Disclaimer and note that the origin of this piece was the prompt nightmare, compass and hot rod. Cross-posted on the Iron Man LJ comm, where a bunch of scary fangirls hang out and squee. Welcome to hell.

Hope you enjoy. Critiques are always appreciated. :)

There is this nightmare, she has, over and over and over.

There's the two of them, of course. Him and her, her always resisting and him always (inexorably) pushing, like he knows he's sneaking closer and closer to the tipping point of this damned relationship and seeing just how far he can nudge her.

But this nightmare -- jesus, some nights she wakes up and she has to check, she has to, to see that he's living, that he hasn't been ripped to shreds by an insane Obidiah or that his decision to announce who he is hasn't killed him.

Periodically when she calls, there's a snort and a grunt and a connection to Jarvis who informs her that "Mr. Stark is snoring, ma'am." She smiles when she hears this, because she knows that it means that there is an exhausted Tony Stark sleeping (however he sleeps, and she tells herself to stop thinking that way) in a very large bed, muttering incoherent Tony babble and sometimes moving about to get comfortable.

Other times she calls, and he's alive and well in his "secret lair", tweaking, retweaking and cursing out whatever new brainchild of his has stolen his attention. He teases her, asks her to come over and keep him company and she knows very well what that means (and no, she won't accept his offer, thank you Mr. Stark) but decides she's just happy that this nightmare she's been viewing at her own personal theater isn't real.

She doesn't call him when he has a woman over. Not even when her nightmares are so terrifying she wakes up and goes to puke in the toilet. She's caught him in enough awkward situations as it is, and though the arrogant pig-head always does a fantastic job of making her feel stupendously ungainly and in the wrong place at the wrong time (which is sad because it's usually the truth), she doesn't want to screw up this relationship. Not now, and not later.

She feels sick about two weeks after that press-conference from hell, and asks, actually asks Tony Stark if she can go home early. She tries to ignore the worry -- real worry, like the kind people who feel a connection have -- that flashes across his face and gives him her certifiably-phony Pepper smile to calm him.

Five hours and a long afternoon spent in the bathroom later, Pepper Pots is in bed with Kleenex in the crook of one arm and some disgusting NyQuil on the table and her phone rings.

She glances over at it with a look of irritation, exasperation, indignence and surprise and cautiously picks up the phone.

"Hello?" And Christ, she just has to sound like she is outrageously stoned on Caribbean reefer and changed vocal chords with a toad.

"Hey, there, Pepper, how ya doin'?"

It is obscene that the man sounds so damn fine, she thinks to herself, enraged. She is lying in bed with probably six comforters on and an incredible urge just to go kill something and he decides to call her at seven at night.

She prays to God the Nyquil kicks in fast. She begs God on her internal knees to make her so sleepy that she can't hold a conversation with her boss, Tony Stark, when she is perhaps at one of her most-vulnerable moments.

"I feel like shit," Pepper confesses after a long moment. "I – " and she turns away from the phone, cough sounding like an old-dog howl "– I'm sick, Mr. Stark."

"I had a feeling about that, Ms. Pots," he tells her, sounding disgustingly sincere. "Do you need to see a doctor?"

"This is not out of the question," she responds, still in toad-mode.

There is a long pause, and for a strange moment of panic she thinks he hung up on her.

But then Tony talks. "I missed three meetings because my ever-trusty compass wasn't by my side."

Pepper barely suppresses the urge to snicker. "Mr. Stark, I am flattered but you'd miss those meetings even if I wasn't there."

"Maybe so," Tony responds, "but it felt very strange not having you around."

The scary thing is that she knows he's actually being honest. Stopped playing the uber-playboy for five seconds to really tell her the truth.

It takes Pepper a moment to respond to this comment, because she doesn't quite now how to skirt around this huge intimate circle they have even though she's probably the one female in a fifty (or larger) mile radius that he hasn't fucked.

"I –"

"Sorry," he abruptly bursts out. "Little weird, right? With you being sick and sounding totally stoned (which isn't a bad thing, we should meet sometime when you are stoned), you're probably not in a place to like, discuss serious things with your boss."

She nods her head in agreement even though she doesn't want to, and is about to vocalise that "yes, Mr. Stark, you actually may be right this time: when she realizes that he's rambling. And though Tony Stark does this all the time, there are only a few times when he'd do this and call her.

Phone calls are succinct. Usually terse. Ms. Potts, I need coffee. Ms. Potts, please aid me in putting a replacement pacemaker in. Ms. Potts, come and watch my new experiment almost kill me.

When Tony Stark is rambling, he is busy.

And, of course, for the life of her, Pepper Potts cannot help but be curious.

"What are you doing?" she asks, froggy, yet intrigued.

"Hmm?" Jarvis says something in the background, and she can hear the tiny whine of one of the helper-robots as it tries to keep up with the always-moving Stark. There's a thud of a wrench hitting rubber.

"What are you doing?" and each word, though emphasized, still sounds as comical as it did before.

"Oh. Um. Working on the hotrod."

He has about ten cars, all of them beautiful (and she won't say this often but yes, they are quite sexy), frighteningly fast and barely street legal.

There is, however, one and only one hotrod in the garage. The hideous excuse for a car from the 1920's/'30's with its obnoxious flames and rims and exhaust pipe. God, it's like a teen motor-head's wet dream and even though Stark is now in his thirties and has created more inventions then Pepper could count in a life time, he still has never come around to finishing that monstrosity of a car.

She can't say whether she's relieved or terrified by that but, either way, she is shocked to find that Tony is working on it.

"So this is why you missed the board, conference and engineer meetings," she says, and this is not a question, but a statement.

He pauses, knowing the trap and for a moment fearing it but after a moment deciding that, nah, Pepper doesn't really scare him.


On the other side of the line, in an apartment in a steadily more-dangerous part of town, Pepper Pots shakes her head and her smile grows wider.

She has to blow her nose.

"Is that all, Mr. Stark?"

"No." he says, after a beat. "But I'll probably call you when something comes up." Second of rare silence. "Actually – "

And her eyebrows are raised, waiting.

"Jarvis told me you called last night. I kinda forgot about it this morning but..."

Abruptly Pepper thinks shit, she knew she should've just gone back to sleep and forgotten about the horror show in her head instead of calling him. But Pepper is Pepper, and when she has to be (when she must be), she is honest.

"Oh, it was something silly," she tries to say airily with a wave of her hand. The statement comes out more clogged-up and stuffy than nonchalant, and she dreads his patience as he simply waits for her to finish her statement. "Nothing to worry about."

His pause is scaring her now, because after a long, long moment he asks, softly. "Nightmare?"

Answer no, and this conversation ends, right now, and she can go to sleep and dream things she shouldn't dream and wish for things she mustn't have.

Answer yes and she slowly pries open a dangerous can of worms.

...screw it.

"Yeah," she says. "Yeah."

He clears his throat. She hears shifting and sees him in her mind's eye coming out from (probably under) the car and sitting down with an arm resting on a knee and eyes roving the vastness of the garage.

"I'm sorry," he says.

The statement is simple, but the meaning behind it – the implications in the tone – are enormous and touching.

He knows these nightmares. Perhaps he is more acquainted with them than anything Pepper knows (and he still has never told her what happened in Afghanistan), but he still understands something in those dark visions and empathizes with her.

She wants to say something, to tell him everything, but Ms. Potts cannot do that and will not do that.

Instead she coughs and blows her nose.

"Thank you, Tony."

"You're welcome Pepper."

She twitches her nose, throws a contaminated Kleenex at the trash can and misses entirely. "Have a good night."

"Certainly would be better if you were here," he says, barely skipping a beat as he rolls instantaneously back into ladies'- man Tony instead of brilliant-fumbling-caring-forgetful Tony.

She knows this is an attempt by him to ward of the intimacy and vulnerability both of them exposed a moment ago, and instead of coming up with a quip, she simply laughs and hangs up.

...there are no nightmares that night.