"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.
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."
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?"
"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."