Disclaimer: 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. 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.

A response to a creepy!fic Halloween challenge on the Tony & Pepper LiveJournal Community (members only, sorry, go join if you haven't already). It's been years since I tried to write creepy; this was fun. *grin*

Many, many thanks to Cincoflex for the title, the banner, the tag line, and cheering me on! *hearts*


Tony was singing.

This wasn't unusual. Pepper stood waiting for Iron Man to fly down the driveway tunnel and settle onto the assembly platform, and listened to the song coming over the speakers; some small part of her was aware that the song itself was odd--Tony had eclectic tastes, but he usually disdained country and western--but what was stranger was that it was in key. In fact, it really didn't sound like him at all.

Pepper looked back at the platform and was surprised to see Iron Man standing there, arms at his sides; somehow she hadn't heard him come in. She waited for Jarvis to take over, but no apparatus appeared; instead, the armor opened by itself, folding outward like a mechanical blossom.

The blood poured out in a thick cascade, fountaining down and flowing towards her, hideously fast. Blood, nothing but blood, the armor was empty, there was nothing left of him but blood and if it touched her--

Pepper screamed and screamed, but she made no sound.


Tony regarded the flash drive warily. He was tired, beyond tired; it had been three days since the fight at Headquarters and they had been very, very long days. Stark Industries had lost its CFO and gained a superhero at the same time, and he could still feel every bruise and scrape.

The persistant exhaustion wasn't just from getting only four hours of sleep per night, either. He'd replaced the failing Mark I reactor as soon as Jarvis finished putting together a replacement Mark II, though he'd had to get Pepper to bring it to the hospital; but as that nightmarish little trip downstairs after Stane had stolen the first one had proven, his arc implant was doing a hell of a lot more than just keeping the shrapnel in his chest from moving. Draining the Mark I had drained him as well, and the effect was downright terrifying.

Unfortunately, that was a problem for another time; Tony had more pressing issues at the moment. Like dealing with the results of his own impulsiveness, and trying to corral a board of directors shocked by the loss of Stane and his plans.

It's late. I need sleep.

But the little drive held his attention. It had been delivered to the mansion by Stane's lawyer just an hour before; the woman had told him that her instructions had been to give it to Tony three days after Stane's death, should Stane predecease him.

"Predecease. Dumb word," Tony muttered to himself. Like pre-owned; just a fancy word for used. "All it means is that you died first, you bastard."

In the end, curiosity won out. Tony stuck the drive into one of the ports on the closest workshop monitor and slouched back, wondering sourly what Obadiah had intended. Probably set the thing up years ago and forgot about it--

As he'd more than half-expected, it was a video file, which began playing automatically. It was Stane's den at home, not his office, which surprised Tony a little, but Obadiah was impeccably dressed as always, tie knotted perfectly and beard neatly trimmed. He smiled out at Tony, all genial pleasure and white teeth. "'Some say the world will end in fire," he quoted, "some say in ice'. Looks like you outlived me, Tony my boy; not too much of a surprise, but I must say I'm a bit disappointed at not lasting longer."

Tony flinched, and almost leaned forward to shut off the playback; if this was from a more innocent time, the involuntary double entendres were horrible. But in the back of his mind was a small shamed desire to see the old Obadiah once more, the man he'd trusted so long--who'd been a foster father for almost half his life.

Stane picked up a cigar from the low table in front of his sofa and slid it through his fingers, an old thoughtful habit. "It's a little strange, doing this now," he continued. "And if you're looking for any wisdom from beyond the grave, I'm afraid I don't have any to offer." He grinned again, and Tony flinched slightly. "It's not like I didn't already teach you everything I know. When you were willing to listen, anyway."

Stane produced clippers and nipped off the end of the cigar, setting the tip carefully aside, and then lit up, puffing out a few clouds of smoke. Tony recognized the routine, Obie's way of either settling his thoughts or gaining control of a conversation, or both. "Anyway. I wanted to give you a bit of closure. You've been like a son to me, Tony," he said, his expression growing sober. "And I hate to leave you unprotected."

Tony's hands closed slowly into fists as Stane regarded his cigar thoughtfully. "Not quite unprotected; you have the indomitable Ms. Potts, of course. The woman's a treasure; you don't deserve her." Stane looked back to the camera, gaze suddenly wicked. "You know that, of course."

I would have preferred that she lived. Tony felt his gorge rise, and forced the nausea sternly down.

Stane stuck the cigar back between his teeth, grinning once more. "I will give you one last piece of advice," he said cheerfully. "Never trust anyone. Anyone, my boy. Sooner or later, they'll betray you."

Tony's nails were biting into his palms. He concentrated on the pain, rather than on the image swimming before his eyes. Screaming at it would do no good. He was going to vaporize the damn flash drive, just as soon as he could move--

Stane sat back, resting his arms on the back of the sofa, a display of ease and power. "Fire or ice. Well. I have to wonder which one it was. But I say--" His grin grew even wider, rapacious and amused. "--Is it too much to ask for both?"

The video ended, the screen going dark. Tony barely noticed; he was struggling to his feet and staggering into the workshop kitchen. The sink was close enough, barely, and he emptied the meager contents of his stomach long before he finished retching.


It was still dark out when Pepper arrived at Tony's house. She was early even for her, but there was so much to do, and it wasn't like she'd been able to get back to sleep after that nightmare anyway. "What the hell, it's October," she muttered, pushing open the front door. The sun doesn't get up until practically midmorning these days.

"Good morning, Ms. Potts," Jarvis greeted her. "Tony is in the workshop."

"Why am I not surprised? 'Morning, Jarvis," she added, reflexively polite, and tucked a stubborn strand of hair back as she headed for the stairs. Tony had been getting less sleep than she lately despite her best efforts, and she was more than a little worried; many of the gains he'd made since returning from Afghanistan seemed to be slipping away. Pepper still didn't know quite what to think about the entire battle and its results; she hadn't had time to think, and that was a good thing. She wasn't sure she was ready to deal with the weird side effects of Tony's reactor implant, never mind the fact that she was responsible for Obadiah's death...

She found him in the middle of the workshop floor, Butterfingers half-disassembled and parts in a circle around him. He was wearing the same dress pants he'd had on the day before, but he'd stripped down to his undershirt. The black didn't really show grease, but judging by the streaks up his arms Pepper figured the slacks were a loss all the same.

Tony squinted up at her, his eyes bloodshot. "Fuck. Is it morning already?"

"Good morning to you too, Mr. Stark." Pepper stepped into the kitchenette and laid a palm on the espresso machine; cold, so she turned it on and started programming. "Did you get any sleep at all?"

The formality was a refuge; they'd been off balance for weeks, it seemed, ever since the charity ball; they circled warily around one another now, both of them unsure, and she found it...irritating.

"No." The voice came from close by, and Pepper looked up to see Tony standing a few feet away, looking her over with the same thoroughness she used on him. "You look like hell."

Pepper refrained from rolling her eyes. "Thank you," she chirped over the roar of the coffee grinder. At least he didn't smell like alcohol.

He huffed, and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that." The apology was actually sincere, and Pepper gave him half a smile.

"I didn't sleep well either. Do you want breakfast?"

Tony eyed the espresso machine, which was beginning to burble and steam. "Let's start with coffee and see how it goes from there."

That made her frown. "Are you feeling okay? If you're coming down with something--"

She stepped forward to lay her wrist on his forehead; he knocked it gently away, but without his usual annoyance at her fussing. "I'm fine, Ms. Potts. Something didn't agree with me, that's all." His smile was crooked. "So what extra-special super-boring meetings am I lined up for today?"

He didn't look okay, but she had long since learned to pick her battles. "I don't know why I bother updating your calendar, you never look at it."

"Because it satisfies your anal-retentive tendencies." Tony lifted down two cups from the shelf above him, holding up one and lifting a brow, and Pepper nodded.

"What's wrong with Butterfingers?" she asked, not bothering to take offense at his jibe.

He busied himself with the machine, decanting coffee into both cups. "Nothing major, he had a squeaky joint and I decided to go ahead and give him a complete lube job."

Why he chose to do that in the middle of the night when there were a hundred more pressing tasks was a question for which Pepper knew she would get no answer. She found the artificial sweetener two cupboards over from where she'd left it and accepted her demitasse, doctoring the coffee the way she liked it. Tony took the sweetener and dumped a teeth-aching amount into his own cup, swirling it around and staring blankly down at the dark spiral.

Pepper sighed silently, cupped her hands around the warm porcelain, and ran through the day's schedule in her head. "You have two meetings this morning, Legal first and then PR, and the board's flying in this afternoon for an emergency session."

Tony echoed her sigh, his expression growing sour. "Great. Fun with traitors."

Pepper carefully didn't say anything; Obadiah's end run around Tony was largely the latter's own fault, but she still felt guilty for not paying more attention herself. She'd liked Obadiah, and they had worked together for a long time, looking after Tony from two different angles. You still should have caught on, she chided herself, taking refuge in contempt for the manipulator to save herself from dwelling on the armored madman. You should have made Tony go to the board meeting.

But there was nothing she could do about it now. Pepper blew on her espresso to cool it, and focused on the present. "Well, we're running ahead of schedule at the moment. And if we get to SI early, you can get a drop on Legal. You love doing that."

"True." Tony brightened, and gulped his coffee, apparently oblivious to its temperature. He handed her the cup, and snapped his fingers. "That reminds me, those memos you wanted me to sign? I did."

"Great, where are they? I can take them in this morning--" She'd been nagging him for a week.

"Table." Tony gestured vaguely at the far end of the workshop. "In one of those yellow folders. I'm going to go get cleaned up."

Pepper eyed the table in question, which was basically invisible under a thick covering of tools, devices, computer components, and papers. Fortunately, she was used to this. "You do that."

Tony snickered, and headed upstairs. Pepper put his cup in the sink and took a tentative sip from his own, and went to do battle with the table.


This thing is the best damn idea I ever had, Tony thought, grunting with pleasure as the hot water pelted him from all sides. The same thought crossed his mind almost every time he used the elaborate shower he'd designed himself; and, at least at that moment, it was true. The glass box was four times the size of an ordinary shower and had an electromagnetic door seal to keep the water inside; it possessed six adjustible shower heads, steam vents, dispensers for soap and shampoo and shaving gel, a programming touchpad, and a bench for sitting on. And there was plenty of room for two, or even three.

But at the moment he luxuriated alone, letting the heat and pounding water wear away at his fatigue. Caffeine and a good long shower could do a lot to make up for not actually sleeping--

The water went abruptly ice-cold, and Tony flinched. "Hey!"

He fumbled for the touchpad, trying to wipe his eyes, feeling his skin try to crawl off his frame. I hate cold. And he hated cold water especially.

The pad didn't respond to his poke, though, and when he peered through the flying droplets Tony saw that it had gone dark. "What the hell?" he muttered. Programming glitch? Can't be the power, the lights are still on--

There was no space in the shower where the sprays didn't reach. Tony's skin pebbled, and he gritted his teeth, raising his voice to be heard over the noise of the water. "Jarvis!"

No soothing voice answered him. Tony frowned and shouted louder. "Jarvis. Jarvis, answer!"

Still nothing, and that absence was suddenly almost as chilling as the water. Swearing, Tony pulled the door latch. It lifted, but the door didn't open.

For a second, Tony simply didn't believe it. It didn't make sense. He'd designed the door to stay closed if it was pushed or leaned against, but to open easily when the latch was pulled. He yanked it again, with exactly the same result.

This is stupid. He was beginning to shiver. Tony backed up as much as possible and aimed a good, solid flat-footed kick at the door; the tempered glass would not break, but the electromagnet wasn't that strong.

The impact sent a lance of pain up his leg, but the door didn't open.

"Jarvis!" The old panic was starting to creep up his spine, legacy of a pack of mercenary goons and their simple, brutal method of torture. Tony bit the inside of his cheek, focusing on the minor pain. Relax. This is just a glitch of some kind; Potts'll come looking for you before too long. Yeah, this is uncomfortable, but it's not--

It was then that he realized that the water was lapping at his ankles.

He looked down, wondering stupidly if somehow he'd clogged one of the drains with a washcloth or something, but they were all clear. They just, judging by the speed of the water's rising, were refusing to drain.

Tony felt his heart beginning to pound. Stay calm, he told himself. You can't drown in here, the top's open. And Pepper--

The lights went out, leaving him blinking in the weird glow of his arc implant. The hiss of the water seemed to get louder, and Tony shivered harder, the spasms getting closer together. His teeth started to chatter.

The laughter started low, but it built up enough to be heard easily over the water. Tony stiffened at the familiar, genial sound.

"Tony, Tony, Tony. Look at you." For a terrifying instant Tony thought Stane was there, that he had somehow survived the reactor meltdown, but the crackle of static told him the voice was coming over the speakers. "What was the first thing I taught you? How to win."

Tony's mind spun in tight, frantic circles, trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. He's dead, he's vaporized, it can't be him--Jarvis, somebody's hacked Jarvis--

--And then he remembered the flash drive, and stumbled back against the shower wall, heedless of its chill, appalled at the magnitude of his own stupidity.

"They say hell is cold, Tony, very cold," Stane's voice said with horrible cheerfulness. "But don't worry. You won't go alone."

The last four words drove a spear of ice into Tony's gut. "Pepper," he said through lips that were going numb. And then screamed it. "Pepper!"

All that answered him was more laughter. Tony slammed both hands into the door, and realized that the water had almost reached his knees.

She's not coming to rescue you--

Coherent thought dissolved into panic.


The trouble with having extra time was that she tended to get caught up in other tasks. Pepper normally left Tony's workshop mess strictly alone--he claimed to know where everything was, and most of it had nothing to do with her anyway--but in digging for the memo folder she found first the original reactor plans that were supposed to be on file at SI headquarters, and then a contract she'd given up for lost. So she kept going, carefully extracting items related to the company and trying to leave everything else where she found it. And occasionally taking another sip of coffee.

The whir of Dummy's motor was so familiar that Pepper almost didn't realize he was approaching. She glanced up, shoving that strand of hair out of the way yet again, and gave the approaching robot a quick smile even though she'd never quite figured out where they kept their visual sensors. "What have you got there, Dummy?"

The 'bot was carrying a long metal nozzle in his claw, and a tube ran from it to a tank fastened to his housing. Pepper leaned her hip against the table and watched, amused, as Dummy came closer. "Did Tony modify you for something?"

Dummy's claw made a twisting motion, and as Pepper watched there was a soft pop; a small blue flame appeared at the end of the nozzle, and Pepper recognized the equipment as one of Tony's propane welding torches. The smell of the burning gas, sharp and acrid, made her wrinkle her nose. "What's the matter? Do you want me to put Butterfingers back together? You'll have to wait for Tony to get back, I can't..."

She trailed off. Dummy wasn't moving very fast, but he wasn't stopping either. The 'bot's arm extended down and forward, towards Pepper, and it was with only a small pulse of shock that she realized that--

She jumped aside, annoyed. "Stop it, Dummy," she snapped. "You shouldn't be playing around with that thing."

Usually the robots responded to remarks made in their direction, chirping and humming back, but now Dummy was silent. He merely backed up enough to get room to turn, then pivoted and came towards her again.

Beginning to be alarmed, Pepper backed up herself. "Dummy! That's dangerous," she scolded. "Shut it off."

Her words had absolutely no effect. In fact, as she watched, the flame grew longer and wider, and the hiss of the burning gas sounded loud in the otherwise quiet room.

Pepper skittered a few yards away, eyeing the 'bot as it rolled slowly towards her. "Jarvis...Jarvis, Dummy's acting strange, can you turn him off please?"

Jarvis didn't answer. Pepper frowned and kept retreating. "Jarvis. Jarvis, answer me!"

Still nothing. She backed into a workbench, and bit back a yip at the jab of its corner into her waist. Did Tony put him on emergency-only? This is weird--

It took her a few seconds to remember the string of code words used to reactivate the AI; she hadn't had to use them in years. But rattling them off in a loud voice brought no result. Pepper slid past the workbench and behind it, watching as Dummy followed, and tried again.

When nothing happened, she scooted halfway across the workshop and halted in front of one of the terminals, reaching for the keyboard to try a manual input. But the screen was dead; in fact, Pepper realized with a peculiar chill, all the screens were dead.

This is bad.

Dummy's motor was louder now; the 'bot was picking up speed, closing the distance between them much too quickly. Pepper looked around wildly, then dodged left, heading for the stairs as fast as she could go without risking a tumble. She glanced back as she reached the glass door; Dummy was still some yards away, and Pepper felt a surge of relief as she grasped the handle. This is getting too much like a bad horror movie.

When the door didn't open, she almost laughed, because it fit the cliché like a glove. Pepper spun away from it and along the glass, banging on the clear wall and shouting as loudly as she could. "Tony! Tony! Tony, I need help!"

But she knew sound didn't carry well through the glass, and if he were still in the shower there was no way he could hear her. She sprinted back towards the far end of the workshop, hoping to put barriers between herself and Dummy; the robot was between Pepper and the elevator, and while the cars looked like a refuge, she knew better than to hide in anything whose fuel was an explosive. He'd probably just try to burn through the door, but I don't want to find out the hard way--

The maze of workbenches and equipment was enough to slow Dummy down, but unfortunately it was deliberately set up to give the 'bots room to navigate. Pepper hurried through them at a rapid walk, trying to stay ahead of Dummy's relentless pace and that alarming tongue of flame. She knew it was only a matter of time before Tony came back downstairs looking for her; all she had to do was stay out of Dummy's reach until then.

If he notices, she thought uneasily, circling around one table and then flinching back in surprise when Dummy's arm shot across it to menace her. If he doesn't get involved in something up there, or falls asleep... And the propane tank was big enough to last for hours.

Pepper whirled around an old missile housing and looked around quickly, but just as she was about to dodge left Dummy sped up again and cut her off. The robots had always managed somehow to be fairly expressive despite the lack of anything resembling a face, and his air of innocent helpfulness had been replaced by a malevolence that was really starting to frighten her. "Dummy..."

The tongue of flame crackled as the arm whipped sideways, and Pepper gasped as she stumbled backwards, almost tripping over her heels. She thrust her hands behind her to cushion herself and kept backing up, glancing frantically from side to side, but there was nothing behind her but the wall, and workbenches on either side. Dummy had herded her.

She was trapped.

Dummy's aura of malignant satisfaction was palpable. The 'bot slowed, blocking her neatly in the dead end, and with a deliberation any torturer would envy, brought the flame closer and closer to her skin.

All Pepper could think was how quickly her hair would burn when it caught. Terror squirmed inside her, and as she felt the heat building like a dragon's kiss, she couldn't hold back the shriek.

It rang nicely off the workshop walls.


His hands hurt. Tony knew that, dimly, but the panic riding him didn't let him stop pounding on the glass, his yelling barely heard above the water--the water that was creeping ever higher, passing his waist and inching towards his arc implant. He twisted to kick at the door again--and slipped.

Falling down into the cold brought him to his senses. Tony thrashed in the water, found his balance, and shoved back to his feet, coughing and sputtering, staggering back against the glass. What the hell are you doing? Get a grip!

He was so cold now that his legs were numb. The arc's glow was broken and refracted by the pelting water until details were hard to make out, and Tony realized that when the level rose high enough it was going to get even darker in there.

Think, idiot. There has to be a way out of this. Had Stane counted on his panic? He can't have planned for everything.

He looked up. There was about a foot of clearance between the top of the shower box and the ceiling; enough space to give him air when the water filled the shower and began to spill over. But the icy cold would do him in, Tony knew; sooner or later he would get too cold to function, and would sink and drown.

Tony eyed the ventilation grate above the shower, but the shaft beyond was too narrow for him to climb into even if he could pry the grate off. Think!

It was hard, between the cold and horror and the terror of what Stane might have designed for Pepper. If Stane's programming had turned Jarvis against them, the possibilities were many and deadly, starting with just locking Pepper in a room and leaving her to die of thirst or hunger. And Tony could easily imagine a dozen more gruesome methods.

He rubbed his hands together, trying to warm his fingers a little. If only I had one of my gauntlets. That door wouldn't hold for a second--

--The door. The electromagnetic seals had been augmented, clearly, far beyond their normal strength; but they were still electric. Tony had insulated the door to a fare-thee-well, not wanting to electrocute himself in his own bathroom, but the arc reactor had exponentially more power than was needed to disrupt the seal.

"Wire," he said past his chattering teeth, "I need wire." Tony spun to look at the deactivated touchpad.

It was a risk, he knew; if there was still power behind the pad he could kill himself just as thoroughly as drowning and a good deal faster. But it's not like I have a lot of choice here.

It took him precious minutes to unscrew a showerhead; the metal burned cold against his stiff fingers, and when he got it loose the unrestrained jet of water almost knocked him off his feet again. But when Tony gave the touchpad two sharp, carefully angled raps with the showerhead, the cover popped right off.

He let it fall, and tossed the showerhead over his shoulder, bellying up to the wall to block the water and reaching gingerly into the panel. Nothing happened; within seconds he'd pulled two coated wires free.

The water had almost reached his arc implant, and Tony eyed the hole in the wall and realized he'd better hurry. If water gets in there I could electrocute myself after all.

The arc reactor's output, on the other hand, wasn't electricity, though it did travel down wires in much the same fashion. Tony jabbed the wire-ends into the sockets in the implant casing, took a deep breath, and touched the other ends to the door's seal.

The door slammed open so fast that the rush of water tumbled him off his feet, and Tony found himself sliding ignominously across his bathroom floor, belly-down. He yelped with pain as certain sensitive body parts proved not as numb as could be hoped, but it wasn't too bad, and he scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could, staggering out the door. "Pepper! Pepper!"

The lights were out in his bedroom and the hallway, too. Tony dug his numb toes into the carpet and ran. You son-of-a-bitch, told you, I--

A peculiar warble began to sound over the house speakers, and Tony felt his augmented heart spasm. No. Oh, no, that's not fair!

He slammed his palm against the wall to round a corner and pelted towards the stairs, running as fast as possible. The third tier of the mansion's fire-suppression system, the last-ditch method, was to seal all exits and vents and pump out the oxygen. It wasn't meant to be used if anyone was actually inside; the warble alarm was a thirty-second warning.

Tony threw himself down the basement stairs, only touching them once or twice, and slammed to a halt at the bottom, praying that Pepper was still looking for the memos. The workshop was on a separate system--if he could just make it through the door--


Frantic, Pepper ducked, and threw a wild glance at the workbench to her right. It was covered in clutter, but half-buried under an old sweatshirt was the oversized hubcap Tony had, for some reason, painted with a patriotic theme. Pepper snatched it, sending the sweatshirt flying, and yanked it up between her face and the flame.

She heard a small clunk as the nozzle touched the metal. There were two bars welded to the inside of the disk, and Pepper hastily grabbed them in case Dummy decided to go for her fingers along the edge.

This just buys you a few seconds-- She peeked around the side of the hubcap and saw Dummy pulling back his arm. Pepper shoved the disk forward until it clanked against Dummy, and put all her weight against it as she pivoted around the point of force and slid past the bulk of his treads. Looking up, she saw the end of his arm coming over the top, flame hissing, and yelped.

But she was past. Pepper ran, as fast as she had with Stane chasing her, the disk still gripped in one hand, trying desperately to figure out what to do next. If I circle around behind him, can I disconnect that thing? But what will he do if it stops working? The damage Dummy could do to human flesh with his one claw was, she realized sickly, considerable. Maybe a car after all--

Pepper glanced back. Dummy was gaining on her with terrifying swiftness, and Pepper veered towards the elevator room, hoping against hope that she could somehow barricade the door long enough to call the elevator itself. But a beep cut across the hum of his motor, and Pepper glanced up to see Tony--stark naked and dripping wet--stumble through the stairwell door. "Pepper!"

At his shout, Dummy slowed and turned, then picked up speed towards Tony. Horrified, Pepper halted. "Tony, run! He's gone crazy and Jarvis isn't answering--"

Tony blinked at his robot and started backing away. "There's a switch on the back, you can shut him off!"

"What?" Pepper felt her hands starting to tremble; he wasn't moving fast enough.

He shook his head and slid along the wall, never taking his eyes from Dummy. "Emergency cutoff button. I'll keep him busy, you shut him off!"

"You and your buttons!" Exasperation was familiar, at least. Pepper drew her arm back to slide the hubcap at Tony, hoping against hope to get it somewhere in his vicinity so he could protect himself somewhat, but when she brought it forward the disk seemed to fly from her hand, sailing through the air like a Frisbee. Tony dove for it, snatching it up and immediately covering his groin, and Pepper spat a very bad word and ran towards the robot that had just been trying to kill her.

Pepper couldn't help slowing a little as she neared the pair, but Dummy didn't even seem to realize she was there and kept darting his arm at Tony, trying to catch him with the flame. Tony's reflexes were faster than hers, but it was a game of Dodge that he would very shortly lose.

"It's on the main housing, in the back," Tony gasped, yanking the disk up to block a shot at his face. Pepper dropped quickly to her knees, wincing in anticipation, but Dummy ignored her, making a sweeping pass at Tony's feet that made him swear.

The housing was smoothly machined metal, all but the small dimple in the center of one panel. Pepper jabbed at it with one finger, but missed as Dummy's arm swung around for another try at Tony; swearing again, she threw herself against the robot, grabbed hold of the base of his arm, and punched the button with all the ferocity she could muster.

Dummy froze.

She almost didn't believe it. Pepper stared up at the robot, more than half expecting him to lurch to life again, but he didn't move. Beyond him, Tony blew out a breath and dropped the hubcap with a clang.

Slowly, Pepper let go, sagging back and trying to calm her racing heart. Tony whistled softly and bent to shut off the torch. "That's twice this week, Ms. Potts. I'm going to promote you to Chief Button-Pusher."

The humor was shaky. Pepper looked up at him and was appalled--not because he was nude, she'd seen that before, but because he was blotched red and white, and shivering violently. His lips and nails were purplish-blue. "Tony, are you okay? What happened?"

Pepper pushed to her feet, trying desperately to remember what cyanosis was a symptom of, but one touch told her the problem was cold, not lack of oxygen. He shrugged at her, blinking. "Long story, but I really think we need to--"

The fire alarm warble went off, and Pepper looked up, appalled all over again. "That's not supposed to happen!"

"Fuck. Tell me about it!" Tony grabbed her arm and started running towards the garage exit, detouring a yard or two to snatch up a tangle of wire from one workbench. "Lost the others in the flood--"

Pepper decided explanations could wait. They tore up the slope, Tony's bare feet slapping on the concrete and her own heels rattling, only to be confronted by the closed door. Tony slid to a halt, cursing, and let her go. "Try the manual release while I get these in."

Trying to count seconds in her head, Pepper grabbed the release bar set into the wall. It took both hands and a mighty shove, but somewhat to her surprise it moved, clicking up and into place. The big door swung up and open, and they bolted out.

The early morning sunshine was a shock. Tony kept them both going until they were a good thirty yards away from the house; as they turned back to look, the door swung shut again, locking into place with a rather ominous thud.

Tony made a sound that was half sigh, half whimper, and wrapped his arms around his mottled torso. Dazed, Pepper turned to him, and going mostly on instinct, put her own arms around him. For warmth, if nothing else.

Tony laid his soaking head on her shoulder, and hugged her back. For a long, long time.


The phone in the kitchen rang, and Tony watched as Pepper got up to answer it. He didn't stir from his spot on her couch; he was finally warm again, but every muscle ached with the aftereffects of cold, and his hands were bruised. The couch was comfortable, and he really didn't want to move.

But her voice called from the kitchen. "Tony? It's for you."

She sounded odd, and he stood with a grunt and went to find out who was calling him on Pepper's land line.

The afternoon sun filled the big room, but she still looked pale and worried in its light, holding out the handset. "It's...Jarvis."

Not entirely surprised, Tony took it from her and lifted it to his ear. "Well?"

The AI's tone was matter-of-fact. "I have neutralized the virus program, sir. All systems have returned to normal."

Tony had had to send a reboot signal through Pepper's home computer to get Jarvis back in control, but it appeared to have been successful. "Great. Now, what the hell? How could a program off a flash drive bring you down?"

"The flash drive contained only the final piece," Jarvis replied evenly. "The bulk of the virus was seeded into my systems over the past month as extraneous code. Quite an innovative design."

"Yeah, I'll give 'em an award. Run every diagnostic you've got and prepare an analysis of the virus and ways to prevent it from happening again."

"Will do. Sir--" The smooth voice didn't change, but it did hesitate a fraction. "I apologize for trying to kill you."

Tony couldn't quite suppress the smirk. "Next time, Jarvis--do a better job."

He hung up and wandered back out to the living room. Pepper was sitting in his spot on the couch, looking strange to his eyes without her laptop or phone. Tony surreptitiously hitched up the too-loose sweatpants he was wearing; borrowing clothes from his chauffeur was a less than satisfying experience that had him swimming in the thick pullover. "I forgot to ask, did the board agree to meet tomorrow?"

Pepper sighed. "I'm not sure they believed me when I said you had a personal emergency, but yes." Her lips pursed in a reluctant smile at his snicker. "Is he okay?"

Tony shrugged judiciously. "Probably."

Pepper gave him a skeptical look, but didn't argue. She was unaccustomedly informal in a t-shirt and shorts, sitting sideways and cross-legged, and all of a sudden none of the rules seemed all that important in the face of what they'd just gone through. Tony sat down on the couch, scooting over until he was against her legs, and after an instant's hesitation she unfolded them. They ended up reclining together, Pepper leaning back against the arm and Tony with his head on her shoulder again. He closed his eyes.

Stane's laughter was coming from everywhere. Tony spun in a circle, but there was no getting away from it, and then he saw Pepper in the shower with Stane, her suit streaming bubbles and her eyes despairing. Stane was still laughing despite the water, and he couldn't move--

"Shh. Tony, it's okay."

The hand touching his cheek was as blessedly warm as the soft form underneath him, and Tony shuddered and slowly relaxed, moving one stiff hand to capture those slender fingers with his own. Sleep loomed up again, and he closed his eyes once more.

And resolved to be first inside the house tomorrow.

Just in case.