It wasn't just the big things that changed after Afghanistan. There were little changes, as well.
1. Olive Branch
Pepper arrived at the house one morning to find that he was still refusing to shower—despite the fact that he sorely needed it. He'd been wearing the same grey sweatpants for at least two days straight. Even from across the room, he was almost too much to bear: sweat, fumes, alcohol. He smelled like a party in a NASCAR locker room.
"It's the soap," he told her, finally, after fifteen minutes of excuses and verbal sparring that left Pepper feeling slightly bruised. "I'm tired of it. Just get me something else—something different. Anything."
He didn't tell her that the same soap he'd been using for almost ten years, a silver nanoparticle formula which cost over $100 a bar (an extravagance that Pepper thought had to be a decimal point error when she first saw it in the household expenses), reminded him, somehow, of the bitter taste of bile in the back of his throat when he first woke up in the cave after his surgery. Even the thought made him gag.
He didn't tell Pepper these things because the fact that she didn't know about them was all that kept him sane, some days. Pepper was the only thing about the world he knew that hadn't changed, except maybe for JARVIS. He didn't want her to look at him the way Rhodey did, the way Obie did—like they were looking through him, almost. Like he was a ghost.
He had her collect all the soap in the house, and instructed her to dispose of it someplace where he wouldn't have to see it or smell it. "Just throw it in the trash," he said.
He could see it in the slight crease of her brow: the extravagance, the sheer waste, went against every fibre of Pepper's economical being. He suspected—correctly—that she was calculating the expense in her head at that very moment: $125 for a 120-gram bar of soap was $473.50 a pound. $1,041.67 a kilogram, if you preferred the metric system, which she knew Tony did.
"Maybe you can sell it on eBay," he told her, sounding almost like his old insouciant self. "I'm sure there's someone out there who would pay top dollar for anything that's been rubbed all over my body. Don't you think?" His grin was slightly too wide, clownish.
"Probably. There's a sucker born every minute," she replied archly, and slipped out the door without further comment.
Pepper went to three different stores before she found something suitable, something that smelled like Tony to her. The scent was rich, complex, slightly heady, but not completely overpowering. She thought it would go well with his aftershave—although he might decide to throw that out next, who knew?
The ingredients were mandarin oil, vine leaves, bergamot, and olives. He wouldn't care about that, of course, but Pepper did—she figured it would be nice to have something natural, when he was surrounded by so much artificiality. Bergamot was supposed to be good for soothing anxiety and panic attacks. The olives didn't have any personal significance, at the time.
Most importantly, the girl behind the counter assured her that it could get grease out of even the tiniest cracks in skin. Her boyfriend worked on motorcycles, she told Pepper proudly. "What does your guy do?" she asked, as she rang up the purchase.
Pepper was too weary to explain her own situation in a way that avoided giving identifiable details. "He works on cars," she said. "And robots." And weapons—but not anymore.
Which was why the name was so perfect.
"Olive Branch?" he said, incredulously, when he spotted the label.
She nodded. "I thought it was apropos, what with your..." She'd been about to say change of heart, but at the last second, the words caught up to her, and she faltered. He waited. "Your new direction," she said at last. She couldn't be sure, because it was such a novel sensation, but she strongly suspected that she was proud of her boss. Proud of who he wanted to be, was trying to be.
He uncapped the bottle, sniffed at it. There were layers of scent; it reminded him of night-time on the Mediterranean—warm, and sultry, and lush. And something else, something he couldn't quite identify, but that was familiar and somehow reassuring. Also, a woman had picked it, which meant women would dig it. Which was a plus for whenever he decided to get back in circulation. Maybe it would distract them from the fact that he glowed in the dark.
Meanwhile, Pepper was watching him expectantly, so he figured he should probably say thank you, or something.
"Smells sexy." He raised an eyebrow. "This reminds you of me?"
(He'd decided to go with 'or something.')
She smiled demurely. "I'm glad you like it, Mr. Stark." She glanced pointedly in the direction of the bedroom. "Maybe you'd like to give it a test drive?"
He shrugged. "Sure, okay. Are you gonna come and scrub my back? There's this one spot I can never quite reach—"
"I think you'll manage," she deadpanned.
He seemed about to say something else, but instead he turned and headed for the bedroom, shucking off his sweat-stained t-shirt as he went along. Pepper stared after him, startled, caught off-guard by the sharply-defined muscles in his back and shoulders, and by the galaxy of burns and bruises that hadn't quite healed.
Once out of view (he'd been naked in front of Pepper before, but—to his credit—never deliberately), he stepped out of his sweatpants, walked straight through to the ensuite bathroom, and fired up the shower.
The combination of the hot water and the scent of the shower gel made him feel exhausted, but in a pleasant way, for once. He realized that it had been about three days since he'd slept, really slept. It was hard to get back into the habit after having been forced to stay awake for so long. Sleep was one of the things they had stolen from him, a little bit at a time.
Pepper, meanwhile, had made herself a cup of tea in the kitchen, then got out her laptop and answered a few dozen e-mails. When she heard the bathroom door close, she heaved a sigh of relief.
She went into the bedroom, collected the offensive shirts and sweatpants, and pushed them into the laundry chute for JARVIS to deal with. Then she pulled some clean clothes out of Tony's dresser and laid them out. She'd handled his underthings before, of course—when he was running late and she was trying to hurry him along, or when she packed for him before a trip—but she'd never really been conscious of the intimacy of the ritual before now, the silk trickling through her fingers like water.
She tried instead to focus on the steady drum of running water. She tried not to daydream about her boss, or about what he might be doing in the shower, and especially not about scrubbing his back. He'd been through a lot. It didn't seem right.
He entered the empty bedroom with a cloud of steam behind him. The room was dark, and deliciously cool. A fresh undershirt and shorts were neatly folded and stacked on the bed—he didn't remember having put them there, but clearly he must have done.
He towelled off, threw on the shorts, and collapsed onto the bed without even drying his hair.
Seconds before he drifted off, he made the connection: that familiar smell was the same as the tea Pepper always drank when she was too keyed up for coffee. She kept a stash of it in his kitchen cupboard, above the sink—he must have brushed it aside a dozen times a day to get to the protein powder. Lady Grey. Citrus and bergamot. She'd picked something that she thought smelled like him, only to him it smelled like her.
He fell asleep trying to puzzle out what this might mean. He would awaken ten solid hours later and decide it didn't really matter.
The old soap sat in the back of her car for two days. At a loss for anything else to do with it, Pepper eventually donated the majority of it to a local homeless shelter. Anonymously. Even though Tony didn't really mean it about eBay, she was quite certain there were people out there who would buy his used soap, and the thought made her feel a bit nauseous.
She kept one fresh, unopened bar for herself. She never washed with it, of course, since clearly the smell of it reminded him of something awful—although it would be useful, she supposed, if she ever needed to keep him away. That's how she would explain herself if he ever found out she'd kept it: Stark repellent. It might even make him laugh—provided anything ever made him laugh again.
Every so often, she liked to take the soap out of its round, silver box and inhale gently before putting it away again. It would be a long time before she stopped thinking of it as his smell.