1. Call it a Public Service

Sleep is one of the few things on earth I don't naturally excel at. (I suppose there had to be something.)

Like everything else in my life, it eventually comes back to my brain being wired differently. I don't seem to have that 'off' switch that other people possess—I just can't stop thinking long enough to lose consciousness. Eventually, exhaustion takes over and I pass out, but that can take several days, or several shots, or a severe beating. And even then, it's not a sure thing.

Once I get to sleep, I have a very hard time staying asleep, which is why I prefer to sleep alone, and why I'm never particularly pleased to be woken up.

My personal assistant strides into the bedroom like she owns the place, the insistent click-clack of her heels on the tile jarring me instantly into wakefulness. "Lights, please, JARVIS."

The room illuminates. I roll over to check the time, and am immediately in far more pain than is reasonable or fair—stiff joints, bruised ribs, and a persistent itching and throbbing in my left ankle. It takes me a second to remember: Phoenix. A bank robbery. A bust-up involving at least a half-dozen young punks and a couple of purloined rocket launchers.

Whose idea was this superhero gig, again?

"Let's go," chirps Pepper. She's wearing a suit. There's a clipboard. No good can possibly come of this.

"What." I can't even find the energy to make it an interrogative. Why is she here? Isn't it after working hours? Isn't today Saturday? Surely even Pepper must have some semblance of a social life.

She's peering down at me dispassionately, the clipboard clutched tenderly to her breast. Lucky clipboard. "Artists for Humanity," she says.

Clearly this phrase is supposed to mean something to me. It doesn't. (That ankle could actually be broken—I landed awkwardly in a damaged boot at one point, and there was a distinct snap.)

"Charity art auction?" she prompts.

Nope, nothing. (Who uses a rocket launcher to rob a bank? Seems like overkill to me—in this case, almost literally.)

"Tony. We talked about this weeks ago."

"Just take my wallet with you," I tell her, stretching my arms over my head ostentatiously. I've noticed that there are certain movements of mine that Pepper's eyes invariably track, no matter how pissed off she is. If I time it right, I can completely derail her. "You can put it in the seat next to you, tell it to behave occasionally, and at the end of the night you take some money out of it and make a big fat donation. I bet you no one will even notice that the rest of me isn't there."

There are at least six hours of work required on the suit before I'm back in fighting trim. I was hoping to get those repairs done tonight. Because apparently I have even less of a social life than my workaholic assistant does.

Pepper is shaking her head. "You already made a big fat donation. They would like to acknowledge you and, coincidentally, the board would like you to be in the news at least once this week for something that doesn't involve blowing up a hospital—"

"Condemned hospital." The building lost what little structural integrity it had left when I managed to deflect one of the missiles towards the hospital, at which point some kid with a camera-phone captured about twenty-five seconds of blurry, decontextualized footage that made it look like I was the one shooting up downtown Phoenix.

She purses her lips and exhales upward in a puff, ruffling her bangs.

"It was due for demolition anyway," I add. "Call it a public service."

The part that didn't end up on YouTube was the two and a half hours it took to dig my way out after the whole works came down on my head. Or the part where the mayor and the chief of police personally thanked me. No one ever seems to get that part on video.

"You have one hour to get showered, shaved, and dressed," Pepper continues, as though I haven't spoken. She holds up a single finger, just like that, one, like I'm incapable of counting that high. She isn't even remotely fazed by the stretching, or by the fact that I prefer to sleep in as unconfined a manner as possible, under only a sheet. I must be losing my appeal.

"That's not an 'I' statement, Potts." A few weeks ago, the combined forces of Pepper and HR browbeat me into attending a seminar about informal conflict resolution that was mandatory for all SI employees. One of the things we had to practice was framing our concerns about our colleagues in the form of 'I' statements: I feel X when you do Y sort of thing.

Pepper doesn't miss a beat: "I feel that things go more smoothly when you follow my suggestions."

"I hate black tie."

"Nice try. You love black tie. You told me that once. You said it makes you feel like James Bond."

I can't believe she remembered that—it was at least six years ago. I have only the faintest recollection of things she said to me yesterday. Maybe it's time to get a new assistant, one who doesn't know all my secrets. One who's too awestruck to wake me up so unceremoniously, and who would never presume to boss me around before I even put shorts on.

"I hate artists." I flip onto my stomach, hollow out a nice, dark pit under the feather pillow, and fill it with my head, ostrich-style. "And I hate humanity."

She leaves that last one alone.

"Anyway, I think I have a broken ankle."

She yanks the pillow off my head. "Oh, please, Tony." It isn't the first time a woman has said those words to me in this room, not by a long shot. But usually they're trying to drag me into bed, not out of it.

"I'm serious." With my cheek pressed against the mattress, I can feel the faint, familiar hum of the RT. "I can hardly walk."

"I'll rent you a wheelchair." It's clear that she is not going to give up. Time for a subtle redirect.

I roll over and sit up, letting the sheet slide down until it's pooled in my lap. Now I've got her attention—she isn't blushing, exactly, but there's a definite undertone of coral in the hollow of her lily-white throat. "Are you going to wear the dress?" I ask.

"What dress?"

"You know the one."

Her lips curve in an almost-smile. "I have a lot of dresses, Mr. Stark. You'll have to be more specific."

"The birthday dress." I picture it: a backless sheath of silk, the colour of deep water. I wish my recall weren't quite so perfect, though, because now I'm in a little bit of trouble. (Actually, I've been told it's quite a generous amount of trouble, particularly for a man of my height, but who's keeping score.)

"I don't know about that, but you probably shouldn't turn up in your birthday suit," she says, quite pointedly, which makes me wonder if she's noticed my predicament. She brandishes my tuxedo, pristine in its cocoon of drycleaning plastic.

"Would you mind hanging that in the bathroom for me?"

"That depends. Are you getting up?"

You have no idea. "In a minute." I flap my hand at her emphatically. "Quit hovering. You're making me anxious." Among other things.

She pivots on her heel and stalks out.

The moment she's out of the room, I reach over the edge of the bed for my discarded boxers and pull them on, trying to think unsexy thoughts in case she comes back. She might; she's occasionally unpredictable, especially at the end of a long workday, or if she's had a drink, or if the weather is humid, or at certain times of the month. I guess you could say she's predictably unpredictable. How perfectly Pepper.

I gently press my injured foot against the cool floor, and draw a sharp breath as white-hot pain shoots along my instep and radiates up the inside of my leg. It can support my weight, barely, and only if I grit my teeth. I think it might actually be fractured.

That's an unsexy thought.