This is set between Iron Man 1 and Iron Man 2. Enjoy, ye wonderful people.
It was 3:25AM when her phone rang. Pepper shot up instantly and quickly slipped out from under the sheets before she answered. There was no need to check caller ID, there was only one person who would have the nerve to call at this hour.
"Tony, what is it?" she said, frustration seeping from her core.
This is a programmed message. JARVIS's cool voice spoke through as opposed to Tony's carefree though just as familiar voice. Mr. Stark's health is currently at risk and your assistance is required immediately. Would you like to know his vitals?
He was drunk, Pepper immediately assumed. She sighed, exasperated, and covered half of her face with her hand. "Yes, please," she answered JARVIS as she left the bed and prepared for another late night visit.
Pulse – 49 beats per minute. Blood pressure – eighty-seven over fifty-two millimeters of Mercury. Temperature – Ninety six point four—
Jesus Christ. Pepper was immediately filled with adrenaline as she rushed to put something decent on. This wasn't alcohol – it had never been this bad.
Something else was wrong. She could tell immediately.
For the first time she had woken up, her host on the other side of the bed, stirred, watching her jump from one place to another.
"Where are you off to, so early in the day?"
Pepper turned around, unable to return the casual smile he had thrown her way. "I have to get to work."
"At three in the morning?" he asked skeptically.
"I'll be back hopefully before seven in the morning," Pepper said quickly, not really paying him any attention.
"Your boss is a real character," he joked.
"Robert, this isn't funny," Pepper suddenly attacked. She spun around and faced him, daring him to say another word.
Robert's eyes widened, sensing dangerous waters. "Whoa."
Pepper sighed, rubbing the side of her face. "There's something wrong. Okay? I need to take care of it. Can you give him a break?" Already her mind was working – this had something to do with whatever it was he had been hiding for the last few weeks. She couldn't ignore the invisible wall that had suddenly risen between the two of them. He was retreating, and she desperately hoped it wasn't the cause of whatever she was about to find at his house.
She also sensed the exasperated aura surrounding her boyfriend. "Alright," Robert said simply. "I'll see you tomorrow."
There were two options – she could take care of this, what was happening right now in this room with Robert, or she could choose to deal with it later and focus her attention on the matter at Tony's house. And for reasons she didn't feel like dissecting at the current moment in time, she chose the latter.
Pepper grabbed her phone and left the room.
"JARVIS, call a hospital. Now."
Lying flat on his back, alone in his workshop with little else to do, Tony chose to back-track, and ask himself how he had gotten here. What sequence of events had led him to this very moment? To his current state of being and the way he had been living these last few weeks?
He started by comparing himself to others and how they felt and perceived the world around them. And the most obvious difference was that everyone else seemed to experience life along a general spectrum – a spectrum of emotions or events, and everything they felt and everything that happened to them fell somewhere between the ends of the continuum. But for whatever reason, for the last few weeks, Tony had lacked that continuum. Instead, everything he experienced found itself on the extreme ends – everything was either perfect or at its absolute worst.
When it rained, it poured, he supposed.
No, that was a lie. Not everything about his life these last few weeks had been like that. No need to exaggerate, Tony Stark. What would Ms. Potts, say? Or was the saying, "What would your mother say?" Yes, that was it. That made much more sense.
Now he was getting distracted – what was he thinking?
His mind was unraveling now, as he expected. He was forgetting things and hopelessly content with that. Granted, it had only been a few minutes (or a few hours – all the same), but it was an entirely new sensation for him; to have a mind that worked at such a dull pace. It made everything…less exciting.
Perhaps that had been the source of his weakness all along.
But this dull pacing – that was an extreme, was it not? On his spectrum of emotions and comprehensions? At least, it was for him.
But this extreme was different, because he had brought it upon himself. Everything else that had happened was not his fault. He was merely a victim, trying to make sense of what was happening, and even more importantly, deal with it. This was not the same – this was all him.
She would be disappointed. He hated her seeing them disappointment. What? That didn't make any sense at all.
It was difficult to surprise Tony Stark. He was, after all, a connoisseur of the art, able to dish it out faster than anyone else could possibly comprehend the news. And naturally, since he was able to dish it out so well, he had no problem being on the receiving end.
So when Pepper first asked him what the reactor felt like, resting inside his chest, he was more surprised to find out that he actually was surprised. For some strange reason that seemed to elude him, he hadn't expected her to ask. Or perhaps, it was simply that he hadn't expected her to ask so bluntly and directly.
What does it feel like?
That was the question – and to his horror, he didn't have a predetermined answer. He didn't have an answer because he hadn't expected the question – a simple and innocent question. What does it feel like?
He remembered hesitating, for a terrifying second not sure how to answer, an internal war raging within him. He could blow it off completely, write it off as nothing, lightly ridicule her inquiry and return to less personal matters. And if it had been anyone else, that probably would have been the expected plan of action. But it most certainly wasn't an option for Tony – a man who wasn't exactly known for how well he avoided awkward situations. And Pepper knew it as well.
He could lie.
But that was just stupid. Why lie? And say what exactly? Fabricating a lie was more complicated than just telling the truth; which led to another interesting yet terrifying realization.
He didn't really know what it felt like. Tony had never thought about assigning words or a direct sensation to something that now felt like a part of him, an extension – a second heart even. It was like asking him what his leg felt like. It was there, and that was all he knew.
But Pepper wasn't expecting an answer like that. She didn't have an arc reactor planted into the middle of the chest, and neither did anyone else. She wanted to know, to understand – and an answer like "I feel that it's there" wouldn't suffice for an inquisitive mind like Pepper's.
So Tony was forced to actually think about it. What did it feel like?
They were in the shop when she asked, and she had just handed him his late night cup of coffee right before she left to go home. He was wearing a grease stained, long sleeved, black shirt – not entirely see through, but enough for her to notice the blue light seeping from underneath. And from there, the question followed, unhindered. She only had time to register Tony's hesitation before she realized what she had said.
Then it was her turn to hesitate. She shouldn't have asked that. Granted, that invisible line between boss and friend had been disregarded a long time ago but maybe this was too far. Maybe she was overstepping her boundaries. There were topics that were unapproachable, taboo subjects – the women he brought home, the years surrounding his parents' death; maybe this was one of them.
"I'm sorry-" Pepper hesitated, trying to back out of the mess she had unwillingly placed herself in. "I'll just-"
"No, that's not it-" Tony said, drying his hands on a nearby towel. He shrugged once, nonchalantly even. "I just never thought about it…or thought about you asking about it."
Her eyes wandered back to his chest and the blue light within him. It still fascinated her and she'd never really had the chance to just look at it. Of course, there was that one time Tony needed her to install a new reactor into his chest but she had been more concerned with not killing him and sending him into cardiac arrest than with the device itself.
He thought for a moment, wondering how to accurately phrase what the machine felt like. It wasn't an important question, not really. But to him it was – the reactor was a part of him. He should be able to define it. And he wanted to get it right the first time.
What does it feel like? It was a simple question – so why couldn't he provide an answer just as quickly?
"It…hums a little," he tried. "But…I don't really think about it, it's like…" Suddenly the perfect analogy penetrated his mind and he went with it. "It's like living by the airport. At first the sound of the planes going by your house is as annoying as hell but after a while you don't even hear it, right?"
"Tony, I've never lived by the airport-"
"Yeah, well I never have either but work with me."
She rolled her eyes, smiling a little but nodded as if to encourage him to continue. And he did.
"It's like that," he told her. "It's…it feels like an arm or a leg, I don't really think that it's there anymore. Does that make sense?"
Pepper wasn't so sure why he was putting so much effort in telling her and making sure she understood, but she listened anyway. And she did understand – or at least, understand that he didn't really know what it felt like at all.
That was two days after he told the press he was Iron Man. Three weeks ago.
And Tony hadn't been lying that day – when he had in more words than necessary explained that the reactor was part of him. Just like how Iron Man was part of him, was him. But things were changing.
He could feel the reactor now. He could feel his chest clench uncomfortably. At times it was just a light throbbing, other times – it felt as if someone was gently tapping at his chest. No pain, not yet at least. But the sensations were there and it no longer felt like a part of him. It felt like a foreign object trying to take over his body in slow increments. And the sensations came at the oddest, most random times – when he was going 80 miles per hour in his Audi down the freeway, when he got a cup of coffee, just before he went to bed.
There was no reason for the feeling to suddenly appear now of all times. He had felt nothing but initial numbness when the reactor had first been implanted into his chest. And when he had returned, the piece in his chest was almost ignorable. But all of a sudden actual pain, despite how slight, was now apparent.
But why now? Why now when he was finally understanding everything, coming to terms with the weaponized suit he had invented, and being a part of something much larger than himself?
What had changed so quickly? Obadiah, press release, coming out as Iron Man – that had happened. But it still didn't explain what he was feeling now.
Then, in the dead of night – his threshold was crossed. It wasn't just throbbing and numbness in his chest – it was stabbing, yanking, tightening pain. Pain that made him see white and refused to relinquish its grip on him. Pain that controlled him – completely and totally.
That first night, he had done nothing except for lay on his back, gripping the sheets and shaking uncontrollably. He wanted to move and find relief – a bottle of Tylenol, his hidden stash of painkillers, something to make the ceaseless aching stop. But even the simplest movement was an impossibility. So, for fifteen minutes, he writhed in agony. Alone.
The next morning, he consciously forgot about the entire event sure it had been a dream; until the pain gripped him again three days later as he updated JARVIS's software. And again, he could do nothing.
Fear followed soon afterwards; fear of a pain he didn't know he was capable of bearing and worst of all, incapable of understanding. That's what scared him – and he unconsciously found himself preparing in advance, leaving prescribed pain medications in the oddest places just in case. And as the fear consumed him, he retracted back into his mind.
It needed to make sense – as long as what was happening made sense, he could handle it.
What had changed?
The arc reactor had been implanted into the middle of his chest. Obadiah tried to kill him. He was responsible for the world's latest and probably most powerful invention. In one word, everything.
And as he spent his time thinking about what had changed and delved into the deep recesses of his own mind, he was forced to uncover the memories he had tried to forget. Memories of a cave, and a man with glasses who had given his life for him.
He was scared - of his past and of his future. And this basic realization, the source of his fear, did little to alleviate his fear of the pain that followed. The pain that always followed.
Did it hurt because he was trying so hard to forget? Or did it hurt so much because he always seemed to remember?
His own mind was his new cave. And he was finding it difficult to find his way back out.
He closed his eyes, as if it would shut out the voices echoing in his head. He was crazy. He was literally going insane now.
He opened his eyes again and instead of fear, a new emotion took hold of him – confusion. Why was she here? Why did she come? What was she doing here?
But she looked scared. Her eyes were wide open and she was running up to him, panic etched into her face. And Tony didn't understand, because he didn't know what she was seeing.
She saw her boss lying on his back on the couch in the workshop, empty prescription bottles beside him. His head was facing the ceiling but her eyes were following her, warily, as if he wasn't sure if he could trust her. He looked pale and his mouth was hung open at a grotesque angle. And, most terrifying of all, he was frothing at the mouth, milky white liquid dripping down the side of his mouth.
Pepper ran up to him, her heart racing inside her chest as she looked around, trying to make sense of the situation – trying to understand what she was seeing. A man she thought would never…
No. Not her Tony – not like this.
She grabbed a prescription bottle and looked at the label. Eszopiclone – sleeping pills. The other bottle was empty as well, once filled with painkillers.
Pepper looked back at him and Tony saw the fear in her sea green eyes. But when he looked at his reflection in her eyes, he saw nothing – just an empty, blank stare. Tony. That was him.
"Tony," she held his face, forcing him to look at her. "Look at me, Tony…"
He wheezed slightly, but the words he had successfully formed in his head weren't leaving his mouth. But Pepper interpreted his wheezing as a struggle to breath.
God… "How many did you take?" Pepper asked.
No answer. Just a simple stare and an occasional blink. Don't be mad, he wanted to tell her. I don't like it when you're mad.
She shook him again – hard. "Tony, how many did you take?" But still – nothing. She saw acceptance in his eyes. Fatigue, exhaustion. He was tired. But Tony saw fear and tears leaving the corner of her eyes. And men with gurneys approaching the two of them from behind her.
What were they doing in his shop? They weren't allowed in here.
He passed out just as the strange men separated him from her.
I know what you're thinking – this kind of reminds me of the beginning of "Help Me!" Are you just re-writing it? What are you doing, writingmonkey10? Or maybe you're thinking "God damn – I'm sick of the hospital scenes".
This is going to be completely different and I'm going in a totally new direction. Just…trust me, all right? HAVE FAITH. It just starts here. Love you.
Also, I'm trying to work on my writing style, not just what I write. So if it seems a little different, that's why.
Oh, and reviews would also be splendid. Tell me what you think/how I did/rant/complain/something.