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.
Written for Cincoflex, who has graciously allowed me to post it!
The tunnels stretched out endlessly in front of him. No matter which way he turned, there was never any sunlight, just more rough rock stretching into darkness, and he couldn't find his way back either, back to where the life was running out of Yinsen and there wasn't any time--
--and he was so cold--
Tony forced his eyes open. The darkness that met them was broken by faint flickers of golden light, and instead of the rasp of his breath in his ears there was the trickle of a fountain in the distance. But he was not comforted.
He threw off the tangle of sheet and slid to the edge of the big bed. It wasn't as large as his bed at home, but still a respectable size, and there wasn't much else in the ornate room. Tony stood up, shaking out the legs of his cotton pajama pants, and left the bedroom behind, not seeing the richness of the décor at all.
The house in Dubai was very different from his home in Malibu; it had been his parents' before it was his, and Tony had never bothered to redecorate from its "authentic" original. Now he paced down the long halls, feeling plush carpet under his feet and goosebumps on his arms.
Nightmares, he was used to. They hadn't been infrequent even before Afghanistan; he'd always been a restless sleeper, which was another reason why he left his lovers to sleep on their own when the party was over. He didn't want the embarrassment.
Afghanistan, and his subsequent missions, just gave the nightmares more fuel.
For lack of anything else to do, Tony kept walking, rubbing absently at his raised skin. He still felt cold even when he left the air-conditioned portion of the house, despite the heat of the Dubai night.
He felt a bit like a ghost. There was no party this time; SHIELD had asked him to make a trip to the Middle East as a cover for a mission, and it was easy enough to comply. The mission had gone smoothly, for a wonder, but they had another two days in the city and the house felt very empty.
Well, it is. There's no one here but the servants and Pepper. The servants were in their comfortable quarters on the other side of the house, since there were no guests to require their services. And Pepper was undoubtedly sleeping the sleep of the just in her luxurious suite.
Tony wandered through the pool courtyard, briefly considering a soak in the hot tub, but it had been turned off for the night. He shivered and kept going. There was no point in returning to bed just yet; he had to leave the bad dream behind first.
Many nights, he never did, and just saw the dawn in from his workshop. But there was no workshop here.
Maybe a drink, then. It would at least warm him a little; sometimes Tony felt like the cold of the cave had sunk ineradicably into his bones. Even the Malibu sun, even the furnace of Dubai couldn't seem to bake it out of him.
He headed towards the nearest liquor cabinet, which was located on the far side of one of the big parlors. The chill of the air conditioning seemed to make his skin shrink, and Tony slipped past the overstuffed furniture, wondering wearily when it would be safe to sleep again.
A sniffle broke the silence, a tiny sound carrying on the still air. Tony halted, all his senses suddenly alert, and scanned the room.
There. A pale shape on the farthest sofa, half-lost in the dimness. He squinted, and the white blur resolved into his personal assistant, sitting bolt upright and wrapped in a sheet. As he watched, she lifted a hand and wiped her eyes.
"Pepper?" Tony went around a table to move towards her, setting aside the idea of a drink. She jumped, head whipping around to look his way. "Hey, it's only me."
"Oh--Tony--" Pepper sniffled again and blinked rapidly, managing a smile that was patently false. "You scared me."
"Sorry." He detoured to the fireplace nearby, grabbing the matches from the mantel to light one of the fat candles that decorated the ledge. A wavery amber light gave shapes a little more edge. "You okay?"
"Sure," Pepper said cheerfully. Tony tossed the dead match into the grate, not even having to turn around to know that she was lying.
He did anyway.
It wasn't often that he saw his assistant in such disarray. Pepper's hair was loose and tangled, her makeup gone; the sheet wrapped around her made her look like a little girl playing mummy. "Your eyes are red," Tony murmured, giving her half a smile. "What's the matter?"
"I could ask you the same thing," Pepper said with a touch of asperity. "All it takes is one night watchman for your secret to get out." She gestured at his bare chest, where the arc implant glowed.
Tony opened his mouth to give her a flippant answer, but the candle flickered, highlighting Pepper's pink-rimmed eyes and the traces of tears on her cheeks, and suddenly he didn't want to. "Nightmare," he heard himself saying instead. "I had to walk it off."
Not that walking had worked, so far, but that was another issue.
Pepper's cool expression faded. "Oh." She looked down. "Me...me too."
Tony sat down on the low table in front of the couch, so that he could face her and she wouldn't have to crane her neck. "What did you dream?"
She shook her head. "I don't...I don't want to talk about it."
Tony almost reached out to tilt her face up so he could see her eyes clearly, but he refrained. "I dreamed of the cave," he said abruptly, trying to get the words out before pride choked them back. "It's dark and cold and I can't find my way out."
He found himself looking down too, at his hands clasped between his knees. Pepper sucked in a breath, and then one of her hands entered his vision, cupping over both of his. Quickly, before she could pull back, Tony turned his own palm-upward to capture her fingers.
They were warm. The touch of her skin sent that warmth racing up his arm, dissipating a fraction of the chill that still gripped him. "There's no time," he added vaguely, his attention divided between his memory and the woman before him. All his senses were focusing, locking onto the sheer life of her.
Pepper's thumb stroked over the back of his hand for a minute. "I dreamed you died," she said at last, her voice small and shy. "They found your body in the desert, and you never came home."
And she was crying for you, pointed out some part of his mind.
He had no words. Tony lifted her hand to his cheek, rubbing it against his skin as if to imprint the feel of her touch, that he might never forget. He shuddered, and Pepper made a soft, distressed sound, though she didn't try to pull away.
"What works for you?" Tony managed, his voice hoarse. "How do you chase them away?"
Pepper bit her lip, her eyes reddening further. "Hugs," she said, softer still. "A good strong hug makes them stop."
There was no question in his mind. Tony lurched off the table and surrounded her, wrapping his arms firmly around the willow strength that was Pepper and pulling her close. She gave a stuttering sigh and returned the embrace, and the heat pouring out of her thawed a little of his chill.
It made him shiver, again and again, and Pepper lifted her head from his shoulder. "You're cold," she said worriedly.
Tony tried to shrug. "Aftereffects," he said, trying to be offhand but not really succeeding.
Pepper pulled back with a frown, and the cold surged, but she didn't move away from him on the couch, instead unwinding her sheet. Beneath it she wore a tank top and sleep pants, modest and light, but Tony didn't have much time to look before she flung the sheet around him.
"There," she said, and snuggled up to him again, wrapping the sheet around them both. "Better?"
Tony closed his eyes and moaned in sheer relief as the cotton trapped her heat and it soaked into his skin. Gathering Pepper up, he leaned back into the corner of the sofa, settling them both as comfortably as he could.
He half-expected her to protest, but Pepper merely folded her long legs up and relaxed against him with another sigh. Her arms slid around him once more, and Tony rested his cheek against the crown of her head and tightened his grip.
There were no more dreams that night.