Title: Listening to the World Turn in on Itself
Rating: PG-13 (for language)
Genre/Pairing: Gen, with a Tony/Pepper slant
Summary: Because if he thinks, if he goes backwards, things go dark and he's decided to move forward. Tony Stark, inside and out, upon returning home.
Thanks: To Ginger Ninja for fangirling with me and helping with this story, and Jude for listening to me blabber about a block even though she's seen the film once.

Locked inside your head
Do you realise the things you said
Never made sense
We can sit here and laugh
But we don't know the half of it
In your defense

The first night back, he checks his voicemails, deletes everything, and falls asleep on the couch.

He asks Jarvis to keep the fire roaring all night. Crackling wood grounds him. Jarvis responding when he wakes up suddenly reminds him how far he's come.

After the fourth day in a row finding him sleeping, uncovered, on the leather couch in the workshop, Pepper asks the housekeeping staff for an extra blanket. She folds it perfectly and leaves it on one arm before she takes off for the night.

The next morning, it's folded, not as well, at the other end.

"Hey," he says, coming up for air from his renderings. "Uh, thanks for, you know."

She smiles. Yes, she knows.

Pepper manages to get him up out of the workshop a week into his new, consuming project, eyes skimming over schematics still spinning on the monitors, a bunch of lines and numbers in his odd shorthand. None of the work shows up on his usual servers, no whispers leave the workshop.

His eyes are only half-open when she slides a hand across his back, trying to get him up and out of the mess. His shoulder is still tender even though he took off the sling and threw it away outside the Arc reactor building, and falling asleep leaning over the desk can't be comfortable.

As soon as her hand brushes his back, he's awake and alert, eyes wide, hands coming up between them, pushing her away.

When she's standing in his bedroom's doorway, he mumbles an apology before shutting the door.

He's already back to work when she arrives early the next morning.

At eight sharp, Pepper Potts enters the front door of her boss' mansion, sets her bag down on a black chair behind the couch, and tells the man on the phone she'll have to call him back when she has room to think again. There's a puzzled "okay",and she wonders if he can't hear the blaring rock music on his end, because at this volume, she's surprised he can even hear her.

With a sigh, she decides to hit the kitchen, needing some coffee before she's able to deal with whatever's prompted this episode.

Burnt coffee sits at the bottom of the pot, and again, she's reminded just how much she cleans up after Tony Stark, both personally and professionally. Thumbing on the tap, she leans against the counter as the water warms up and dissolves last night's batch. Not for the first time, Pepper revisits the idea of iced coffee for Tony, since he rarely drinks it when it's still hot.

"Good morning, Miss Potts," comes Jarvis' voice over the din of heavy metal riffs.

"I can barely hear you! Can you turn that down, please?" she shouts. There's a pause and then, finally, she can think again. It takes a moment for her ears to catch up, and when she does, a bark of anger floats up from downstairs, where the music is still going strong. "Thank you, Jarvis. How long has he been like this?"

"Could you please specify the behavior you are referring to?"

Sometimes, the damn computer can be just as frustrating to speak to as the man who created it. Pepper pulls the coffee pot out from under the water, swishes it a bit, then dumps out the last of yesterday's bit before refilling it. Jarvis could easily automate the entire thing, but right now, she needs a distraction for her hands so her mind can formulate a game plan.

"Listening to -- "

"Pepper!" roars Tony, coming up the stairs. She takes a moment to start the coffee and puts a hand on her hip.

"Never mind."

"I don't know why the damn computer listens to you more than me," he grumbles. "Please tell Jarvis he can turn my music back up."

"Absolutely not. There's no reason for you to have it up that loud in the first place. I was in the middle of a phone call when I walked in and almost lost my hearing."

"Don't care. I'm working on something and -- "

"Yes, and what is that, exactly?"

Tony opens his mouth and actually thinks before he speaks, because his expression clouds, shuts down, and he simply shakes his head. "I'll be downstairs."

Pepper watches him go. He's almost unrecognizable.

She tries again, a few hours later, fresh coffee in hand since his has long gone cold. Down here in the workshop, the volume's infinitely louder, so much so her brain seems to reverberate in her skull, all thought obliterated through vibration alone.

How Tony can not only think but create in such an environment is beyond her.

Balancing the coffee on her clipboard, Pepper searches for her elusive boss in the noise and movement of the workshop while putting in the three digit code, then the volume control for the music.

"Are we going to keep doing this?" comes Tony's disembodied voice. Pepper follows it to the little welding station he's set up near fabrication, sparks far from reaching his precious cars. His voice is distorted by the hood, and he doesn't look up as she finds a safe spot for the coffee.

She holds her clipboard up and motions to it. "I have some documents for you to look over before your meeting with Accounting tomorrow. I've made some notes."

"Leave it there."

There's so much building up in Pepper, she pictures herself walking over to him and pulling off the hood, keeping him from his project until he tells her what she did to make him so angry. But then she realizes she hasn't done a thing, and isn't that sometimes just as bad as doing the wrong thing?

"Of course, Mr. Stark," she nods. "I have to go into the office this afternoon. Do you need anything?"

At that, he looks up, throws back the hood. Their eyes meet for just a moment before he's rattling off parts and their locations, and before Pepper begins writing them down, she could have sworn she saw something akin to fear behind those brown irises.

The house feels different when Pepper leaves.

He never sees her leave; he's too wrapped up in the suit to go upstairs, to bother her when she gets too involved in emails and phone calls and scheduling -- God, can't everyone see all that shit's for nothing? The world is larger than putting on a good face, smiling and snapping photos; meetings over lunch and benefits.

But he doesn't see her leave. Doesn't see her bring him fresh coffee or a sandwich. Folders appear on his desk, and he tosses them off his keyboard without even looking. Just works.

When she leaves, the house is empty. It is cold. His voice echoes when he barks orders at Jarvis, rough tones going on forever, and no one answers back.

Pepper comes in around noon, business at the office taken care of. There's a space of about two hours before the meeting with accounting, and while her boss may be amazing at math, his attention span is much shorter than the hour alloted to the status report the department will be giving.

Her notes are clear and concise, and, as Pepper drops her bag in a black chair behind the couch, she knows Tony didn't look at them at all. Maybe before she'd be angry and lecture him, she now only feels something akin to pity. Maybe there's too much on his mind; Pepper won't even pretend to understand what he's going through, and can only continue to do her job to give a sense of routine to the day.

She didn't stop during the three months he was gone, and won't be stopping now.

Her sharp heels echo as she descends the steps to the workshop, wincing at the loud music blasting from Tony Stark's sound system, designed by the man himself.

This time, she doesn't just turn it down, she turns it off.

"Mr. Stark," she ventures, navigating between cluttered work tables. "You have a meeting in two hours."

"I'm busy," she hears from somewhere....Pepper clears the work area to the open place between them and the cars and finds him beneath one.

"I can see that. But I think meeting with accounting is a bit more important than working on your cars."

She's standing above him, hands on her hips, when he rolls out. "This? This is just a break. I needed to get my hands warmed up."

Looking down at Tony, she can almost pretend nothing's changed -- he's only been away for awhile, not kidnapped and held captive -- except for the faint blue glow in the center of his black tank top. Her eyes are drawn to it, to the shape, the way it sticks up from his chest. She wonders what it feels like to have a casing and reactor in his chest; does it hum? Vibrate just a bit? Is it sore?

"Potts," he says, drawing her attention back to his face. His goatee is fuzzy around the edges, out of focus from days of neglect. When she reaches his eyes, sees the dark storm in there, she knows she's been caught and takes a step back.

"Two o'clock," she says, smoothing her skirt.

Tony nods and rolls back under the car.

He lets Pepper do most of the talking, but at least they were relatively on-time.

Their reports are fascinating. How the stock hasn't evened out yet. How departments are scrambling to keep their projects within new budget forecasts. Weapons manufacturing is completely shut down, but that money is being used by Legal to deal with all the lawsuits coming in, companies now overstocked with components with nowhere to go.

Accountants are precise, organized, and full of numbers. Their whole worlds are data coming in, crunching it, trying to make sense of it. They don't feel the guilt of knowing their paychecks are full of blood money, that innocents died from the weapons they sold, the money coming in from terrorists and --

"Tony," Pepper's voice whispers in his mind. "Tony, do you need a minute?"

Her hand on his arm jolts him back to reality, on all the eyes staring at him. No one speaks but Pepper, her lips inches from his ear.

He grunts, clearing his throat. The room is suddenly too small. He's suffocating, his chest tight.

"Excuse us for just a moment," says Pepper, but her voice is miles away. Her hand wraps around his arm, pulls him up from the chair, guides him from the room.

He's almost floating through the hall and into his office. Behind them, the door snaps shut.

Reality sets in. In the privacy of his office, he runs a hand through his hair, anger bubbling up from inside. And instead of recognizing it as his own, he directs it outward.

"Never do that again, Miss Potts," he growls, almost predatory. Her eyes open wide, shocked, and opens her mouth to speak --

"You're not my babysitter, Miss Potts. I'm not a child to be coddled. You can go."

"G-go?" she stutters. "Mr. Stark, I didn't mean to -- "

He collapses in his chair, suddenly weary. "Just go, Pepper."

When the door clicks closed, he lays his head on the desk and wonders what the fuck just happened.

Things begin to take shape in the workshop, individual components scattered about reflecting the images he's been creating on the computer over the last ten days. Working quiets his mind, fills it with math and schematics and complex designs. It drowns out thought and memory, pushes it all to the back of his head. He works to keep himself sane, because he's already been down the self-depricating path and Yinsen isn't here to pull him out this time.

And Tony Stark knows he isn't strong enough at the moment to pull himself free.

So he works. Lets the sounds of his mechanical machinery fill the cold, empty California mansion.

He doesn't speak. Even his own voice doesn't sound like his anymore.

An empty mug pulls him from the workshop up into the main living area, where Pepper sits, back to the stairs, a random news channel on as she types on her laptop. It's been a few days since he's seen her, really seen her, and when did this distance grown between them?

Tony doesn't like it.

He walks over and falls into the chair next to her, sliding down the leather so his head can rest on the back, eyes sliding over to his assistant.

"Ran out of coffee," he comments offhand. Keep it light.

But that wasn't the comment to make; Pepper's face clouds over, expression falling blank, and she looks up very deliberately from her laptop. "I'm sorry, Mr. Stark. Would you like me to get you some? Or would that be codling you?"

That sharp wit is one of the reasons he keeps her around, her honest, no-bullshit attitude welcome after a long day of double-talk at the office.

"You know, I'm going to tell you a secret," he says, sitting forward. He waits for her take the bait, stroking his goatee. "I can be a total ass sometimes."

"Oh, I already knew that." Pepper closes her laptop with a snap. "But you've never been one to refuse help. That's one of the things that impressed me when we met -- that you were willing to listen to what I had to say, even though I was some lowly accountant."

Tony smiles at the memory, thankful for something positive to reflect on. "I couldn't believe someone that beautiful was a number cruncher."

"Well, thanks," blushes Pepper. "That's not the point. You didn't see your face, Tony. It was like you weren't even in the room with us anymore. I was concerned, and you threw it in my face."

"And I shouldn't have, I know that."

"You know that now," she clarifies.

"You're not making this any easier."

This sparks a smile, her blue eyes brightening. "Is apologizing supposed to be easy?"

"Obviously not," Tony mutters.

"But I get it," she seems to finish as if he hadn't spoken. "I mean, I can't even begin to understand what you're going through, but I'm here."

Tony meets her eyes. In weeks of feeling all alone surrounded by people, by demands and reprimands and reproachful eyes, he seemed to forget Pepper was always there, just over his shoulder, a bit to the right, ready and waiting.

He almost invites her to the workshop. But even his best friend shot him down, and he's known Rhodey for twice as long as Pepper.

After years of working closely with Tony Stark, Pepper Potts has become quite adept at recognizing bits and pieces and pulling together a rough idea of how the finished piece will look. It's worked on missiles and tracking systems and fighter jets, and it's working now, each time she descends into the workshop to get a signature or make sure her boss has eaten something that day.

Clutter has refined into boots and gauntlets and wires that connect to the reactor in Tony's chest, meaning whatever he's building requires a lot of power. She lets her fingers trail over the discarded tools and supports when she comes in through the side door from the elevator, piecing things together.

All this forms a picture in her mind, a picture that frightens her more than anything she's seen her boss build before.

Because he'll be inside this one, and she won't be able to go with.

"When was the last time you went out?"

Rhodey stands, hands motioning out in front of him, near the waterfall that looked cool on the plans but can cover the room in a loud, annoying echo. He always seems to stand tall, back straight, movements precise.

Even when trying to convince Tony to go to a bar with him.

"C'mon, man," Rhodey continues, "you need to get out."

Tony shrugs, mind computing velocity and lift and how he can bend physics -- not break the rules, just bend them a bit -- and pretends to be interested in a discarded folder on the coffee table. "I don't know, Rhodey. Obi told me to lay low. So I'm, you know, laying low."

Instead of laughing, Rhodey just looks doubtful. "Really," he deadpans. "Tony Stark is going to lay low because someone told him to. Have you gotten your head checked out? There might be some brain damage in there." He pauses. "It'll be good for you. You've been in this house for weeks without seeing anyone but me and Pepper."

"Are you saying you're not interesting enough? Cause I could have sworn you said you were more than I could handle." Tony considers this for a moment. "I think it was in Rio, when -- "

Rhodey holds up a hand. "Just stop it right there. No one needs to hear about that."

"No one's here," comments Tony, looking around the empty room.

"I'm here, Tony. I don't need to hear it." He shakes his head. "The shit you get me into."

But Tony's shaking his head. "Got. Got you into. I'm a new man. Newly reformed. I'm all about image and stock points and," -- he motions on with his hand -- "stuff."

"Wow. Okay. Get your coat."

For all the talk, Tony isn't hard to usher out of the house and into the cool September night. Tony throws the top down on his convertible and lets the wind play with his hair as he tries to scare the shit out of Rhodey by being especially reckless. It feels good, being outside where the air is fresh -- not rotten and putrid and spiced with metal and gruel and death -- and Rhodey keeps lunging for the steering wheel or grips the back of his seat.

They're going nowhere near as fast as a fighter. Tony appreciates it all the same.

Rhodey calls early that morning, on his way to work.

"I'm worried," he says in greeting.

Pepper can't help but agree.

His jacket is in the hallway where he tossed it, shoes somewhere after that, a trail he's walked many times but not lately. The air in the workshop is cool against his bare arms, the shirt thrown on quickly on his way downstairs. There's a problem with the hydraulics in the new boots; it's sluggish by a few nanoseconds so he dives into the computer, then gathers supplies and gets hands-on. Jarvis keeps the lighting low, the music high, and the conversation short.

Even the computer knows it wouldn't be a good idea to chat.

Time flies. After a few hours, he's so into his work, he doesn't even go for the cold coffee on the edge of his desk. Without much from Jarvis, he's in his head, swimming through computations and mechanics, brushing off the robots because he needs to do this, to keep busy.

Because if he thinks, if he goes backwards, things go dark and he's decided to move forward.

To the suit. And the mission. And all the shit out there he didn't approve.

He's deep in the mechanics of the thigh of the suit when --

"Good morning, Mr Stark," sings over his shoulder. The sudden voice causes him to jump, jamming the tool up into the edge of the frame, up to gouge some wires, the colored sheathing striping away to expose the metal beneath. Tool still in his hand, he whirls around and starts to raise his arms -- he's working, he's working just like --

"Have you been down here all night?" Pepper's asking, sweeping around the worktable and clearing off the empty cups and papers. She's oblivious, he thinks as he lets his arms fall to his sides, tool clanking to the floor. But he follows her movements anyway, turning on the stool, as she does her own little tidying up, here and there, and why hasn't he noticed this before?

"You have a walk-through with R&D at eleven, followed by a late lunch with Bob Greese from Legal -- don't worry, we can go over his memo in the car on the way over."

She finds the coffee cup, grabs it, and crosses the room to dump what's left in the sink. "This afternoon I need you to answer some emails; I've done what I can." The espresso machine runs, and she brings him a cup in the palm of her free hand.

Tony stares at it. "What time is it?"

"A little after eight," Pepper responds. She leans forward, puts the cup on the table near the piece Tony's been working on, and seems to look right into his eyes. "You didn't sleep last night at all," she deadpans. There's something there, just at the edge of her tone, that wasn't here before.

"I was working," he says slowly.

"You have an hour to take a nap. Go. Get some rest. I'll wake you when you have to get ready."

Tony shakes his head. "Reschedule. I'm in the middle of something." Realizing he needs the caffeine, he downs the espresso and holds out the cup.

Pepper takes it with a sigh. She hesitates, thinking over what she wants to say. "I'll move things around." And turns to leave, folders still in her hands.

But, since she's Pepper Potts and he's Tony Stark, she simply cannot, will not, just let it go.

And he knew that the moment she turned towards the door.

The clicks from her shoes echo around her, reminding her of elementary school teachers walking ahead of children in a line. It's an odd connection to make, right then, but she can see the irony in it – it is exactly how she's feeling. Her charge has fallen, it seems, into old patterns, and didn't they just talk about this?

So she can't just leave and jump on the phone as soon as she clears the noisy waterfall and ask everyone to move things around. The phone in her hand seems heavy, almost too heavy to carry, so she turns almost dreamily and puts it, along with the paperwork she always seems to be carrying, on the nearest clear surface.

"I can move it to tomorrow," she says slowly, the words forming in her head as she speaks, "but I'm going to have to give them a reason, Tony."

She thinks the first name does it. He looks back up from where he's fiddling with wires and gives her half a grin. It doesn't reach his eyes.

"I just don't want to be around people right now."

This has her raising her eyebrows in surprise. Tony, not wanting to be around people? She shakes her head a bit, trying to comprehend, and remembers picking up his jacket when she walked in, kicking his shoes out of the way.

"Any particular reason why?"

The half-smirk grows a bit. "You're a lousy liar, Potts."

"If I remember correctly, that's why you hired me." She walks up next to him and leans a hip against the worktable. "So, no people. Is everyone included?"

"Just certain people who will remain unnamed, mostly because I didn't get a name. Which is okay. I'm sure I could find out, but don't really care to."

He's trying to be light, but ever since he came back, Tony's voice has had this rough edge to it – there's more substance lying under the surface, more intention and a bit of guilt.

Okay, a whole lot of guilt, even though it wasn't really his fault.

"And yet there was no one here when I arrived," remarks Pepper. And then, "Are you losing your touch, Mr. Stark?"

The conversation's jarred him out of whatever tunnel-vision he's been living in all night, and he's walking around, grabbing things, wiping his hands on a dirty towel. She holds out her hand – there's no reason to use something so marked and he knows it, hands it over.

So he's standing very, very close when he speaks. "Me? Never." All low and a whisper that seems to say much more than he's remarked out loud.

"And yet, here you are."

He laughs, just a bit, pulls up a corner of his mouth. He's stepped back a bit to reach up and tap the reactor centered in his chest. "Freaked her out."

The full implication of exactly what happened becomes clear, and Pepper's suddenly wishing he had gotten a name because what if she runs and tells the tabloids? She can see the headlines now: 'Playboy Tony Stark Hiding a Bright Secret,' 'Reactors Aren't Just for Energy Companies Anymore.'" The assistant in her wants to reach for the phone and start quizzing him as to exactly what happened, and where, and if Happy maybe drove her home?

And yet, there's a part of Pepper that knows she's all he's got, that recognizes that look in his eyes, those new-yet-familiar eyes that came with him off the Air Force transport, that's telling her all that can wait.

Instead, she steps towards him and puts her hand out, palm making contact with the reactor, his finger stuck between her and it, the stead hum tingling along her fingers.

"Her loss," is all she says, voice a whisper.

Tony simply looks at her, and something shifts in there, the last tumbler to the lock that he's kept on himself for the last few weeks, and Pepper feels herself relax, relieved. And realizes how close they are, hands touching over his heart.

She takes a breath, then steps back, straightens her slacks, and heads for the phone and papers and the list growing in her head. "I can make the lunch with Greese a phone call. I'll let you know when I've set that up."

Behind her, he clears his throat but doesn't make another sound.

Her fingertips are filled with the memory of the vibrations, imprinted with his skin.

It takes him ten minutes to get dressed and into the car, adrenaline from his first flight that didn't end in a crash of falling parts still running through his system. He knows he'll be sore, and will crash, but that's later.

Now, there's wind and the smell of the sea coursing through the clean air.

The clean, free air.

Tell me if I'm going crazy
But everything you said amazed me
Seems to easy on the ear to
Be something I should adhere to
You told me to just simply wander
Rather than take shelter under
And open my heart to the thought that
Life is something you're not caught at

Lyrics: "Funnyman," KT Tunstall; "Warmer Climate," Snow Patrol