Pepper bit onto the tip of her tongue to contain her frustration; keeping a calm appearance was no small feat. She drew a breath in, prepared to repeat all the reasons Tony couldn’t just up and leave every responsibility, not now, when he spoke again.
“I’m sick, Pepper. I’m… I’m sick.”
The skin on the back of her neck tingled. Pepper felt like one of those gazelles in nature documentaries, when they sensed the predator before it jumped, all alarms going off. She swallowed the sudden knot in her neck and stared into Tony’s eyes, unable to voice any of her questions.
She listened to his explanation, vague and disjointed, and the sense of surrealism faded, abandoning to the leftovers of resentment she’d felt in the last hours. A cold, deep horror sat on her, like claws pressing on the base of her stomach.
“Pep?” he asked, in the lowest tone she’d ever heard him speak, urging her to say something.
Pepper bit back the first dozen questions that rushed through her mind, because they all sounded awful, and selfish, and bowed down to a panicked and desperate you HAVE to fix this. In the midst of her inner tumult, there was a sliver of sheer disbelief –disbelief that Tony was telling her. Telling anyone, period. Pepper had one thought that the generalized opinion that Tony Stark was an open book was worthy of a Mythbusters episode, and recalling that bland memory made her suppress a hysterical laugh, as useless and out of place as her panicked questions.
“I guess that’s a no to Venice, then,” Tony said to himself, irritated.
His flippancy in the face of everything, in the face of Pepper feeling it was all falling apart, was what finally made her snap. “No. No, we’re not going to Venice, we’re going home. And we’re going to talk to– to Rhodey, and to more doctors and—"
“You think any of them will come up with anything I haven’t tried?” he scoffed.
“There must be something!” Her voice kept rising and she felt powerless to stop it. “Aren’t you one of the smartest people on the planet? You survive months in a terrorist cell and now you’re just going to give up and– go to Venice? To do what! Are you really so eager to roll over and die?!”
Pepper saw the exact moment Tony decided to snap his mouth shut, instead of screaming back at her. A pang of momentary guilt started growing in her chest, but she found pushing it down was easier than ever, fired up by her anger.
Tony’s body seemed to deflate right in front of her. He bit his mouth and went back to staring through the window, and if he thought the conversation was over he had another thing coming because—
“Not really,” he replied, finally, “not now that I was just starting to do something that matters.”
It was as if his bitterness, his tacit admittance to how unfair it all was, soothed hers. Tears prickled at her eyes and she furiously closed them until she could contain them.
In the oppressive silence that now surrounded them, she tried to think of what he must have been feeling, all this time. After he’d started to put on the armour to fly around the planet in daring, borderline suicidal –and oh, was that something she didn’t want to think about, not ever— acts of heroics, her one fear was that it would kill him. He’d probably welcome it; dying in a blaze of glory, instead of withering due to a slow illness. The thought sickened her.
Pepper wanted to tell him something to comfort him, but she found she didn’t have it in her at that moment. Without her anger as fuel, only the gritty facts remained. She wanted just a moment, she realized, just one moment, where she didn’t need to face them. She could understand why he wanted a vacation, but she couldn’t, not ever, agree to that. It felt to close to acceptance.
“It doesn’t have to be Venice.” Tony spoke, as if he’d read her mind. “I get it, this time of the year, stale water… probably a bad idea.” He made another pause, tapping his fingers rhythmically against his armrest, and despite his glibness, when he looked at her again, his gaze was raw, desperate. “Just come with me. Anywhere you want.”
The words themselves should have felt generic, mundane. But his voice, broken in the middle of the sentence, his pleading look, the way his hands now clung to his seat… It hit Pepper, all at once, that this was as close, as obvious as Tony had ever come to a love declaration. She felt her lip tremble. She didn’t know what she hated more: that it only came now, when Tony thought there was no hope, or that even in this he held back; that it had become obvious he’d been pushing her away, pushing everyone away, thinking it’d hurt less when he left.
Which missed the point of the reality of human relationship by such levels she could feel her anger, her drive, returning to her. Just when she needed it.
“We can’t, Tony,” she repeated, “there has to be something. Someone that can help.” Her mind was reeling, and she jumped at the first thought that crossed her mind. “Maybe we can call Phil.”
She almost cracked a laugh, feeling as tense as a wire. “Agent Coulson.” The incredulity in his expression raised to stratospheric levels, and she was almost certain it included a hint of jealousy. In any other moment, she’d been both annoyed and flattered, but that thought barely registered in the back of her mind. “Shady governmental organization… if there’s something experimental, something not even JARVIS could find, they might be the ones to have it.”
Pepper could tell he thought she was grasping and straws and that nothing would come of it, but he nodded in passive acceptance, and that was all she needed to see. She focused on that small reprieve of satisfaction and accomplishment, and ignored the pressing hopeless thoughts that told her he might as well be right, that nothing could help them.
She looked back at Tony and pretended she wasn’t trying to drink in every detail of him. His sprawled legs, his wounds, the way the sun reflected on his face and, somehow, made it so that even from there, she could try and count his eyelashes.
It dawned on her just then, seeing the defeated fall of his shoulders, that he’d taken her sidesteps around his invitation as a rejection, and that thought felt unbearable.
As terrified as she was to even acknowledge the possibility, as much as it went against everything she was, she struggled to get the words out. “And if. If. If after that, and after everything we try, nothing works—”
The hope in his eyes cut.
“We can go to Venice. Or anywhere you want.”
Her voice had deemed more and more with every word, and her effort only got her a raised corner of his lips, a warm smile.
This has to work, Pepper thought. It had to.