Characters: Pepper Potts, Tony Stark, J.A.R.V.I.S, Happy Hogan
Warnings/Triggers: illness, surgery, some swearing, innuendo, Tony Stark being Tony Stark
Spoilers: None (set Pre-First Iron Man Movie)
Pairings: Flirty Pepper/Tony Friendship
Word Count 8,444
Summary: When Pepper falls ill, she winds up with a visit to the ER, some time off work, and is treated to the unique brand of Stark care-giving.
Author's notes: I literally started the story 7 years ago, didn't get very far into it at the time, found it a little while back in an old folder, and I somehow remembered the plot I intended for it. I've completed it now, adding in some of the character beats we've learned in the past 7 years. It's long, but I've cut at least 1000 words out of the original draft, so it could be longer. I blame Tony. He loves his words.
This is set before the first Iron Man movie, probably by about six months to a year.
There was nothing Pepper hated more than being sick. When Pepper was sick, Tony Stark's world fell apart, and when that happened, people bled money. Every sniffle and cough was millions of dollars lost, because Tony didn't show up to this meeting or that interview. The world could simply not afford for Pepper Potts to be ill.
So, when she woke up with a dull pain in her stomach, she swallowed some Pepto Bismal and went to work.
And even when the pain got worse, she kept on working. And even when she started to vomit and J.A.R.V.I.S worriedly informed her that her body temperature indicated she was febrile, she remained at work. And even when this went on for two days, she stayed at work.
Tony was oblivious, of course. He rarely noticed what was directly in front of him with neon flashing lights, let alone what his personal assistant was very adept at hiding.
“No, I'm just saying, I'm not going,” he said, sticking his face up to the video com so that it distorted into fisheye. Just because he knew it annoyed her. “I have very important work that I'm trying— “
“No, you're playing with your toys,” Pepper said, speaking over him. Normally it was rude to interrupt someone when they were speaking, but with Tony, it was a necessity. “And I have given you plenty of notice for this, so I don't see why—”
“I do not remember any notice,” Tony said. “In fact, I distinctly remember—”
“No, I told you yesterday, twice, and the day before that,” Pepper argued. “You can look at the security feeds. J.A.R.V.I.S will confirm—”
“Don't drag J.A.R.V.I.S into this, you know he hates it when Mommy and Daddy fight. I just think that—”
Pepper was fighting off a wave of dizziness and held up a hand to get him to stop talking for a moment. There was sweat pouring down her face and her stomach was really, really hurting now. She closed her eyes for a moment, leaning against the desk.
For once, Tony stopped talking, maybe thrown off by the fact that Pepper had suddenly fallen silent. There was a rhythm to the way they communicated, and when one didn't play, it ruined the harmony. He peered into the camera. “Pepper?”
“Miss Potts, your heart rate indicates a vasalvagal attack,” J.A.R.V.I.S' voice said. “I believe you should sit down immediately.”
“A what?” Tony asked. “I'm coming up.”
“You don't need to—” Pepper started, but Tony was already gone from the camera view.
She tried to will herself to her chair, but she was afraid to move her legs, in case they collapsed beneath her. She eventually decided sitting on the floor would be better than falling on the floor, and tried to get herself down with as much grace as was possible for a person wearing a pencil skirt. She made it to the floor and leaned back against the desk, feeling like all her muscles were made of jelly.
Tony ran in and rushed over to her. “What's wrong?” he asked. He crouched down beside her and took her wrist for her pulse.
“Nothing, I'm fine,” Pepper said. Her hand trembled in his.
Tony merely shot her a sarcastic look and returned his eyes to his watch. After a few moments he flicked his eyes to the side in the way he did when he was doing math, and then nodded to himself, seeming satisfied. He sat down next to her on the floor.
“J.A.R.V.I.S, call 911,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S said.
“WHAT?!” Pepper yelled. “J.A.R.V.I.S, do not call 911!”
“Yes, ma’am,” J.A.R.V.I.S said.
“No, you don't take her orders over mine, call 911,” Tony insisted.
“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S said.
“J.A.R.V.I.S, do NOT call 911,” Pepper said.
“Yes, ma'am,” J.A.R.V.I.S said.
“I created you, I am your creator, do not ignore me,” Tony said. “We're going to the hospital one way or another, Pepper.”
“No, we're not!” Pepper said. “You're going to the gala and I'm...” she lost focus again. “I'm coming with you. I feel better. Really, I feel a lot better.”
“You just fainted, so, no,” Tony said. “Fuck the gala, we're going to the hospital.”
“I did not faint,” Pepper said, firmly. “To faint you have to lose consciousness and I definitely did not— “
“This is non-negotiable!” Tony said, sticking a hand over her mouth in exasperation. “Shut up. You can go to the hospital by ambulance or Happy can drive us, but either way, we are going right now. So, what's it going to be?”
Pepper glared at him, and then muttered her answer.
Tony removed his hand. “What?” he said.
“I'm not going in an ambulance,” Pepper said.
“Fine. J.A.R.V.I.S, tell Happy to bring the car around.”
Tony surprised her in how fussy he was being. For the most part, the man was oblivious to things that didn't directly concern him. Now, however, he hovered beside her, guiding her into the hospital, past the guard in the bullet proof booth and to the triage area. The entire waiting room turned to gape at the sight of Tony Stark just walking in. Tony smiled and nodded to everyone, as though this was a public event. Pepper felt her cheeks burn at the attention. She knew people were going to post about this on Facebook. Status Update: In ER with Tony Stark.
Tony got the form to fill out and pulled her over to a chair. He insisted on being 'helpful' and filling it out on her behalf, but the first question alone tripped him up.
“Virginia,” she reminded him, as his pen hovered over the 'Name' space. “Virginia Potts.”
“I knew that,” he said, writing it in his big, confident block lettered handwriting. “Virginia. I knew that. Date of Birth...it's...in Aug—”
“April,” she corrected.
“April. I was close. With the letters. The A, I got that right,” Tony said. “April...3rd?”
“April 28th,” she said.
Tony frowned. “Are you sure? Well, I guess you'd know. But really? What's on the 3rd?”
“Nothing, there is nothing important on the 3rd,” she said. “It's a completely unimportant day.”
Tony shrugged. He was three years off on her year of birth, but, luckily for him, he made her younger rather than older. They did better on the complaint section, as he roughly knew what had happened. She got a very disapproving look when she said it had been going on for a few days.
“I'm programming J.A.R.V.I.S to notify me next time he notices you getting sick,” Tony muttered, as he scribbled in the form.
Pepper filled out the rest herself, as it was all personal history questions that Tony had no clue about. He handed it in to the girl at the desk, flirting for a few minutes with her, and, the next thing she knew, Pepper was being evaluated by the triage nurse.
“That's cheating,” she told Tony, when her name was called ahead of all the others.
“It's networking,” Tony said. “It's a sound business strategy.”
“Cheater,” Pepper insisted.
She was back behind a curtain a few minutes later, waiting on a doctor to examine her. Tony followed along behind her, and she had to kick him out to get into the gown. He popped around the curtain once she was hidden in bed.
“You can still make it to the gala,” she said. “You could go; I'll be fine here. I'm cooperating. I'm getting checked out. There's no reason to stay.”
“Once we know what's wrong with you, I'll decide whether I'm going or not,” Tony said, taking a purposeful seat in the chair by her bed.
“That might take hours!” Pepper said.
“Oh no,” Tony said, in mock regret. “I might have to miss all the ass-kissing and pretend sincerity. Not to mention the photo ops with the people who want to pretend we're friends because it looks good on them.”
“You can't exploit my not feeling well for your own gain,” Pepper said. “That's low. It's rude.”
“I'm looking after you,” Tony said. “You're my assistant. If you can't assist me, I'll be all unassisted. Your continued good health is in my best interest, and if it also happens to mean I get to miss something I didn't want to go to in the first place, well, I suppose I'll have to live with that somehow.”
Pepper sighed. “Were you ever planning on going?” she asked.
“Okay, I'm not gonna lie, the short answer is 'no',” Tony said. “And the long answer is 'really, really, no'.”
“I hate you,” she said. “I hate this job. This is an awful job. Why do I do this job?”
“Health benefits?” Tony suggested. “I'm guessing you've got some great health benefits. If you don't, I need to look into that. Do you have dental? You must, you have nice teeth.”
“Yes,” Pepper said. “My teeth are very well cared for, Mr. Stark, thank you.”
Tony gave her a thumb's up.
“There are a lot of people who wanted to talk to you tonight,” Pepper said. “I said you'd be there.”
“If they really want to talk, they'll find another way to do it,” Tony said. “I think you need to accept that I'm not going. You have to go through the stages of grief. We've definitely done anger. Bargaining we did earlier. Denial we totally did. What's the other one? Sadness? Are you sad?”
“No,” Pepper said.
“Good, done with that then, that only leaves acceptance,” Tony said. “Accept it, Potts.”
Pepper sighed and leaned back on her pillow. “I hate you,” she said.
“No, you don't,” Tony sang, in a little kid voice.
She couldn't help but laugh. “I do,” she said. “This is an awful, unrewarding job, and you are a terrible person.” Tony just kept getting a bigger and bigger grin on his face, and she gave up with a shake of her head. “Ugh.”
“What? Are you—what?” Tony asked.
“Nothing, I just...” Pepper sighed and closed her eyes. “I don't feel very well.”
When she opened them again, she caught the brief glimpse of Tony's open concern, before it switched back into flippancy again.
“I know, it's almost like you fainted,” he said, pointedly. “That is not cool, Pepper. When your contract gets renewed, not fainting on my property is officially going in there. And no anchovy pizza. That's probably why you're sick.”
“I haven't had anchovy pizza in weeks,” Pepper said. “And I think that, considering what I do for you in a week, I can eat whatever pizza—”
“Little fish. Little tiny—”
“They're good, I enjoy them, I don't see why—”
“There is a world of pizza toppings out there that are perfectly acceptable and you want to put little fish on yours. They have faces, Pepper! There is a time to eat things with faces on them, and it is not on pizza.”
“You ate reindeer pizza. Reindeer have faces.”
“Okay, first of all, that was me being diplomatic to our Finnish friends, because I am an excellent businessman, and second of all, the faces were not on the pizza, and C) it was delicious.”
“You can't put C at the end of a list of numbers.”
“Don't tell me how to organize my ordered lists.”
Pepper chuckled again, and Tony gave that triumphant look he had when he managed to get her to concede by laughing.
A nurse came in to examine Pepper, and offered her a warm blanket. Pepper assumed this meant a thick blanket to keep her warm, but it was actually a blanket warmed in a blanket warmer and she felt almost euphoric when it was placed over her.
“Wow, that was a noise you just made,” Tony said, raising an eyebrow. “That's a noise I should probably not hear considering we're in a working relationship.”
Pepper was so happy, she couldn't even rise to the innuendo. She just snuggled right down into the lovely blanket of warmth, which soothed the pain in her stomach and made her feel lovely. She didn't sleep, but she probably dozed a little, and Tony let her, which was surprising. What was not surprising was that when she opened her eyes again, he'd blown up a rubber glove into a balloon animal, and was building stuff out of medical supplies.
“You know those are spatulas for vaginal exams,” she said, as he added to the little fort he was building on a table he'd acquired from somewhere.
“I know they're not Popsicle sticks,” he replied. “I went with my mom to this women's clinic she was opening when I was a kid, and I asked why there were so many Popsicle sticks. That was the day I learned that women have to get their cervices scraped. It was also the day I learned that women have cervices. And that the plural of cervix is cervices. I decided to make sure Jarvis knew that when I got back. He did. I also learned that it's not appropriate to talk about cervices all casual-like, Master Tony. It was a very educational day.”
Pepper liked when she got little glimpses into Tony's life before she knew him. He wasn't a person who spoke much about his past. She knew, from inference, that he and his dad had some issues, but it was also clear that Tony worshiped him. He ran the company with his dad's wishes in mind, and every decision she'd seen him make had come from whether Howard Stark would have done it that way, as though the company was still his and Tony was just keeping it for him until he got back. His mom he spoke about even less, because, Pepper thought, it hurt him a little bit more that she was gone. Jarvis, who was the Starks' butler for years, she knew a lot about. Tony spoke about him sometimes, and she also felt she knew him through J.A.R.V.I.S, who was programmed to behave like him. Which was another clue that Tony had loved him a lot, though it was somehow sad that he'd made an A.I to keep his memory alive, even as it was sweet.
“Stop wasting medical supplies,” she scolded, as he continued to build up the fort. “If you're bored, you can go to the gala.”
Tony pouted, and put the box back on the shelf, but he left his fort intact. The nurse gave it a double, then triple take when she came in to ask Pepper for a urine sample.
“God, how long is this going to take?” Tony asked, after Pepper had handed it off to the nurse and got back under the lovely warm blanket. “It's been forty-five minutes already.”
“This is the real world, Tony, we have to wait for things here,” Pepper said.
“Wanna play Scrabble?” Tony asked, getting out his phone. “Monopoly? Boggle? Chess? Checkers? Tic-Tac-Toe? Trivial Pursuit? Stop me any time you're tempted. Chutes and Ladders? Twenty-one? Never Have I Ever? Anything? Come on, keep your mind off things. Yahtzee? Candyland?”
Pepper indulged him, for fear of what he might wreak if he was left to his own devices. They started up a game of Chinese checkers to pass the time until the doctor came in.
“Hello there, I'm Dr. Morrow,” he said, holding out a hand for Pepper to shake. “I hear we're having a bit of—” he froze as he shook Tony's hand and fully took in who he was. “Oh, you're...”
“Yep, I am,” Tony said, with a nod. “Hi.”
“Belly pain,” Dr. Morrow blurted out. “I'm sorry, I hear you have some belly pain Miss...” he glance down at his chart. “Potts.”
“Are you a real doctor?” Tony interrupted. “You look, like, twelve. Are you a grown-up doctor or a student one?”
“I assure you I'm a fully qualified attending physician Mr. Stark,” Dr. Morrow said. He turned his attention back to Pepper. “Is it all right if I speak in front ofyour...boy...friend?”
“He's not my boyfriend,” Pepper said.
“I'm not her boyfriend,” Tony said.
“He's my employer,” Pepper said.
“I'm her frie—” Tony said. “Really, all the words and you're going with employer? Fine. I'm her employer. We're not friends, apparently.”
“Go away,” Pepper said to him. “I don't want you here for all the poking and prodding. You don't want to be here for all the poking and prodding.”
“Fine,” Tony said. He gave Dr. Morrow a suspicious look. “I'll leave you with Doogie Howser here.”
“Go away,” Pepper said, pointing.
“I'm sorry, he's very...” Pepper said to Dr. Morrow. “I'm sorry.”
Dr. Morrow moved gamely on, interrogating her. She spent far longer than she was comfortable with explaining that, despite her symptoms being consistent with an ectopic pregnancy, there was really no way she could be pregnant. At all. He did an examination, and her right flank was very tender. He decided to send her for some blood work and an ultrasound.
“What do you think is wrong?” Pepper asked.
“I don't like to speculate without facts,” Dr. Morrow said. “Just sit tight, we'll know soon enough.”
Pepper didn't like the sound of that. Dr. Morrow left, and Tony came back in.
“What's up?” he asked.
“Tests,” Pepper said. “Waiting.”
Tony frowned, then handed over his phone. “Your move.”
It took three hours total from entering the ER to when Pepper got a diagnosis. Which was quite good for an ER visit, but Tony acted like they'd been there for months. People made sure Tony Stark didn't wait for anything, and he didn't understand that things didn't work that way for everyone.
Tony had gone out to take a phone call from Obadiah about a board meeting in New York when the doctor came back in.
“The good news is that it's not an ectopic pregnancy,” Dr. Morrow said.
“I knew that already,” Pepper said. “What's the bad news?”
“It's appendicitis,” he said. “Your appendix is inflamed, and you have an extremely large abscess, which is a collection of pus resulting from the infection. Your body has walled it off to keep it contained, but there is a good chance that the abscess will rupture, and if that happens, it can result in a life-threatening infection of your abdominal cavity. I've put you on the list for emergency surgery, and, luckily, we have a spot open in an OR for you. We're going to get you in right away.”
Pepper's stomach went very cold in sudden fear. “No,” she said. “No, I can't have surgery. I don't have time for that. I can't be away from work that long. Can't you give me antibiotics to kill the infection?”
“That's possible when the infection is caught early, but at this stage, removal of the appendix is really the only course of action,” Dr. Morrow said. “There are risks with all surgeries, of course, but appendectomies are very routine. We'll use cameras and a very small incision, you'll be back on your feet in a couple of weeks.”
“No, I can't afford a couple of weeks,” Pepper insisted. “You don't understand, I can't be away from work for that long. I really can't. I don't have a replacement, it's only me. There's no one to do what I do. I can't.”
“Can't what?” Tony asked, coming back in. “What's going on?”
“Nothing,” Pepper said, quickly.
“Miss Potts,” Dr. Morrow said, beseechingly.
“No, don't tell him,” Pepper said.
“Tell me what?” Tony asked. “What's going on? What's wrong?”
Pepper would have kept it from him, because she knew he was going to insist she have the surgery, and in her heart she knew she needed to have the surgery, but he looked so scared that she couldn't let him think she was dying.
“I need to have my appendix out,” she said.
Tony visibly relaxed. “Okay, well, that's...okay, right? Right?” he said. “That's, like, just above a broken leg or something.”
“I can't be off work,” Pepper said.
“Um, yeah, you can,” Tony said. “Have you ever taken a sick day ever? I think they carry over. Plus, as your boss, I can just give you more. I am totally willing to do that.”
“But what are you going to do?” Pepper said. “You won't have an assistant.”
“Yeah, well I won't either if you don't get yourself fixed up,” Tony said. “You're not much good to me if you're fainting all the time—”
“I didn't faint.”
“—So, basically, I'm screwed either way, only one of the ways I get you back and the other way, I'm guessing, you probably get really, super sick. Am I right?”
Dr. Morrow opened his mouth, closed it, considered, and then nodded.
“Yeah, so, you're having your appendix out,” Tony said.
“And that's what's happening, so you can—”
“And I'm going to just keep talking until you—”
“But, you have to—”
“You know I can keep talking, you know I have the ability to just filibuster my way through—”
“Pepper, that is enough!”
Pepper fell silent as Tony's hand shot out in a 'stop' gesture.
“'Stark Industries looks after its employees', that's in the manifesto,” Tony said. “End of discussion. We are done talking about this. I am serious. This is my serious voice.”
Pepper recognized his serious voice. It was the same voice he used on those very rare occasions when he got upset about something unjust or unfair and decided he was going to do something about it. Sometimes it was a good thing. Villages in Africa had clean water because Tony Stark used his serious voice. Muslim girls were learning science because Tony Stark used his serious voice.
And Pepper Potts was going to have her appendix out, not because he used his serious voice (she could damn well ignore his serious voice), but because she knew she had to do it and he was right.
“You can book me in,” she said to Dr. Morrow.
She was in the OR in twenty minutes. Dr. Morrow wasn't kidding about getting her in as soon as possible. On the one hand, this was a good thing, because she didn't have much time to worry about having surgery. If she'd had to sit and wait, she probably would have worked herself up into a state about it, even if she knew it was routine. On the other hand, she didn't have any time to make arrangements for her absence, and Tony's reassurances that he would be fine weren't very reassuring.
But there was nothing to be done. She was on the table and counting backwards from 100 with a very handsome, very soothing anesthetist murmuring to her to close her eyes and go to sleep.
One of the nurses later told her that the first thing she said when she woke up was 'Tony, stop that!', and the second thing she said was that she couldn't stay because she had to go to a gala and asked that someone bring her her phone. She didn't remember any of that. Just waking up in a brightly lit room with a nurse smiling at her, and asking her if she had any pain.
The next thing she remembered was being rolled down a hallway, the lights going past her.
“No, I can't have more surgery,” she said.
“You've already had your surgery, sweetheart, we're taking you up to your room now,” a nurse walking beside her said. “You did a great job, everything's fine.”
Pepper slept on and off, coming to in a blurry haze of pain medicine as the nurse checked on her, and then a different nurse, who introduced herself, but Pepper couldn't remember her name.
A lovely bouquet of flowers arrived for her in the late afternoon, from Obadiah. It had a brief Get Well message on the card. Tony must have told him what was going on. She was awake enough to sit and admire them, and that's what she was doing when Tony arrived at 5:00PM on the dot, when visiting hours began.
“God, finally,” he greeted her. “They wouldn't let me in here until now. Apparently this being the Maria Carrera Stark Memorial Ward means nothing. I built this place, you'd think I could come into it whenever I wanted.” His arms were full of stuff and he dropped it all on the bed. “I went to the gift shop while I was waiting.”
“Oh no,” Pepper said.
“Oh, yes,” he said. He picked up various objects to show her as he narrated. “I got you all the girly magazines, and this one, with me on it.” He held it up by his face. “Pretty good photo, huh? I think I look dashing.” He tossed that aside. “And I brought you a teddy bear. And a teddy turtle. Is it still a teddy if it's a turtle or does it have to be a bear?”
“No, I think it has to be a bear to be a teddy,” Pepper said.
“Well, then I brought you a teddy bear and a not-teddy turtle. I was just going to get the one, but the turtle looked friendly, and I was torn, and then I thought 'wait, I'm rich, I'll just get them both',” he said. “And I got you these little balloons on sticks.” He waved one around. He reached into his pockets and started chucking candy at her. “And I brought you gum and some Life Savers and...whatever this is, it looked good, and this little crossword puzzle book. And a pen. It has a light up top.” He activated the light several times.
Pepper blinked at the mess. “This is completely too much,” she said.
“Really?” Tony said. “Huh. I thought I did well, considering my skewed sense of proportion.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “I appreciate the thought,” she said. “But next time, stick to one category.”
“Noted,” Tony said. “Who sent the flowers? Boyfriend?” He reached to check the card.
“You know I don't have a boyfriend,” Pepper said. “Obadiah sent them.”
“What happened to...the guy?” Tony asked. “He was at a party thing with you. He had hair and...a face.”
Pepper raised her eyebrows. “Most men I date have hair and faces,” she said. “Faces are non-negotiable actually. Hair is optional. Are you thinking of Grant?”
“Maybe,” Tony said. “He looked terrified the whole time I was talking to him.”
“That was Grant,” Pepper said. “We broke up months ago, Tony.”
“And now you and Obi are in a torrid affair?” Tony suggested. “He has a face and optional hair, and he sent you flowers. I'm judging pretty hard.”
“Yes, you've finally guessed our secret,” Pepper said. “I feel better now it's out in the open.”
Tony grinned. He patted down on the blanket to make sure it was clear, and then put his butt there, perching on the side of her bed. “So, how are you? I probably should have asked that when I came in.”
“I'm fine,” Pepper said. “I feel a lot better, actually.”
“You look better,” he said.
“Do I?” Pepper said. “Did I look that bad before?”
“Uh, yeah,” Tony said. “You were all gray and pale and scary looking. Kinda freaked me out. Don't do that again.”
“I physically can't,” Pepper said. “No more appendix, no more appendicitis.”
“Good,” Tony said. His hand reached out and one of his fingers tapped hers briefly. “I don't like it when you're sick.” He craned his neck. “Can I see your incision?”
“No,” Pepper said, pulling her blankets up even though they were already covering her. Tony had a way of looking at someone like he could see right past their clothes. “It's not an incision, anyway. Just...holes.”
Tony's face lit up. “Can I see your holes?!”
“No,” Pepper said. “My holes are not for viewing.”
“Lame,” Tony said. “Oh, J.A.R.V.I.S wants to talk to you. He's worried.”
He took out his phone and held it out for her.
“Pepper's here,” he said.
“Hello, Miss Potts. Mr. Stark told me you were unwell,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “I'm sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you,” Pepper said, feeling touched despite the fact that he wasn't a real person. It was weird, when she first started working for Tony she thought of J.A.R.V.I.S as a kind of annoyance to work around. Now, he was more a partner in crime.
J.A.R.V.I.S wanted to know if it was okay if he used the protocols for when she was on vacation, since she would be absent and he didn't have protocols for extended sick leave. She told him that was fine. She'd had a brief hope going into the surgery that she'd feel great on the other side of it, and not need that much time to recover, but even though she felt better in comparison to how she'd felt before, she realized that it would be at least a few days before she was back to normal. And a few days in Stark Industries time was eons. It was best to have it all sorted out, just in case. J.A.R.V.I.S would ride herd on Tony while she was away. Or he'd try, at least.
“Thank you for your time,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “I hope you have a speedy recovery.”
“Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S,” Pepper said. “I'll try to be back soon. Make sure he does what he's told.”
“I'll try, ma'am, but my success rate is only 78% during your absences,” J.A.R.V.I.S said, sounding rather glum.
“Don't worry her,” Tony said. “I'll be good.”
“I've seen no evidence of that so far, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S said.
“Don't tattle. Go away,” Tony said. “I'm turning you off. Don't listen to him, I'm going to be super obedient.”
“Mmmhmm,” Pepper said, skeptically.
“Okay, I don't like all this negativity,” Tony said. “Let's get some good energy going in here; negativity impedes recovery. Think glass half-full, Potts.”
A nurse knocked on the door and came in, with an apology for interrupting. She did the same double take everyone did when they realized Tony was Tony, and her cheeks flushed bright, bright red.
“Hey, there,” Tony said.
“Hello,” the nurse squeaked. “I've just come to check on Miss Potts.”
“Go ahead, ignore me,” Tony said, while at the same time making every effort to get her to pay attention to him. “I'm just here to visit my employee.”
Pepper noted she was no longer a friend when there was a pretty woman in the room with them.
“That's sweet,” the nurse said.
“You know, I'm a sweet guy?” Tony said, a little smile playing on his lips.
Pepper rolled her eyes. The nurse noted Pepper's vitals, and checked her pain pump. Pepper hadn't been using it very often. She was in some pain, but she preferred to be clear-headed.
“So, how long until she's out of here?” Tony asked the nurse.
“That will be up to the doctor, but considering there's been no complications, Miss Potts will probably be able to be discharged as early as tomorrow morning,” the nurse said.
“Really?” Pepper said, delighted. She thought it would be a days-long ordeal.
“Yes, provided you've passed all the requirements,” the nurse said.
“What are the requirements?” Pepper asked.
“That your pain is under control, andyou don't have a fever or nausea,” the nurse said. “And we'd like to have been up and about a little bit, even to the washroom and back, so we know you can get home and to bed. A stroll around the ward is even better. And we usually like you to have something to eat and drink, so we know you aren't going to throw it back up. The doctor will go over all that with you when he comes on his rounds. It should be soon. Can I get you anything?”
“No, I'm fine, thank you,” Pepper said.
“You've been very conscientious, I can tell you're good at your job,” Tony said.
The nurse blushed even redder. “Thank you,” she said.
Tony watched her leave the room, his eyes very noticeably on her backside. Pepper pinched his arm. “Ouch! What?”
“She's working, don't distract her,” Pepper said. She started to pull down her covers.
“What are you doing?” he said, jumping up as her leg hit him.
“Going for a walk,” Pepper said. “If I need to show I'm mobile, I'm going to do it.”
“Whoa, easy there, Tiger, you've just had holes poked in you maybe you should— okay, you're not going to wait, obviously,” Tony said. “You probably shouldn't be doing this. And that's me saying that. I never know what people should or shouldn't be doing, but I have a distinct 'no' feeling about—and you're on your feet. All right. God, Pepper, it wasn't a personal challenge to you.”
Pepper clutched at her IV pole. “Can you grab me a robe?” she said. “I don't want everyone seeing my ass.”
“You have a nice ass,” Tony said. “No, sorry, that's not professional. I have no opinions on your ass.” He got a hospital robe from the shelf and shook it out, handing it to her. “If I did, though, they would be favorable.”
“Thank you,” Pepper said, dryly.
“Come on, I'll spot you,” Tony said. “Make sure you don't burst anything.”
Pepper experienced a great deal of dissonance between what she thought she could accomplish and what she actually could accomplish. A quick walk around the ward seemed like it should be easy. She jogged on a treadmill daily, and worked out several times a week. She had to be in shape to chase Tony around. But she didn't have holes in her before, or medicine making her wobbly. She clung to the IV pole for balance, and shuffled.
“Okay, look, you can walk!” Tony said, as they made the door. “Awesome, let's go back to bed.”
Pepper glared at him until he moved from her path, and she continued to shuffle out into the hallway. There was a railing along all the walls there, so she could grab that with one hand and the IV pole with the other, and that made things much easier. She was able to walk almost normally, and Tony relaxed.
“How was New York?” she asked. “I didn't get a chance to ask. How did Obadiah do at the board meeting?”
“Hit and miss,” Tony said. “Four out of five proposals went through. They passed Jericho, Bushbaby, Motherbird, and Seven Bells. They didn't like Treehugger, but no surprises there. I'll have to rewrite it and make it look better. We should go eco-friendly. It'll look good, and pay for itself in the long run.”
Pepper listened and responded as best she could. She mostly had to concentrate on walking. She was starting to sweat.
“Oh, it's your mom,” she said, as she took notice of a photo on the wall. It was hanging above a plaque proclaiming it to be the Maria Carrera Stark Memorial Ward. She stopped to look closer. And catch her breath. “God, she was gorgeous.”
Tony looked over. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “I mean, I academically know she was probably a babe, but she was my mom, so it's hard to think of her like that.” He cocked his head to the side, examining. “I don't look much like her.”
No, he looked very much like his father, but Pepper could pick a few of Mrs Stark's features out.
“You smile like her,” Pepper said. “You have the same smile. Your eyes crinkle the same at the corners.”
His lips quirked up for a moment. “And I'm also a babe, so, we share that, too,” he added. He looked thoughtfully at the photo, and then said, very suddenly, “she would have liked you.”
Before Pepper could respond, he'd already started to walk away, so she didn't say anything and worked on moving her legs instead. The medicine must be making her sappy; she felt a little misty eyed for some reason.
She made it safely back to bed, but not around the ward. By the end of the hallway, she took into account that she was going to have to get back to where she started from, and elected to turn around than risk collapsing by going the long way. She still felt like she'd proven she could be mobile on her own, and that was the point. Even if she was a sweaty mess when she was done.
“I'm not gonna lie, you don't look your best,” Tony said. “Did you burst any holes?”
“No, my holes are intact,” Pepper said. “I'm fine.”
“I'm putting that on your gravestone,” Tony muttered. “'Here lies Pepper Potts, she's fine'.”
The next challenge to proving her readiness to go home came when her dinner tray arrived. Truthfully, the thought of food was unappetizing, but she made up her mind to get something down to prove she could.
“Oh, look, tiny apple juice!” Tony said. “I love tiny apple juice.” He stuck his nose over as she took the lid off the hot dish. “Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, nice. Just like Mom used to make. Or, well, the cook, actually.”
There was also tomato soup, which was much more appetizing to Pepper. She worked on that and her apple juice. Tony stole her mashed potatoes, and she let him. He dug in with relish. He had a weird sort of love of really, really bad food despite, or perhaps because of, being surrounded by the best food money could buy.
She let him have the meatloaf, too, but got the soup and jello down. The surgeon came in as they were eating, and complimented her on her appetite. She made sure to let him know she'd been around the ward. He examined her wounds (Pepper made Tony turn away, much to his disappointment), and agreed that he thought discharge was a possibility in the morning. He'd prefer if she wasn't on her own, but would settle for someone checking in on her. Tony offered J.A.R.V.I.S, and the surgeon agreed to the plan. He seemed to think J.A.R.V.I.S was a person, and Pepper wasn't about to correct him. He promised to write up a discharge order for her, and went onto his next patient.
“I should probably go,” Tony said, swallowing the last bit of meatloaf. “I left J.A.R.V.I.S building a prototype of something I designed last night when I was waiting for you to get out of surgery. It's probably done now, and I want to see if it works. If it does, I'll name it after you.”
“Please never name anything after me,” Pepper said.
“Okay. Noted,” Tony said, with a nod.
She was happy to see him go. She wanted to have another nap. Walking and eating took enough out of her, but Tony's sheer presence took more.
“Thanks for coming in,” she said.
He rose and twitched a little, bending near her, then straightening. “Okay, I don't know what goodbye level we're at in a hospital scenario,” he said. “Hug? Peck on the cheek? Solid clap to the back? Fist bump? Where are we?”
“A hug is fine,” Pepper said, and he gently squeezed her, giving her back a few soft pats. “Take all this stuff you brought with you.”
“Really?” Tony said. “All of it? All right, but I'm hurt.” He started to pick up the mess he'd made.
“No, wait,” Pepper said. “I'm keeping the turtle.” She hugged it to her chest.
Tony gave her a thousand killowat smile, and a wink. He swaggered out of the room. She could hear his voice buzzing in the hallway, the up and down rhythm of him flirting. Someone giggled in response, Pepper guessed it was her nurse.
Pepper closed her eyes, and snuggled in with her not-teddy turtle and went back to sleep.
It was Happy who came to get her in the morning. She'd called for a driver, but she didn't expect it to be Happy. He'd brought her a little orchid, which she assured him was not 'dinky' in comparison to the arrangement from Obadaiah. Orchids were her favorite.
"I remember," Happy said, bashfully.
Pepper was delighted to find her phone was in the car. She'd given it to Tony to keep it safe when she went to surgery, and she was grateful he hadn't dropped it or forgotten it somewhere or scavenged it for parts. She opened her e-mails with a wince, but it wasn't too bad. About 80 new ones. She'd had more than that on days when she hadn't been missing for a 24-hour period.
She started sorting through as they drove home, responding to Happy's light chatter about the world as needed. He fussed around her when they got to her building, rushing ahead to open doors, and then back to her as though he expected her to collapse before she reached them. He insisted on taking her right up to her apartment, and then coming in to make sure she was settled.
Pepper thanked him, and saw him off. Then she went to bed, already exhausted. She changed into her pajamas and crawled under the covers with her laptop to respond to some of the e-mails. Her phone rang, with a call from J.A.R.V.I.S, who informed her Tony had asked him to take care of all of her 'health stuff' (Pepper assumed that was a direct quote). J.A.R.V.I.S had placed himself on a schedule to call and check in on her, and asked that she phone him if she needed anything. He was going to arrange for her meals to be delivered, so she wouldn't have to cook, and a nurse to check on her in a few days' time.
“Patients can usually return to work 1-to-3 weeks post-appendectomy,” J.A.R.V.I.S concluded. “And I think you should take at least the minimum amount of time off, Miss Potts.”
“I don't want to leave you in the lurch, J.A.R.V.I.S,” Pepper said.
“It will be a struggle, ma'am,” J.A.R.V.I.S said. “But I think I'll manage just fine.”
J.A.R.V.I.S did seem to get on all right. As far as Pepper could tell from her discreet monitoring, Tony made it to the majority of his appointments. She found pictures of him at public events, and no one e-mailed her to yell about a meeting he'd missed. Pepper did what she could to keep things going from her laptop, but she had to sleep a lot, and the e-mails started to pile up until she had to ask J.A.R.V.I.S to help respond to them. She flagged the non-urgent ones and he analyzed and formed a response that sounded human, which brought her a little bit of time.
The only snag they hit was part way through the week, when she received a phone call from J.A.R.V.I.S, who sounded flustered and annoyed.
“I've told Mr. Stark several times to go to the charity auction tonight, but he's rebuffed all my attempts. He's muted me, now,” J.A.R.V.I.S said, indignantly. “I keep removing the mute, but he turns it back on, and now it's just getting farcical. I think he's enjoying it. I apologize for interrupting your convalescence, but all four parameters for calling you in your off-hours have been hit.”
“It's okay, J.A.R.V.I.S,” Pepper said. “I'll handle it.” She called Tony, and was blasted with heavy metal as the phone was answered. Tony's face appeared, with goggles on that made his eyes look like a frog. “Why aren't you at the charity auction?”
“Oh my God,” Tony said. He turned his face away to yell at a nearby screen. “Unmute. Just A Really Very Intelligent System, did you tattle on me?”
“Don't yell at J.A.R.V.I.S,” Pepper said. “You've upset him already. Take off your goggles, get dressed, and go to the auction.”
“But, Mom, I'm busy,” Tony said, in a mock whiny teenager voice. “I'm working on a thiii-iiing.”
“Your thing can wait,” Pepper said. “This is important. You need to be there to present the items you donated. A lot of money is depending on that. Please go.”
“Come on, I don't need to be there,” Tony said. “The items will sell without me.”
“Not as well,” Pepper said. “Your name means a lot, Tony. You know that.”
“I'm a person, not a name,” Tony said.
“Then use your person, get dressed, and go,” Pepper said. “The last time you skipped an event, I had to have surgery.”
“That's not even related, don't use that like—”
“If you don't go, I will come there and make you.”
“You're sick, you can't—”
“I can get in a taxi just fine, thank you, and I will come—”
“You're on bed rest, you can't just—”
Pepper threw her covers off and got out of bed.
“Okay, okay,” Tony said. “This is fucking emotional blackmail, Pepper Potts. I hate you.”
“No, you don't,” Pepper sang, in a little kid voice.
Tony burst out into one of his deep laughs. “Well-played,” he said. “Where am I going? What do I care about?”
“J.A.R.V.I.S will fill you in,” Pepper said. “And if I don't see pictures of you smiling beatifically in tomorrow's paper, I will cut off your Twinkie supply for a month.”
On Friday night, a week to the day after her surgery, Tony called her via video chat on her laptop.
“Hey, wanna have virtual dinner with me and DUM-E?” he asked, holding up a slice of pizza to the camera. DUM-E peeked into the shot, and made a happy noise.
Pepper smiled. “Sure,” she said. “Let me get my broth and bland vegetables.”
“No, I sent you a present,” Tony said. “Answer your door.”
There was a knock at the door at his words. Show off. Pepper paused to brush her hair and throw on a robe over her PJs before answering, bringing the laptop with her. There was a bike messenger there, holding a pizza box in his hands. Pepper took it and tipped him.
“Obi's back from New York. He brought pizza. And guess what I asked for?” Tony said. “Open the box dramatically now.”
Pepper opened the lid. “Anchovies,” she said, with a laugh. “I thought they were the devil's plaything?”
“Yeah, well, I thought you might like something that wasn't invalid food,” Tony said.
“Thank you,” Pepper said. She took it into the kitchen and put the laptop on the table nearby as she ate.
“Oh my God, fold your pizza, heathen,” Tony said, when she picked up a piece. He demonstrated the correct technique with his own slice. “You're ruining it with the fish already, don't eat like a peasant.”
Pepper folded her slice in half and he nodded. It was really good pizza, she had to admit. Very nice after her invalid food, which, while hardly bad, was just very bland.
“Pizza's the only thing I miss about living in New York,” Tony said.
“You can get New York-style pizza in L.A,” Pepper said.
“But you can't get New York pizza in L.A,” Tony argued. “It's the water. You can't get New York water in L.A. How are your little fish with faces?”
“Very good, thank you,” Pepper said. “Thank Obadiah for me.”
“Hey, I thought of it, he just did the long distance delivery,” Tony said. “I'm the thoughtful one.”
“Sorry,” Pepper said. “I'm forever in your debt Mr. Stark.”
“Remember that,” Tony said, sternly. “Did you see me at the auction? I smiled extra big for you.”
“I did see,” Pepper said. “But I'm not praising you, because you were supposed to be there anyway. You're not being praised for existing as a human being.”
“Come on, Pepper, I have spent, like, a whole week without you and I didn't die once,” Tony said. “I want acknowledgment that that is a super achievement in my life.”
“Okay,” Pepper conceded. “Fine. Congratulations on being a functioning adult.”
“Thank you,” Tony said, satisfied. “Though, let's be honest, 'functioning' is laying it on a bit thick.”
“You're right, I was just being kind.”
“I know, it's fine. I appreciate it.”
“Maybe just adult?”
“No, that's still too strong, probably. How about 'person over the age of majority'?”
“That's long, can we make an acronym? You like acronyms.”
“Yes, POTAOM is fine, I'll take that.”
Tony grinned. They ate their pizza, Tony keeping up a running stream of all that she'd missed out on during the week, and what he was up to, and who he'd seen, and what Obadiah had said about New York, and how they were getting to work on Jericho.
“So...are you coming back soon?” Tony asked, after the pizza was gone.
“I'm coming back on Monday,” Pepper said.
Tony's face visibly brightened. “Good,” he said. “It's no fun when you're not around to yell at me. I kind of missed you. You know, not a lot.”
“Of course not,” Pepper said.
“But a little,” Tony said. “Did you miss me?”
“No,” Pepper said, lying slightly.
“Yeah, you did,” Tony said. “I'll let you get your rest back on. Don't get up, I'll see myself out.” He lifted a finger to disconnect, but paused before he did. “I'll see you on Monday, then?”
“Yes,” Pepper said. “I'll be there.”
“Groovy,” Tony said. “Only two more days of acting like a POTAOM. I can probably survive until then.”