Stop protecting other people. Stop the only thing he’s ever done in his life that made him feel good about himself, stop being able to look at himself in the mirror, stop laughing and stop smiling and stop....
“No.” Pepper shakes her head. “No, Tony. I don’t want you to stop. I just. I hate being here, I hate having to see you... I hate when you’re out there and you’re fighting, doing what you can to save everyone and I’m helpless, and I... I just, I really hate being helpless, Tony.”
“You don’t have to watch,” he says, but even as the words leave his mouth he twists his expression into an exaggerated grimace. “Okay, that was insensitive, wasn’t it? That was really bad. Sorry. I meant. Is it any better if you’re not watching, like, if you don’t have to see it on TV?”
“What, like reading a SHIELD report about your near-death experiences after the fact?” Pepper shakes her head again. “No, Tony, that does not in fact lessen my concern for your well-being. I care about you all the time, and I have had enough of this.”
Tony turns to face her with his entire body, crossing his arms over his chest. It blocks out some of the light from the arc reactor, giving him a defensive air that might not really be unintentional. “What are you saying, Pepper? Do you-- are you breaking up with me?”
Pepper gapes at him. “What? No! Of course I’m not breaking up with you, Tony, I’m trying to say that I can’t just stand by and watch you--- watch you get hurt!”
“I’m not asking you to!” Tony shouts. He winces, then uncrosses his arms. “I’m not... I don’t know what you want from me, Pepper! Just, tell me what you want. I’ll do it. Anything you want, just, you need to tell me--”
“I want you to build me a suit,” Pepper says, and Tony stops talking.
“I can’t just sit and watch you risk your life to help others,” she continues, when Tony is still staring at her in slack-jawed silence. “I cannot do it, Tony. I’ve tried but--- I know you won’t stop, and I don’t think you should. You’re a better man now than I could ever have dreamed, and I don't want to take that away from you. But if Iron Man is going to be a part of our lives, I need to... I need to be a part of that, too. I can’t be helpless when you’re out there, Tony. I need to be able to help you.”
Tony stares at her. “You... you want a suit?”
“I want you to build me a suit.”
Tony’s eyebrows draw together as he considers this. “You want to be my sidekick?”
“I could use a sidekick,” Tony muses, absently turning back to the table and drawing up a 3D diagram of the Iron Man armor. “Rhodey’s a stupid sidekick, and he never listens to me anyway. You like red, right? I like you in red, it’s a good colour, suits your skin tone. Okay, we’ll do your suit in red and gold so everyone will know you’re with me, but we’ll have to give you something distinctive so we won’t get confused in pictures...”
“Tony, I don’t care if people get us confused,” Pepper sighs, resigned to the fact that Tony will probably make her wear an armored suit with a skirt or, god forbid, high heels.
“Oooh, what if I gave you a really big gun?” Tony says, brightening as he begins making alterations to the design. “And lasers, yeah, lasers are cool. It’s a good thing you’re so slender, I won’t have to make any changes to the design, but hmm, yeah, maybe widen the hips -- lower center of gravity, that’s a thing, so we’ll change the location of the stabilizers and ensure you’ll have adequate thrust in--- oh, Pepper, how big are your boobs? JARVIS, power up the scanner, let’s get a proper 3D model of her done before we start production on the suit...”