Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. All others are mine, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Note: This stems from a prompt from Cincoflex, though I didn't exactly stick to her original scenario. I know it's a cliché, and it would have been more original to do it the other way 'round, but I couldn't resist the possibilities.
Everything hurt, and Pepper didn't want to wake. The voices wouldn't shut up, though.
They had been speaking a long time, she realized hazily, though not necessarily to her; one calm and cool, one strained with anger and what sounded like fear. But she couldn't make out why, because fear didn't fit the face that went with the voice.
Eventually she managed to pry her eyes open. They hurt too, stinging with blurring tears, but the white unfamiliarity beyond the end of her nose resolved at last into a hospital room.
The voices droned on. She was lying on her back, Pepper realized, and tried to make sense of the two figures standing at the end of the bed. One was someone she didn't know, wearing more white--a doctor, she presumed. The other was her boss.
"Mr. Stark?" she started to say, but her throat wouldn't let her. Coughing made flame lick up from her lungs.
There was confusion, urgent orders, professional hands helping her to sit up to ease the spasms. That helped, but made her head pound like it was going to explode out her ears. Her mouth tasted horrible, her chest ached, and her ears were ringing. The IV made her arm feel funny, and not in a good way.
"Here." The babble finally resolved into words, and the doctor was offering her a cup of water. Pepper reached for it, but her hand wouldn't steady, and the woman had to help it to her lips.
She drank cautiously, but the water was soothing; her throat didn't feel quite so sandblasted after it was gone. The doctor eased her back against the now-raised head of the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Like hell," Pepper mumbled, too dizzy to be circumspect. Her eyes drifted to the rigid form of her boss, standing to one side of the bed. He looked fierce, as though someone had really pissed him off lately, and his hair was a mess. Pepper wondered what had happened and how much spin control she was going to have to exercise.
Tony frowned at her, as if waiting for something, but Pepper didn't quite have the energy to figure out why he was even there. She answered the doctor's questions as best she could, endured the penlight in her eyes even though it made the headache worse, and was finally allowed to relax. It was hard to concentrate over the pain in her skull, but she made out words like "concussion" and "bruising" before she had to close her eyes.
The hand wrapping around hers made them open again, though. Her boss had pulled up a chair next to her bed and was apparently settling in, which only deepened Pepper's confusion. His fingers were hot against her skin, and he was squeezing a bit too hard.
"What happened?" she muttered, trying half-heartedly to pull her hand away; his grip was weirding her out.
He didn't let go; his brows drew together and he looked hurt. "You don't remember?"
Pepper closed her eyes, exhausted, and heard him sigh. "You were jogging on the cliff path this morning. It gave way and you fell down to the beach."
His words were, to pardon the pun, stark, a recitation of facts. Facts that made no sense at all, because while Pepper knew the path--it ran from his house to the edge of his property--she did most of her running on her treadmill at home, and certainly not on her boss' private trails.
"No," she said faintly, but everything was fading as sleep dragged her down. The last thing she felt was an odd warmth on the back of the hand he was holding.
Waking was easier the second time. Her body still ached, but the IV was gone and Pepper felt much more clearheaded. She sat up slowly, feeling very scraped and stiff, but the headache was bearable.
Private room. I wonder where my clothes are?
The first order of business was the bathroom, and Pepper made her way on shaky legs to the little cubicle. When she came back out, there was a nurse standing by her bed. The big man, whose scrubs bore a pattern of multicolored frogs, smiled cheerfully.
"You're obviously feeling better this morning, Ms. Potts. Why don't you get back in bed and I'll bring you some breakfast?"
"Okay." Food sounded very good, in fact. Pepper settled back under the sheet, thumbing the head of the bed up so that she could sit comfortably. The nurse, whose badge read "Carlos", checked her vital signs with quick skill.
"The doctor will be by shortly to take a look at you," he told her. Pepper looked up at him.
"Um...can you tell me what's wrong with me? Nobody said so when I woke up."
He laughed sympathetically. "They forgot the important stuff, huh? You have a mild concussion and a lot of bruises; apparently you took quite a tumble. There was a little concern with water in your lungs, but that seems to have cleared up."
"Water?" Pepper asked, frowning. "What water?"
Carlos patted her arm. "Couldn't tell you--you can ask the doctor. Don't worry if your memory is a bit hazy, shock can do that to a person." He straightened. "You just take it easy, and I'll see about that breakfast."
Pepper didn't see that she had much choice--she wasn't about to go wandering around a hospital in bare feet and a patient gown. But she was hungry too, so she composed herself to wait, trying to remember what had happened.
Did I dream Tony being here? I must have. None of that makes any sense. She let the idea go with mingled relief and regret. Her boss was a very attractive, intriguing, sexy male, but his lifestyle was an extravagant disaster and Pepper knew to stay well clear of it. Besides, she seemed to remember him telling her something that made no sense, which made it all the more likely that he'd been a dream.
The last thing she could remember, really, was leaving the office the day before, driving home with little more than dinner and a bubble bath on her mind. It had been another twelve-hour day, but the bonus to working late was that she missed the evening traffic.
The fact that she couldn't remember anything later than that was somewhat chilling. Oh, relax. It's probably just what he said. You fell, hit your head, and it scrambled your brains a little.
...Water in my lungs?
That might explain why her chest hurt. Frowning, Pepper hooked a finger in the collar of her gown and pulled it out to look down. There was a dark bruise just over her sternum, and it made her shiver. "What the hell happened?" she murmured, but there was no one there to answer.
The doctor arrived before Pepper had found the rest of her bruises. It was the same woman as before, exuding calm, her hair tucked away under a khimar. "Good morning, Virginia, glad to see you're feeling better. I'm Doctor Phair."
"Hello," Pepper replied cautiously. It was a little unnerving to be greeted by people as though they all knew her, though she was aware that it was just the medical style.
Doctor Phair's examination was more thorough than Carlos', but she made approving noises throughout. "You're healing nicely, and your lungs are clear. How's your vision?"
"Fine," Pepper said, telling the truth. "My head hurts, but not too much."
"Good. We'll get you an analgesic for that."
Pepper nodded. "What happened to me? I can't remember."
The doctor opened her hands. "I only know what I was told when you were brought in--a fall compounded by water inhalation. I don't know the circumstances."
"Nngh." Pepper rubbed her temple. "I don't like not remembering."
Phair smiled understandingly. "I realize that, but don't stress about it. You may get the memory back in a few days, or it may never return--this kind of minor trauma can cause a memory hiccup. It's fairly common and not something to worry about, strange as it may sound." She tucked her stethoscope into her jacket pocket. "Pushing can actually make a memory harder to recover; if you let it alone, it may come back sooner."
Pepper sighed. "All right, I'll try."
"Good," the doctor repeated, still smiling. "You'll probably want over-the-counter painkillers for a couple of days, and you'll need to take it easy--at least two days off work, all right?" Phair raised an admonishing eyebrow. "Listen to your body."
Pepper relaxed somewhat at the good report, though she wasn't sure just how long she'd be willing to stay home and do nothing. For one thing, she bored quickly; for another, she could just imagine the chaos Tony would get into without her there to keep an eye on him. "Does this mean I can go home?"
"As soon as you have breakfast. I'll get the paperwork started but it will probably be a couple of hours. Plenty of time for your ride to get here." Phair scribbled something on the chart at the end of Pepper's bed. "The nurses can get you your personal effects."
She took her leave, and shortly thereafter Carlos brought in ibuprofen and a rather unappetizing breakfast and promised to find Pepper's clothes. Pepper forced down the watery scrambled eggs and nibbled on the cold toast, wondering how she'd ended up at the hospital in the first place. An ambulance, I guess.
She hadn't pointed out to the doctor that she had no one to come and give her a ride; Pepper really didn't want to stay in the hospital a minute longer than she had to, and she wasn't entirely sure that Phair would release her if the doctor knew she was going home alone.
I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Pepper wondered if she could call a cab from the nurses' station. She never went running without I.D. and a credit card, just in case. There has to be an ATM somewhere in this building.
She wasn't surprised at the luxury of a private room. Stark Industries had very good health insurance, and Pepper had the executive package--one of the perks of her position.
The paperwork and her effects arrived at the same time. Pepper opened the bag, eager to get into familiar clothes, but while her sweatpants were in decent shape her top was sandy and slightly damp. She frowned at it, dismayed.
Carlos tutted over the garment. "I'll find you a scrub top. Don't go anywhere--"
As if I could, in this outfit. Curbing her impatience, Pepper signed the various insurance and discharge forms, and was ready and tapping her fingers on the blanket when Carlos returned with a top in a plain light green. Pepper changed in the bathroom, puzzled to find her shoulder bag underneath her shoes in the bundle of personal items.
Why was I out running with my purse?
Baffled but feeling better, she handed in the paperwork. Carlos called her a cab, and she went downstairs to meet it.
She didn't remember having that much cash in her bag, but there was plenty for taxi fare, so Pepper gave the driver her address and sat back, closing her eyes against the glare of the sun. Her sunglasses weren't in their usual pocket in the purse.
I probably lost them when I fell. Wherever that was. Something was decidedly off about this whole thing, but Pepper ignored the nagging thought for the moment, wanting little more than her own safe apartment and her own shower. Her head didn't precisely hurt as long as she kept her eyes closed, but it felt too large and light, and something told her that her reserves were lower than she'd first thought.
She was half-dozing when the driver told her they'd arrived. Blinking in the sun, Pepper paid him and climbed out, rummaging in her bag for her keys.
They weren't there. Or rather they were, but the keychain held only car keys--several sets. Pepper halted, frowning down at them in bewildered consternation, and finally looked up.
The disorientation was instant and crushing, and Pepper felt as though she were in a dream that had just shifted perspective without warning. The apartment building she was standing in front of wasn't hers.
Pepper spun around, figuring that the cabbie had gotten the address wrong, but everything else was right--the park across the street, the shop next door. It was the building in front of her that was completely wrong.
Maybe I am dreaming. Pepper raised a hand to lips gone numb. Just how hard did I hit my head?
Her stomach twisted unpleasantly, and Pepper eased down to sit on the curb, lest her shaky knees betray her.
If this isn't my building...then where do I live?
The tiny whine that escaped her throat heralded panic, and Pepper immediately locked it down. "Think, Virginia," she muttered. "Use your brain. There has to be some kind of logical explanation."
Except...there wasn't. No matter how many times she thought it through, it didn't fit. Pepper knew her own address; she could picture every detail of her cozy, slightly shabby apartment, the view from her balcony down to the park across the way.
The building behind her didn't have balconies.
Her head was starting to pound again. Pepper closed her eyes, trying to breathe slowly. Maybe I should go to the office.
...What if work is gone too?
The idea was horrifying; it brought a wave of nausea that made Pepper clench her teeth. But work was the only other point of stability in her life, and she swallowed and lifted her head. You have to find out, one way or the other.
Climbing to her feet was difficult, but possible. Pepper looked around; there were people on the street, but none nearby. The taxi was long gone, but if she could just make it a couple of blocks, there was a hotel around the corner where it would be easy to catch one. "One foot in front of the other, Virginia," she told herself, and set off.
She was about halfway down the block when a small sports car screamed past, moving much too quickly for a residential area. It barely registered in her perception, but a breath later there was a hideous screech of tires, and then the car zoomed back past her and stopped, front tire bucking up onto the curb. It rather surprised Pepper when her boss popped out of the driver's seat, but before she could ask him what he was doing there he had practically thrown himself over the hood and was grabbing her by the shoulders. "Pepper, you fucking idiot, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Mr. Stark--" she tried to say, but the nausea suddenly got worse, and she knocked his arms away and staggered for the street. There wasn't much in her stomach, but it all ended up in the gutter. Coughing and gagging, Pepper could hardly catch her breath, but part of her was still shocked by the hands that stroked her hair out of the way and rubbed lightly between her shoulderblades.
When the wrenching spasms were finally over, Pepper sat down heavily, panting and dizzy. Her eyes wouldn't quite focus through the tears forced out by her vomiting, but she could hear Tony swearing quietly to himself, and the sound of a car door opening. A moment later, he was back, gently wiping her face with what she dimly realized was his handkerchief. It was damp and cool and felt wonderful.
"You need to get back to the hospital," he said, sounding calmer but very grim. Pepper blinked her eyes clear and squinted up at him.
"What are--" She had to stop and swallow several times. "What are you doing here?"
Her voice was hoarse, and Tony thrust a bottle of water at her, holding it until she made her fingers close around the plastic. "Looking for you, Potts, what else?"
Pepper took a cautious mouthful of water to rinse with, and spat it out into the gutter. "I don't want to go to the hospital." And she didn't. Tony's appearance was absurd enough; on top of the mystery with her apartment, Pepper was beginning to think she was truly going crazy. If I go back, they might never let me out--
"Did I ask your opinion?" Tony was sitting next to her, oblivious to the damage the sidewalk could do to his impeccable suit. "Pepper, you're wandering around disoriented and you just barfed your guts out. They should never have let you out in the first place."
He was tense, she could sense that. Something was wrong; he was holding it in with the stubborn strength that was an integral, if hidden, part of his character. But she couldn't concentrate enough to pursue the thought. "I'm not disoriented," she said with some indignation. "I know exactly where I am."
"Yeah, so do I, but why are you here?" Tony ran an agitated hand through his hair and then stood up. "Never mind, table it for later. On your feet, Potts, time to go."
She looked up at him as he took the bottle from her and recapped it. "No."
He shoved the bottle into his coat pocket, and in one smooth motion bent and lifted her up without much effort, arms behind her shoulders and knees. She squeaked. "Again, it's not your decision."
He swung towards the car, and bundled her into the passenger seat before she could muster the wits to argue. Bending over her, he pulled the seatbelt across to fasten it, and in irritation Pepper shoved at him. "I don't--" Her hand hit something hard beneath his tie.
The seatbelt clicked into place, but she was distracted. "What are you wearing? I thought you didn't do flak vests in-country."
"It's just the reactor, Pepper. You really are out of it." Tony frowned, cupping her chin in one hand and tilting her head up to peer at her eyes. "Pupils look normal..."
"Reactor." That didn't make sense either.
"Yeah. My arc implant. Mark II, the blue light special, remember?" He released her and straightened, closing the door carefully and going around to the driver's side.
Arc. Reactor. Implant. Pepper frowned, her ears beginning to ring. "You have...a reactor. In your chest?"
Tony turned slowly to stare at her. "Yes...the same one you helped me install...Pepper?"
It was absurd. Totally, completely absurd. "I really am dreaming," Pepper informed him, and passed out.