Title: Not Yet Home
Author: ninamazing, or Nina
Fandom: Iron Man movieverse
Word Count: 3443
Rating: hard R for sexual contact and disturbing imagery
Excerpt: "I couldn't sleep either, Tony. Not while you were gone."
Author's Note: hc_bingo prompt "nightmares"; my card is here. For roboticonograph; specifically, his foot. ♥
Tony couldn't stand certain things, after Afghanistan: the odor of ripe figs; the crunch of sand; the way superbright rays of sun scrubbed his vision momentarily clear. He knocked back single malts faster than ever and slept in drugged snatches, jerking awake at the smell of burning coal. Pepper assured him there was no such old-fashioned energy source anywhere on the estate.
The cold sweat of his nightmares seemed to stick to him, rooted in his pores, even after he'd drenched himself with water as hot as J.A.R.V.I.S. dared to make it.
At first the dreams were quiet. He stood outside his father's study, his forehead grazing the doorknob, and through the keyhole wafted cigar smoke and Howard Stark's business voice. Don't talk to me about Cuba right now, don't fuckin' do it. The pads of Tony's five-year-old fingers dragged against the elegant whorls of mahogany paneling on the wall, sensing the vibration of his father's fist pounding the table when Cuba did, of course, come up. He thought he should understand more, in the dream; but he understood less.
The dreams got louder. Voices shrieked, crackled, burned. Fire rushed his eardrums like the roar of Pratt & Whitney turbofans—F-119s, maybe—and then without warning he was drowning, sucking in darkness and choking it back out as he groped for purchase in the real world.
Great mind, Tony Stark. Is great mind helping you now?
The heart never really heals. The pain just keeps ebbing from the open wounds until you die.
Once he heard Yinsen's voice, he decided to stop dreaming. He no longer closed his bedroom door, or opened it. He emerged from the workshop just to flop on the couch in the living room, and that only when Pepper sat across from him, speaking evenly into her phone.
"Yes, he needs fourteen additional two-hundred-and-forty-volt direct current sockets installed," she was saying now; "no, that is not a joke or a mistake." She sighed. "I don't care how you do it. . . . Yes, I am aware that the reactor is operating at eighty-seven percent capacity." She breathed through her nose; Tony could see it with his eyes closed. "By all means call it eighty-eight if that makes you happy. I will be speaking to R&D about . . . Well, that would be lovely. Thank you."
A beep; silence; then the rattle of Pepper's typing, soft and quick.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.," he called. "Put on something classical. Surprise me."
"Sir, you hated the Mozart, the Bach, the Brahms, the Chopin, and the Beethoven I chose, so I must insist that you start giving me parameters."
"Something, you know, not depressing. Or boring."
"J.A.R.V.I.S., have you tried anything from Prince Igor?" Pepper cut in. Tony opened his eyes. She'd taken off her shoes, and curled her feet underneath her with her laptop perched atop her knees. "The Polovtsian Dances, perhaps?"
"Certainly, Miss Potts." The surround sound system turned on with the meekest of clicks, and the woodwinds began. Pepper returned to her computer. Her hair was beginning to slip free of its ponytail; it was long past the end of a normal workday, and just now getting close to the end of hers. Through the speakers, the string instruments weaved wide, generous notes into a high melody.
"See, now, this I like."
"I'm glad to hear it," she replied, not looking up from her laptop screen.
"Who is this?"
"Alexander Borodin," answered Pepper and J.A.R.V.I.S. at the same time. "He was a chemist," Pepper added.
He was out before he'd processed a response. The self-imposition of sleep deprivation, as it turned out, had its limits.
The volume of his nightmares did not. Once again the sand crunched harder; the sun burned brighter. Screaming rattled his eardrums and something shoved him, and his world was bathed in darkness.
Arabic, babbling and intense and incomprehensible. Three months hadn't taught him much besides you—dog—go. His vision parsed angry faces out of the vagueness and he raised his hands, as usual. The ringleader stood and smiled, staring Tony down as he twisted the stick between his palms, readied the hot coals. Tony could see all this coming, déjà vu like a dream, as a figure dropped to his knees in front of the thugs. The figure mumbled; they yelled. The burliest man stepped forward to press their captive's face into the stone, until all that was visible was the long wash of red hair.
Tony tried to move very fast, and found he wasn't able to move at all. His rubbery limbs dangled, ineffectual, and bullets set their sights on him through a dozen winding barrels emblazoned with his name.
They turned her head. The leader was smiling still as he forced open her mouth, cruel grimy fingers against slim red lips. The coal sizzled, whipping even the air around it into a frenzy. Pepper's eyes stared out of the figure's dark face and into Tony's, targeting him as surely as the bullets, pinpointing the man who had made this all happen.
"Tony. Tony! Tony, you're home!"
The Borodin emerged like a distant memory in his conscious mind, picking up where it left off, waving him gently back to his surroundings. Pepper's voice jarred him, but didn't place him, at first.
He didn't want to hear her screaming.
"You're home, Tony, I'm right here! Wake up! Tony!"
He registered her hands squeezing his, pressing them back into the couch as if she were trying to contain a seizure—as if he'd attacked her. He relaxed his arms and squeezed back, once, before opening his eyes.
"Tony." The weakening ponytail holder had jumped ship entirely; her hair fell around her face in the wild disarray he'd been begging her to cultivate for years. She was perched on the edge of the couch, but leaning over him so close that he knew this had been a particularly bad one. And now Pepper knew. So much for stopping the dreams.
She backed off, releasing his arms, but sat over him still, like a governess.
"Are you okay? J.A.R.V.I.S. didn't even warn me—"
"I apologize, Miss Potts. He has requested that I no longer report his sleep patterns or in fact register any psychological alarms—"
"That's enough, J.A.R.V.I.S." Tony sat up, inching back from his PA, and rubbed his hands across his face. "And I don't like you using that word." He could feel Pepper's eyes focusing on his skin—he'd gotten her away from that laptop, at least—but he didn't meet her gaze.
"Tony, you . . . you screamed out loud. Do you know that?"
He dropped his hands to his lap and shrugged. "Sure. Yeah, I . . . I've been having a little trouble sleeping since I came back, but it's nothing to get—"
"You have been having recurring nightmares."
"A truck full of Red Bull makes weekly deliveries to your loading dock, but you don't dare tell me to make a half-hour appointment with a doctor?"
"Say 'loading dock' again."
"How often are they this bad? Is this why power consumption has gone down in your bedroom? Are you even using your bedroom?"
"It's just I so rarely entertain company in it anymore."
"I will gladly have the cast of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue flown in and escorted directly from the helipad, Mr. Stark, if it means I never again have to shake you awake while you scream my name over and over as if I'm dying right in front of you."
He looked down at his hands, turned them over and over. He glanced at hers, which were doing the same.
"It was my birthday." Her voice was low; when she spoke this softly, he usually wasn't listening. "I woke up at five a.m. with a hangover and it was Rhodey calling—and he told me—" She swallowed. "He said it was best I not hope for anything, given . . . He reminded me they'd been searching for bin Laden since 2001. Like I might have forgotten that."
All those dreams in the cave, missing a limb he'd never even realized he was using, and he'd never managed to imagine the truth. In the flutter of images past REM-deprived eyelids he'd seen the way her head dipped back when he made her laugh, her teeth glowing like a crescent moon. He'd licked the gloss from her lips, curved his hand around the soft exposed muscles of her throat, held her so close their breathing flowed perfectly in phase—but he'd never gotten this from that vision, that phantom limb.
This was like seeing Pepper without her makeup, without her work clothes, without all the accoutrements of Stark Industries hiding the expression in her eyes.
"I yelled at Rhodey," she admitted. "A lot. You were an American citizen, for Chrissakes, you were the American citizen . . . stuff like that. Eventually he hung up. Against his express advice I entered into negotiations with a select few K&R firms." She took a hard breath, and bit her lip.
Tony had to clench his wrist against the ridiculous desire to close the tiny gap between them and open those lips with his own.
"Kidnap and rescue?" he repeated. "High-priced ex-Marine retrieval specialists?"
"The very same. But Obadiah blocked me. I didn't have the authority to retrieve funds without you." She almost smiled. "My shoe budget wouldn't quite cover it. I was . . . I was probably about a week away from selling my apartment when you came back."
Now she did grin, brightening the room, reminding him how much lighter the world had once seemed. His dreams in the desert had been of those freckles, so many times. He kept waking up in the cave with that stabbing ache in his chest and not finding her there, coughing out sand into a dirt- and blood-stained palm and not knowing what the hell to do.
"When you escaped," she said. "That's the important part. The part you should remember. You didn't need me or Rhodey or anybody. You escaped."
"I had help." He reached out at last to curl one hand around her cheek, and noticed her ears reddening. "And I always need you."
For so many years he could have sworn it wasn't there. She had been brilliant, sure, and cute; but so quiet about both of those that if you didn't notice she wouldn't either. So much hid behind the Pepper Potts professionalism he was always afraid she'd one day bottle and sell to administrative assistants by the millions. It was unsettling, at first, that this tall drink of redhead in her deadly shoes understood him better than any of his professors, better than Obadiah even, and so instantly. Perhaps it freaked him out so much that he was happy not to look behind the curtain. All that mattered then was that she was brilliant and cute and quiet. Exactly what he needed.
Here in the fairy tale, in the magical second chance at life, he didn't quite know how to look at her—the reality of her. Invisible and fundamental threads of the universe had been diffracted, distorted into a pattern that didn't match the one he used to live in. He didn't think he could stop himself, now, from peeking behind that curtain, from changing the momentum with observance, from looking too deep into the cogs that had kept the transmission of his life running smoothly, all this time.
He was still stroking her cheek. She closed her eyes. "I couldn't sleep either, Tony. Not while you were gone."
When her palm covered his hand, he leaned forward, and his world turned as blissfully blue as the open sky. His every sense deferred to the peachy scent of Pepper's shampoo and the feel of her tongue inside him, strong and sweet and familiar like a memory he'd almost lost. Her mouth tasted of honey and mint and lavender, of the breath that always ghosted over his earlobe when he had to sit up straight or stop doodling or smile at the President. His palm cupped the back of her neck before his conscious mind got around to broadcasting the order, and she gripped his other hand harder and sank into the kiss. Pepper had always been heady, like wine, like a shifting plasmic vapor, shaping the local grid of the universe around her.
She pulled away, just enough, and rested a finger on his lips.
"Come to bed."
It sounded so good that he let her lead him by the hand through his own hallways, up his own stairs, through his own doorway, before he realized that maybe she hadn't meant that. He watched her face while she drew the covers for him, as if he were eight years old, or stupid drunk.
"Stay with me," he said before she could turn away and race back to her laptop. She sighed, but didn't go.
She pointed at the bed. "Get in."
He obeyed, but grasped her hand and pulled her over so that she sat above him, over the covers, at a safe distance this time. She stared down at him for a long moment, as if he were a calculation she didn't want to crunch. The expression didn't suit her.
"You pay me to manage your workdays."
"The taking care of you, I do for free."
"Because you won't do it for yourself."
"But I wish you would." When she sighed again, her face evened out. She swept the hair back from his forehead, Pepper's tentative fingers tracing the route his mother's had traversed, and left open.
He caught her hand, and followed her eyes as he kissed each knuckle. "Please."
She slid down—thank God for wide-necked blouses, and the deep blue lace underneath them—and held his face between her palms, their noses a micron apart.
"You will see your doctor tomorrow. First thing. For at least half an hour."
"Fine. . . . What? I said fine!"
"You will spend at least eight hours in this bed."
"Tony. I wake up very early. Earlier than you should. And I will not be kicking myself out."
"Uh, point taken."
"I will be going over J.A.R.V.I.S.'s logs, and I will need to be satisfied with the amount of deep, relaxing breathing he registers."
Tony lifted his hips, slightly. "You're being counterproductive, then, aren't you?"
He hardly finished saying it before her mouth was on him again, her own hips slamming into his as she straddled him—thank God for pantsuits, thank God for Pepper. He tangled one hand in that hair, tugged at her blouse with the other, and he knew they could both feel the pressure through the blanket as she arched back, grinding at his waist, and ripped the thing clean off. Very deep blue lace. She lowered slowly, like she wanted him to ogle her all the way down, and Tony wasn't used to this dream crossing over into reality, not at all.
"I'm serious," she said, her face close again.
"So am I," he told her, hand at her cheek again, briefly, before he yanked the covers from between them and flipped Pepper to her back. The peach shampoo scent wafted over him again as he tongued her neck, nuzzled her collarbone, opened his mouth above the lace as he twisted the clasp at her back. Those small hands of hers had buried themselves at the back of his head, but one broke loose to fist his collar and tug. He leaned back for a moment to tear off his t-shirt, and when his vision cleared again she was braless. For the most bewildering of nanoseconds, Tony couldn't think where to touch her first.
In his indecision, her hands darted to the front of his jeans and she grinned up at him, haloed by a fireburst, as she made quick work of his zipper and held him through skinny boxer-briefs, and he heard himself moan. Pepper bit her lip, and the sight of it shot through him; he wriggled out of his jeans in double time. She was halfway out of her slacks, and he pulled them off the rest of the way and dropped his head to her breasts. She gasped when he sucked, crooned when he bit; he wanted to last at least another twenty minutes but when he tried to breathe steadily all he could taste was the sweat on her skin as she moved up and into him, as her body pressed against his. Pepper.
He tried to lick every freckle on the way to her belly button, tracing a path that had her mumbling, incoherent even to him. He couldn't stop his fingers quivering, though he was sure she didn't notice, when he slipped them under more blue lace and Pepper raised her knees, and the panties came off.
"So wet, Potts," he murmured, unable to help it, and she let out a keening little cry that he would have given the entire Stark fortune just to hear again. He tongued her, once, twice, more, lapping up the butternut honey taste of her until her sweetness controlled him, until he almost lost it.
"Tony," she managed, at a frequency he'd never heard from her. "Please. . . . I need . . ." She grew quiet as he kissed each of her inner thighs, willing himself to make it just a little bit longer. As long as possible.
The burst of cool air as he stripped off the boxer-briefs did not help. Nor did Pepper, rolling to her stomach and beckoning him, snuggling against him until he was more painfully aware of his dick against her ass than he had ever been of anything—taxes. Mortality. War, people killing, today and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . and Pepper's smooth skin, Pepper's peach-smelling hair, Pepper's liquid breaths every time he moved his hands, Pepper's taste still in his mouth as he slid his lips across the back of her neck.
"The angles are better," she answered. "You ought to know." Her laugh of delight was a long-lost treasure, called out of the dark; when he pushed inside her it turned into a gasp of his name, and he'd promised himself it wouldn't end before it began. He kept it together, barely. She felt familiar and not, just like before, and he was sure she glowed, every freckle, every strand of hair; holding her body underneath him, watching her breathe, he couldn't remember what anyone else looked like, what any other night had been.
"Pepper," he whispered, hissing in her ear for once, and she grabbed his hand and squeezed it and came apart, clenching around him until he gave in to the bright spots of blue in his eyes, and came apart too.
He slipped out as she shifted in his arms, turning to face him. He kissed her mouth and she spread her hands over his back, pulling him close. When she broke the kiss he pressed his lips to her nose, her forehead, to each of her eyelids as she fluttered them closed.
"It feels . . ." she mumbled, raking her fingers through his hair. He rested one hand at her tailbone, one arm over her head. "It feels like everything in the world is spinning but you're holding still."
"I am not interested in arguing about conservation of momentum with you right now, Tony."
"You need to close your eyes now, and try to relax."
For the lazy or simply poll-happy, or both: Thoughts on the fic?