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Anchored in Dust

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Pepper Potts faces her newest, biggest problem with the strongest show of professionalism she can muster. Back straight, eyes clear, expression neutral. 

Pacing up and down a hospital corridor. 

Her heels click on the linoleum flooring, louder than the murmurs of the crowds she passes every time she circled back around. She's checked herself in the mirror four times in the last hour and found nothing, not even a hair, out of place. She looks the same as she did when she walked into this hospital building: hair in a neat ponytail, immaculately pressed suit jacket and skirt, Tony's favourite of her pink blouses (no, she didn't forget, even when everyone else did), and grey pumps to complete the simple look. Even so, she feels horrendously underdressed. 

She smooths the front of her jacket down again, refusing to admit she's as nervous as she is. Though, if she’s perfectly honest with herself, she has every right to be. It’s not as if she was expecting to get a call from some shady government agency telling her that they’ve got her dead boss in their custody, could she please keep this a secret and maybe come talk to him so they can figure out if she can make him cooperate? 

So here she is, standing tall and proud and terrified of seeing Tony Stark again after nearly four years, in front of the mirrors of the women’s bathroom. 

Get ahold of yourself, Potts. 

It’s just Tony Stark, after all. She spent ten years wrangling him into submission. There’s no reason to be anxious about it now. 
Except it’s been three and a half years and from what she’s heard from Agent Coulson, this Tony Stark is an entirely different creature. 

Oh god, Pepper moans internally, she can’t do this. 

But isn’t this what she wanted? A miracle? She spent all these years under Stane wishing she could put Tony in a headlock and drag him out of the shop. She’s daydreamed about the banter between them down in the lab. Hell, she’s even longed for the days where she had to drag him hungover out of bed to sign some papers. And now that she’s gotten her wish, she should be happy. Thrilled, even. But all she can work up is worry. 

Because she’s standing in a hospital, on a floor with many doctors and high security. Nobody’s been able or willing to answer any of her questions, Tony’s in a room thirty feet away, there are people everywhere, and Pepper can’t figure out what she should say to him. What do you even say to a man who’s been out of your life for so long? Much less your ex-boss?

In a non-romantic sense, she reminds herself. There may have been something there three and a half years ago, but now there’s only confusion and worry. 

Pepper takes a deep breath.  Procrastination doesn’t get people anywhere. 

One step. Another. She steps away from the mirror on the wall and marches back into the fray. Look at it like a business meeting. Get in, say what needs to be said, visit again if necessary.

Right. 

All her determination grinds to a halt, however, when she hears someone call her name. 

"Pepper!"

It's a familiar voice, even through the rasp and the faint accent around the 'r'. It's tired, different, and she spent ten years listening to it. 

Pepper turns, and there he is. 

She'd like to say she recognizes him the moment she lays eyes on him, but she doesn't. It takes her a long moment to connect what she sees--a thin, sickly-looking man with too-long hair, a week's worth of stubble, and a shaky grip on his IV stand--to her memory of Tony Stark. But it is indeed him, looking in her direction and smiling. She stares a few seconds longer before hesitantly returning that smile. She can't parse any real emotion from the chaos raging in her heart. 

Fear. Surprise. Excitement. Anticipation. A thrill of something undefinable crawling up her spine. 

Say something, she urges herself. He's standing twenty feet away from you. Open your mouth and speak!

But then he looks down and oh. There's a real smile spreading across his face now, as he stares at her ankles and Pepper is so horribly confused-- 

Until a ginger bundle brushes past her legs to sprint in his direction. Tony welcomes it with open arms, releasing the IV stand to crouch next to it. The thing tackles him in the chest, visibly knocking the air out of him but he's grinning so hard it looks like it hurts. His arms curl around the small creature and it purrs loudly enough for Pepper to hear, twenty feet away and apparently invisible. 

"Ah, Pepper," he's saying, holding her close, but that's all she understands; everything else that comes out of his mouth is spoken in a language she doesn't understand. 

It's a cat, she realizes. A cat named Pepper, crawling all over his chest and shoulders and pressing its nose to his neck and cuddling up in his arms, and Tony seems to be perfectly content with sitting on the floor and hugging it. 

It's clear the cat is named after her, and she isn't sure whether to be honored or hopelessly envious of the little ginger beast. 

Has that cat been there for him these last few years? 

She should go talk to him now. While he's right there in front of her. There's no way to avoid it any longer. She can just go up and-- 

"Excuse me," she hears, and automatically steps aside for a huge bald man with a SHIELD t-shirt. He smiles kindly at her. "Thank you," he says, and ducks past other people to approach Tony. "Acervi," he says sternly, still smiling. Another jumble of words in a language she's heard once today and then, "Tony."

Tony cringes theatrically, peering up at the stranger with a sheepish smile. He responds in the same language. The large man shakes his head and bends down to help Tony up, hands on his arms for support with the cat still cuddled up to his chest. Tony shifts to hold the cat (Pepper) in one arm, the other reaching out to the IV stand, still chattering away with this man who seems to know him as they make their way slowly down the hall. Pepper watches them turn into a room and close the door behind them. 

One deep breath. Another. Mind made up and feelings a mess, she ducks back into the bathroom to collect herself. 

It takes nearly an hour for her to compose herself and work up the nerve to talk to him (again). Pepper runs a hand through her ponytail one last time, detangling one last snag, before stepping out of the bathroom and walking straight to Tony's room. 

It's a closet-sized place, with clean white walls and silver machinery. Tony's sleeping in the only bed, set along the opposite wall. He looks pale and disheveled, hospital gown damp with sweat. The covers have been pulled up to his chest, where the same cat from before has curled up. It looks up as she opens the door, fixing her with a hard, blue-eyed stare. Pepper (herself, the human) glances between the cat and its human. The cat yawns, showing sharp white teeth. 

In the hallway, a soft voice announces over the intercom that visiting hours are over for the day. 

She sighs, inching out and closing the door as quietly as possible. It hurts a little, to not have been able to see him. 

Tomorrow, she assures herself. It never hurts to have another day to plan things out. 

Besides, she decides, he's already got a Pepper by his side. 

It just goes to show, she supposes. Tony can't go on for long without a Pepper to lean on.