Pepper had instructed the housekeeper to put the softest sheets with the highest thread-count on Tony's bed, and had sent his goose-down comforter out to be dry-cleaned. She'd asked for his mattress to be turned over, even though it was one of those space-age things that supposedly didn't require flipping (Pepper had never trusted infomercials, and she wasn't about to start this late in the game).
All the pillows were plumped, and arranged just the way he preferred them: Tony liked to sleep on his side, with one arm thrown over a soft, yielding object (a pillow being his second choice).
She didn't really have to do any of this; management of the household fell under JARVIS's purview, not hers. All of these provisions had been made while Tony was away (she never spoke of it as the time he went missing, but rather, as the time he went away, as though he was at an exclusive Caribbean resort with a mojito in one hand and a perky blonde in the other).
Getting the house ready for his eventual return was Pepper's way of keeping the home fires burning. When her spirits were at their ebb, whenever she started to consider the possibility that he might really be gone, she would go over to the house and find one or two things that needed to be set in order before he came back. She knew that when he came home (not if, she refused to entertain the possibility of if), Tony would probably be tired. Exhausted. He might be injured, although she tried not to dwell on that too much. Bottom line, though: he'd want to rest. And so she'd focused a lot of her attention on making sure that as-yet apocryphal need was fulfilled.
Since his return, he'd slept on the bed a couple of times—not in the bed, but on it, without even peeling back the covers or leaving so much as a dent in any of the pillows. Occasionally, he napped on the cot in his workshop (that area was sacrosanct, and Pepper hadn't so much as shifted a wrench in his absence). Most of the time, though, he was camping out on the living room couch, under a throw, usually with either the stereo or the television on full blast.
Once, a long time before Afghanistan, Tony had explained his background noise addiction to Pepper, or tried to; he'd been unable to get past the central concept of "it helps me think." She didn't really understand how it could be possible, but she'd seen him in the workshop often enough to accept that it must be true.
What he wasn't able to explain, having never known the interior of any other mind but his own, was that he was perfectly capable of thinking without noise—entirely too capable, in fact. The trouble was focus. Tony didn't just have one single train of thought: he had an entire railyard of thought, with an infinite number of switching stations that were constantly in motion. Trains were constantly jumping tracks, as a result of which Tony bounced around aimlessly from one idea to the next, at a speed that would give most people a migraine. White noise was the easiest way (apart from alcohol) of turning some of those switching stations off, at least temporarily—allowing the trains to synchronize, and giving him the opportunity to concentrate on a particular line of inquiry long enough to see it through.
Lately, when the house was dark and quiet, the trains really sped up, to the point where they started to crash into one another. Some of the trains carried hazardous materials. Others carried explosives.
So when people called the Tony Stark who had returned from Afghanistan a human train wreck, they weren't all that far off the mark.
Experience had taught Pepper that it was impossible to maintain a permanent office in any one location when your boss moved at the speed of light (a description she applied only metaphorically in those days). Tony rarely responded to e-mails or phone calls with the expediency that was required; he required a certain amount of handling, which was more easily accomplished in person. So, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, she carried her office with her wherever she went—which was usually wherever he went. When she was at the house, the living room was her favourite place to work: it was central (she could catch Tony coming and going) and the light was good.
Pepper and her boss had always had fairly different ideas about what constituted a reasonable time to get out of bed, but Tony's hours had become even more erratic since his return from Afghanistan. Jim Rhodes suspected that he'd been deliberately sleep-deprived as a way of ensuring his compliance. She'd never asked Tony about it; aside from the fact that she wouldn't know where to begin, he'd made it pretty clear that he wasn't interested in talking about his time in captivity to anyone. Especially Pepper.
Regardless of how she tried to adjust her own work hours to compensate, Pepper always found herself arriving at the house approximately ten minutes before Tony went to bed (or, more accurately, to couch). He insisted that she ignore him, that she go about her day as usual—which was impossible to do with him there, drifting off to sleep to the gentle sounds of a rerun of Top Gear or the dulcet tones of Tool. The speaker setup in the living room was (of course) top-notch, and the resulting wall of sound had a claustrophobic effect: Pepper could barely keep her thoughts straight, let alone get any work done.
Worse still were the times that he stayed awake, overtired and inclined to be fractious because of it. He either channel-surfed compulsively, or cruised the internet with the apparent aim of finding the most inappropriate video to play (at full volume, naturally) whenever Pepper was on the phone.
When she tried to work in another part of the house—the office, the kitchen, one of the guest bedrooms, or even next to the pool—it just wasn't quite the same, and she kept getting distracted. Not least of all because Tony would invariably fabricate some apparently urgent request, find some excuse to call her back to the living room.
In short, there was no denying that having Tony invade the small corner of the house she'd claimed as her own was slowly whittling away her sympathy.
She couldn't reasonably ask him to stop sleeping on his own couch, in his own home. Besides which, she reminded herself sternly, he was probably suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress. People in that state couldn't be expected to think about anyone other than themselves. Particularly when they weren't accustomed to doing so in the first place.
"Why don't you just go to bed?" Pepper demanded. It was just after six on a Thursday evening, and she was frazzled to the point of nearly bursting into tears. It was a point of pride that she'd never cried in front of her boss, and she didn't intend to start now, but she was just so entirely done with Tony Stark at that moment: done with his noise and his relentless pestering and his incredibly poor taste in both television and music and and and—
"Good idea." He stretched out on the couch, his bare feet almost touching Pepper's hip. "You can read me a bedtime story—preferrably something that starts with 'Dear Penthouse.'"
"No, Tony, I mean bed. Your bed. Is there some reason why you can't… you don't…"
He watched her quietly, flint-eyed.
"I mean, is there anything you want changed about your bed? Anything I can help you with?"
He grinned. "Dear Penthouse, I never thought it would happen to me…"
He prodded her with his toe.
She slammed her laptop shut. "I'm going."
"I'll see you tomorrow." She yanked out her Bluetooth earpiece and shoved it into her purse.
"Oh, come on, I'll be nice. I promise…"
She turned around, let him see her hesitating—a critical lapse in judgement.
"…I promise I won't even sign the letter with my own name."
She narrowly managed to repress a curse word. "Good night, Tony."
The sound of the television filled the room as she walked out.
An hour later, Pepper was three blocks from home, a brown paper bag of drive-through beside her in the passenger seat. She had three fries half-way to her mouth when her phone rang.
When she answered, he didn't say anything immediately. "Hello?" she repeated, the knot of tension in her stomach tightening. "Tony?"
"You know, they kept the lights on," he said, in a conversational tone. It could have been the connection, but she thought his voice had a brittle quality. "All the time."
Pepper had the distinct sensation of having stepped onto a minefield. It was important for Tony to talk about these things, but if she showed either too much interest or too little, he was bound to shut down again.
She eased the car over to the side of the road, so she could give the phone call her full attention. "That must have been hard," she said.
"We got used to it."
We. He'd never mentioned another captive, but it made sense; someone who might have helped him effect his miraculous escape. Someone who obviously didn't make it.
It wasn't just about the lights or the background noise, she realized—he was used to sharing his space with another person, and now it was hard to go back to being alone.
"I can stay over tonight," she suggested, then added hastily, "in the guest room." There were limits to what she was willing to provide by way of comfort.
This time, the silence on the line lasted so long she actually thought he might have hung up. "You might as well," he said at last. "I can't sleep anyway." In a more confident tone, he added, "I'll pay you for the overtime."
Pepper felt slighted; she'd made the offer as a friend, not as a salaried subordinate. But then she realized that he was probably just trying to set boundaries—to make it clear that he wasn't up to anything shady. "I'll just take tomorrow afternoon off," she replied. "Give me a few minutes to throw some stuff together."
She could hear his smile.
"I said the guest room," said Pepper, slowly and distinctly.
"You don't have to sleep in my bed—just hang out for a while until I fall asleep. We'll—I don't know, we'll watch movies or something." Tony shrugged. He didn't see what the big deal was; she'd been in his life so long that she was practically family, anyway.
After some deliberation, she countered with, "One movie. No 'or something.'" She was pretty sure he was kidding about the letter to Penthouse, but not entirely sure. She had reason to suspect he'd written a couple in his day. She'd had Google Alerts on the names 'Art Skyton' and 'Troy Skant' ever since she'd found them and a half-dozen others scrawled on a discarded fast-food napkin in the workshop.
"No 'or something,'" he conceded. "Two movies?"
The look she gave him suggested he was pushing it.
Tony had only ever been to one other (platonic) sleepover in his life, at the age of six. Maria Stark, not wanting her son to be deprived of the joys of a typical childhood, and concerned about the amount of time he was spending alone, had arranged for Tony to spend the night at Roger's house. Roger was the only other boy Tony's age in the neighbourhood. He had curly red hair, and large freckles, and wore striped polo shirts. He collected baseball cards.
The first part of the evening had gone surprisingly well: Tony had repaired Roger's bicycle while Roger watched. Roger had organized his favourite rookie cards while Tony watched. They'd drawn for a while (Roger a dinosaur, Tony an intricate cross-section of a V-2 rocket). Then Tony had spotted a flat red cardboard box on the shelf above Roger's bed, wedged in between Monopoly and the Game of Life.
"Can we play with that?" he'd asked, brown eyes alight.
Roger had said, "Okay."
"A chemistry set?"
Pepper was seated dead center on the bed, cross-legged, a bowl of microwave popcorn in her lap. She had changed clothes, and was sporting grey sweats and a faded red t-shirt appliquéd with clusters of gold foil stars. She'd also taken out her contacts, and was wearing a rather battered pair of tortoiseshell glasses.
Tony was propped against the headboard, legs crossed at the ankle. "Did you know that potassium nitrate and sugar make rocket fuel?" He was fascinated by her clothes—he'd had no idea that Pepper even owned sweatpants. "Roger's mom thought we were making rock candy, until the fire department set her straight."
Pepper's eyes widened. The combination of the clothes, the glasses, the simple ponytail, and the freshly-scrubbed face with its constellation of freckles made her look impossibly young.
"Give me some credit, Potts. Nothing exploded." On reflection, it was kind of ridiculous to assume that Pepper just slept in perfectly-pressed business attire like some kind of human action figure. Despite evidence to the contrary, he supposed she must have a life outside of her job. Outside of him. "There was a lot of smoke, that's all. One of the firemen asked for my autograph."
"I can never tell when you're serious," mused Pepper, tucking a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear.
"What are you talking about? I am one hundred and ten percent serious. Rocket fuel. Google it." He reached over and grabbed a handful of her popcorn. It was slightly burnt, and slightly chalky. But not bad.
"I thought we were going to watch a movie," she said, plaintively.
After a lengthy negotiation, they agreed on Casino Royale, which Tony hadn't seen.
"I'd make a great Bond villain," he announced, about ten minutes in. "I've even got a cool deformity." He tapped the reactor. "Right?"
Pepper winced, but all she said was, "I think that's the kind of career that requires a certain amount of follow-through."
A short while later: "I want a defibrilator in my car."
"I want a dirty weekend with Daniel Craig," replied Pepper, archly. "You can't always have what you want."
"Actually, I pretty much can," he corrected. "So can you, I bet, if you hit the right parties and wear a decent push-up bra."
"Why do you need a defibrilator in your car?" She wondered if it had something to do with the arc reactor. She wasn't exactly clear on what it actually did in terms of keeping him alive—Rhodey had only been able to tell her what Tony had told him, which wasn't a whole heck of a lot.
"I'm sure I'd find some use for it," he said, airily. "Anyway, I didn't know you liked the beefcake, Potts. Hey, ask me which way to the beach. Go on, I dare you."
Pepper wisely refused to dignify this with a response.
Three-quarters of the way through the movie, Pepper's mouth went dry. She'd just remembered that there was a scene in the movie where Bond was tortured. She felt like an insensitive idiot for not thinking of it in the first place.
"Do you mind if we watch something else?" she asked, forcing herself to sound as if she didn't particularly care one way or the other. "This is putting me to sleep."
"That's okay. If you snore too loud, I'll just roll you over," said Tony.
"I'm not sleeping in your bed, Mr. Stark." She employed the honorific as a curtain of propriety, snapping it taut between them. "We had a deal."
"You're already under the covers," he pointed out.
"Just the comforter. It's cold in here," she said, primly.
"That's deliberate. I run hot when I sleep."
Pepper's eyes darted frantically between the screen and his face. The torture scene was coming up right away. "Would you please just pick something different?" she asked, in a tone verging on shrill.
He didn't get why she was being such a pain in the ass all of a sudden, but chalked it up to the essentially contrary nature of women in general. "Okay. You got it."
Pepper fell asleep a third of the way through Hackers, which was not surprising. It was late, and she was tired, and she'd had a stressful day.
Tony fell asleep half-way through, and didn't wake up when the movie ended, even when JARVIS slowly extinguished the lights. Which was nothing short of astonishing.
Pepper awoke in total darkness, in a strange bed, to the sensation of a flashlight shining directly into her eyes at irregular intervals. She wondered briefly whether there had been an accident; she could hear someone moaning, as if in pain.
After a few extremely disorienting seconds, she became conscious that it wasn't a flashlight; it was Tony, who was stirring restlessly. He must have taken his shirt off at some point. He hadn't been kidding about running hot—they were at least an entire person-width apart, but she could feel the warmth radiating from his side of the bed.
He groaned. He was having a nightmare, she realized. She wasn't sure whether it was better to wake him, or let the thing run its course.
Pepper sat up and touched his shoulder, gently. "Tony," she whispered. "It's okay."
He started, then rolled over and swatted at her, the heel of his hand contacting her mouth with such force that the shock of it brought tears to her eyes. She could tell that she'd bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood. She could feel her heart drumming as her fight-or-flight response shifted into high gear.
Reflexively, she kicked him in the leg. This didn't make her feel much better, since it was a bit like kicking a slab of granite—she'd noted Tony's recent and dramatic increase in muscle definition, but this was her first personal encounter with the phenomenon.
Pepper decided it was best for everyone's health if she relocated to the guest room for the remainder of the night—except that, to add insult to injury, after smacking her in the face, Tony had settled solidly and comfortably against her, his arm and shoulder draped over her lap. And he was heavy. She cursed under her breath.
By the time she'd managed to shove him back over to his own end of the bed, Pepper was exhausted. Her foot was sore, her head ached, and her entire body was pounding with unspent adrenaline. She lay still, breathing deeply, waiting for the sick feeling of panic to subside. She'd move in a little while, once she'd calmed down.
When he started tossing and turning again, she ignored him.
Some time later, the blue glow woke her again. She squinted into the light, trying to tell if he was soundly asleep. Maybe, if she was careful, she could just roll him away—
"It bothers you, doesn't it?" His voice made her jump.
"It's fine," she lied, turning over to face the window. The piece of hardware in his chest bothered her for a variety of reasons, none of which could be helped at four in the morning. No wonder he didn't want to sleep with the lights off, she thought.
No wonder he hadn't brought any girls home since Afghanistan.
She wanted to tell him it didn't matter, that not all women were that shallow—but reasoned that it wouldn't have been much comfort to a man who preferred the shallow ones.
Then, because she felt she ought to say something else, she added, "Your bed is really comfortable."
"I'll get you one for your birthday."
Pepper smiled to herself. "You already got me a very generous gift. But thanks."
"It's a high-density visco-elastic polymer," he said. "Memory foam."
She wondered if he knew about the nightmares. "Does it have good memories, or bad ones?"
"Mostly good." There was a note in his voice that made her appreciate the fresh sheets and flipped mattress.
Shadows danced around the room as he shifted, settled, shifted. Settled. The light dimmed suddenly—he must have covered his chest with something, or rolled over onto his stomach.
"Is it still keeping you awake?" he asked softly.
Pepper feigned a snore.
A little while later, Tony assumed his favourite sleeping position: on his side, his arm tucked around a soft, yielding object. He'd never been much of a cuddler in his waking hours, but there was something safe and satisfying about the warmth and weight of another person's body next to his own while he was dozing off.
He was surprised at how warm she actually was; Pepper had struck him as one of those people who were perpetually lacking in body heat. The foil stars on her shirt caught and diffused the faint blue light that still bled through his black t-shirt, making it look as though their contact with each other was causing them to glow.
He knew it was fairly inappropriate, given their working relationship, but it wasn't hurting anyone. He didn't think Pepper could reasonably tear a strip off him for things that happened while they were both ostensibly asleep.
Pepper, who was decidedly not asleep, never said a word.
When Tony woke up, the sun was streaming into the room, and Pepper was nowhere in sight. All evidence of her presence had been completely eradicated; the popcorn bowl had been cleared away, her glasses were gone from the nightstand, and even the side of the bed where she'd slept had been neatly tucked in, with sharp military corners. It was enough to make him wonder whether he'd just dreamed the whole thing. It wouldn't be the first time he'd had a particularly vivid dream about Pepper—although last night would certainly mark a new standard in propriety.
He rolled out of bed and padded into the living room, where the ever-efficient Miss Potts was seated in her customary place on the couch. From the looks of things, she'd been working solidly for a few hours at least.
Despite the fact that it was almost noon, she gave him a cheerful "Good morning," tapping away on her laptop. She was wearing a crisply tailored designer pantsuit, and her hair and makeup were immaculate. She gave every indication of having had a full and satisfying night's sleep. It really must have been a dream, in that case.
There was a small black bag from The Sharper Image parked on the couch, in the spot where he usually crashed. "You got me a present?" he asked.
"You could say that."
He reached into the bag and pulled out a set of bulky black circumaural headphones. "Are you kidding me with this? What, you can't handle a little Metallica at 8 a.m.?"
She reached up and took the headphones from him. "They're not for you." She slipped the headphones onto her own head, settling them securely over her ears. "Noise cancelling," she explained, loudly.
He mouthed a string of nonsense words, threw in a couple of gestures for good measure.
"They're actually not turned on right now," she added dryly.
Very few women of his acquaintance would be caught dead in something so ridiculous. Maybe, he reflected, that said more about him than it did about Pepper.
"Is there anything I can get for you, Mr. Stark?" she asked, every inch the professional, in spite of the goofy headgear.
Tony reached down and, like a magician producing a quarter out of a child's ear, extracted a small piece of popcorn from her hair. He smiled. A delicate flush bloomed in her cheeks, spreading down her throat to her collarbone, as though she'd swallowed something hot.
He wondered idly how long she'd had that split lip. It looked painful, like someone had punched her in the mouth. The mental image of his proper and always-appropriate PA duking it out in a barroom brawl made his smile widen into a grin.
"I'm good for now," he said. "Anyhow, you have the afternoon off." He turned and began walking in the direction of the kitchen.
"I just made coffee," she called after him.
"Go home, Potts," he replied, without turning around.
He knew she wouldn't.
In the spotless white kitchen, Tony poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the breakfast bar, cradling the mug in his hands. He reached for the stainless steel canister where the sugar was stored; someone, he noted, had carefully affixed a familiar bright orange, diamond-shaped warning label to the front of it.
Danger, it read. Explosive.
He considered peeling off the sticker and affixing it to his own forehead, just for kicks, but decided against it in the end. It didn't really fit his current state of mind.