Warning: Rated for child abuse and language.
This first part focuses on Pepper figuring out Tony's story. It takes place shortly after Iron Man I. All the other parts will likely take place after the Avengers. Enjoy!
Tony Stark, quite frankly, was a bit of an asshole. He was arrogant, narcissistic, self-righteous, and selfish.
Then came Afghanistan.
Three long, hellish months in a cave, held captive by some of the most depraved men mankind has to offer.
Tony Stark is still a bit of an asshole. Only not really.
Sure, it took a while to get used to. Pepper could tell you that herself. Ten years working for the man, and sometimes she's still tempted to think that he's just as stuck-up as he appears to be. And while it may be true (just a little bit), she always knew, even before Afghanistan, that he was one of the best men mankind had to offer. Sometimes.
The only problem was, he was never willing to show it.
And he still isn't.
It's one of the very few things that haven't changed. What with his capture, Obadiah's betrayal, and his reveal as Iron Man, so little of their routine is unaffected. Of course, Pepper still does all of his work. That'll never change. And Tony still has no sense of self-preservation, even more apparent when he comes home all bruised and bloodied. And, most worryingly (according to the board), he still isn't sleeping. At all.
It wasn't that it wasn't worrying to Pepper as well. It was just the way things had always been- Tony would work himself to exhaustion, forget to eat, and wind up passed out on the couch down in his lab. Why were they making a big deal about it now? To be fair, they weren't making a very big deal about it. But the seeds of worry had planted themselves in her mind, and now she couldn't help the nagging feeling that she needed to speak with Tony.
Looking back on it, she realized that something had been wrong for a much longer time than she'd known. Something had been wrong since before Afghanistan, since before Pepper had even worked for him. For all his bravado and showing off, there was something undeniably wrong about Tony. Maybe, if she'd seen it five years earlier, it would have saved him a lot of pain. Maybe.
If Tony noticed something different today, he didn't show it. Not once did he look up from where he stood, bent over his workbench, soldering some chunk of what was presumably armor. Pepper didn't notice, but Tony could tell immediately that something was up. The sharp, staccato retort of Pepper's heels as she tapped her way across the lab was oddly hesitant, which sent off about a thousand different alarms in his head.
Instead of directly addressing him, as she usually would, she made her way over to the couch with her laptop. Without any fuss. Without even looking at him. She just sat down, flipped open her laptop, and pretended to be busy. Pretended, because Pepper did not type that fast. She was too meticulous, unwilling to allow a single grammatical mistake slide. Now, her rapid typing sounded disjointed, nervous, and much too fast.
Well, what could he do? He couldn't exactly tell her to leave, not without getting a pointy heel somewhere unpleasant. That, and he didn't really want her to leave. 'Cause then he'd just have JARVIS again and as awesome as the stuffy English robot was he quite preferred the company of Pepper Potts, thank you very much. So he didn't say anything. He went right back to what he'd been doing- what had he been doing, exactly? -and didn't look at her again. Not at all.
So the silence stretched out. After the initial tension had passed, Tony was almost able to forget his assistant was there. Almost. Every once in a while he'd get distracted by her unnatural typing, unusually hunched shoulders, lilac perfume, or the fact that he was enjoying her silent company. Honestly, she was disturbing his working environment. That was rather unprofessional of her.
"Hey, Tony," she spoke so suddenly, he jumped and had to juggle the solder iron in his hands so as not to drop it and burn himself. When finally he'd regained his composure, he looked up to see Pepper staring at him with the most unconvincing disapproving look he'd ever seen from her. "When was the last time you slept?"
"Sir has not truly slept in approximately fifty-two hours, sixteen minutes, and twenty-seven seconds. He briefly passed out on his workbench for half an hour early this morning." JARVIS answered promptly, eliciting a furious glare from Tony up at the ceiling and a grateful nod from Pepper. She said no more. And that, that was terrifying.
Tony shifted uncomfortably, wondering frantically why she hadn't blown up at him. "Uh… if it makes you any less angry, I ate just a couple of hours ago?"
The redhead looked up, eyebrows raised in concern. "I'm not angry, just worried."
"That's significantly scarier than if you were yelling at me."
"So you've told me."
"Alright, in all honesty, what are you doing down here?"
"I have papers for you to sign."
"No, you don't."
"They're in my bra."
"Okay, now that's just not fair."
"Why haven't you been able to sleep?" The sudden change from familiar, easy banter back to Pepper's interrogation is enough to leave Tony speechless. Or maybe that was simply his default reaction for whenever someone tried to get too close. He clammed up, changed the subject, pretending nothing was ever said.
Which was why he decided, just this once, that he was going to be honest.
"I have these… nightmares. Really bad nightmares." So what if it came out sounding a tad more pitiful than he'd meant? He didn't exactly make a habit of bearing his soul to the world, he couldn't be expected to be an expert. And judging by the way Pepper's eyebrows shot up into her hairline, she was just amazed he'd answered at all.
"Tony, you've always had nightmares." That much was very true. On many occasions, she'd entered the lab to find him passed out on the couch drenched in sweat and striking out at figments of his imagination. It took a bit of coaxing for him to wake up, but he usually seemed fine afterwards, aside from being embarrassed that she'd seen him that way at all. She hadn't thought that it'd been interfering so much with his sleeping habits. "Are… are these ones about Afghanistan?"
He'd never told her anything about what'd happened in those three months he'd been held captive, and she certainly didn't expect him to. Tony would never tell her, but he was incredibly grateful to her for that. "Sometimes," he finally answered in a grudging tone, "and sometimes they're about Obadiah."
Well, this was getting more and more surreal. Pepper just stared at him, seeming adorably confused as she tried unsuccessfully to work out why he was saying all this now. He'd never divulged so much personal information about himself before, and now seemed like an incredibly strange time to begin. Then again, it was Tony Stark; unpredictability was predictable. "Why are you telling me all this?"
Tony didn't answer for a long moment. He was no longer looking at his assistant, instead reviewing his work on the armor he'd been doing repairs on. It was how he found peace, with his hands and his mind busy, and it was how he solved problems a million miles away. "I just thought you might like to know. So you don't worry." He looked like he wanted to say something more, but thought better of it.
"But why now? Why me? Did you and Rhodey have a fight? Not that I'm complaining, I'm glad you trust me, but if there's something wrong-"
"Howard used to beat me up."
Well. She certainly hadn't expected that.
His revelation had the desired affect of making Pepper shut up, but now there was a whole new plethora of problems just around the bend. Stupid, he thought. Now he'd have to talk to her about it and damn it he really did not want to talk about it maybe she'd just leave it alone and they could pretend it never happened maybe please please please…
She watched, in rigid silence, as Tony hunched over his table, hands clenching sporadically and quicksilver eyes for once completely still. He was completely unmovable, a man made of stone, but didn't he just look so scared and that was unacceptable because Tony Stark didn't do scared. She tried to think up some response, something to keep him talking, something that wouldn't make him bolt, but all she could do was mumble a dumb-sounding "what?"
"Howard beat me up and Yinsen is dead and Obie ripped out my heart, so if I'm telling you things you don't want to hear or maybe you do want to hear them I don't know what goes on in your brain but I'm sorry, it's fucked up and I never wanted to bring you into any of this, let alone tell you what my dad did-" Suddenly, he felt a small, cool hand resting on his arm, and he leapt back, facing Pepper the way a frightened, cornered animal would. And wasn't that just what he was, right now?
"Tony, listen, it's just me, it's Pepper," she spoke in a low, soothing voice, and he wanted to scream at her for treating him like a little kid at the same time he was crying inside because she'd come about forty years too late. "We're going to sit down on the couch and talk about this, okay?" Why did she sound like she was a second away from crying? That wasn't alright. If only to stop that from happening, he obediently followed her to the couch, but his silence only seemed to make her more upset.
She moved her laptop and motioned for him to sit down. He did, though immediately felt embarrassed for his behavior as he seemed to finally be coming back to his senses. Damn sleep depravation. In an attempt to reel back in some semblance of dignity, he gave her a little smirk that felt rigid and unnatural on his own lips. "Y'know, I've got a bed upstairs…"
"Which you are going to sleep in, alone, when we're done talking." Pepper spoke firmly, in the manner she adopted whenever Tony said something offensive that she knew was a defense mechanism. Damn Pepper Potts. He dropped the smirk, knowing now that it was pointless. Him and his big mouth, go blurt out your problems to the world, drive one of the three people who actually like you away, why don't you?
"How about we start at the beginning?" Pepper started. At the withering glare he shot her, she shrugged and leaned back, crossing her arms. "We can start wherever you want, but you're talking to me about this. I don't believe this is some exhaustion-fueled breakdown. This is serious and… and does anyone else know?"
"No. Not anymore." Tony answered, not looking at her. "I'm… I'm not usually this bad. Sometimes the nightmares come back, like they have lately, but I've always had Obadiah to talk to…" He trailed off. So that was what his nightmares had been about before Afghanistan. Somehow, knowing the truth didn't feel like much closure.
"Why doesn't Rhodey or Happy know? How did I not know? How didn't the press know?" Or did they know, and just not care?
Tony gave a snort. "Dad was careful. It seemed like no matter how drunk he was, he knew never to hit my face. Never to hit anywhere that would be easily visible. Threatened all sorts of things if I ever told anyone. Nobody ever expected a thing."
Pepper felt sick. Horribly, inconceivably sick. But she simply nodded, accepting the answer for what it was. "And… and your mother?"
That was obviously a sore spot. Tony's jaw shifted, his teeth grinding as he considered how much to disclose. His sighed once, running his hand down his face, and seemed to reach some sort of decision, like he was done hiding from her and was ready to tell her everything. "She watched."
"She… she watched?" If Pepper sounded a bit choked, a bit nauseas, he wouldn't hold it against her. He felt the same way.
"Never did anything to stop it. I used to think she was just too scared… but I eventually learned she just didn't care." He stopped talking, still not looking at Pepper. "They told me it was for my own good. That… that if he beat it into me enough, I would be better in the future. I wouldn't be a screw-up."
She wanted to tell him to stop.
"Sometimes, he let me choose what he'd beat me up with. A belt, a bat, a knife. Usually I chose the belt. The wounds were much easier to hide. I still have some scars though." She'd seen those scars. She'd always assumed they were from some sexual endeavor of the darker variety.
She wanted to throw up.
"Every once in a while, though…" he swallowed hard, blinking his eyes which suddenly seemed much too shiny. Pepper didn't want to hear what came next, but she wouldn't dare tell him to stop. "I chose the knife. Just to see if… if, if he came close to killing me… if my mom would stop him. She never did, and I kept trying, and it always hurt so bad, each and every time he'd cut me and she wouldn't say anything and I'd lie there bleeding and she'd say I deserved it…"
Pepper stopped it right then and there. She pulled him into her arms, ignoring how he tensed because he must not be used to hugs or any real affection, and she held him tight. At first he was still, until his body began to convulse with very fine tremors. Those soulful brown eyes slammed shut as he allowed himself to be held as he cried for what very well may be the first time in his life.
He sobbed against her, and she let her own tears fall. Everything made sense, and as much as she hated herself for thinking it, she was grateful she finally knew. All the trust issues, all the strange little quirks, the nightmares, the way he sometimes flinched from peoples' touch- it could all be boiled down to the secret that Tony Stark kept at the core of his being. The one he had told her because she was the only thing left in his life that he knew would never, ever betray him.
"You'll be alright," she whispers, because she knows that right now he's not. Tortured by the memory of people who should have been there, who should have loved him. "I'll make it alright, I promise." Well, if she had to make up for that lack of love, she would.
"Please…" he murmurs so brokenly she feels a new wave of tears building behind her eyes. What he was asking for, she wasn't sure. She was pretty sure he didn't know, either. But she nodded all the same, kissing the top of his head and holding him tightly.
"I won't leave you alone again."