1963-09-29 - If I Only Had a Heart
Summary: Pepper is back after her disappearance but is a little worse for wear.
Related: Dracula/Hellmouth
Theme Song: None
pepper tony 

Two days since Pepper Potts disappered. Two days since a woman in a pink and white dress was seen being chased my some horrible monster from the Hellmouth. Two days of the office under whatever chaos it could be for Pepper's absense, again. But then, suddenly, Thursday morning…she's simply there. She's actually there far before anyone else, looking sleepless and red eyed, but desperate to do anything but think about what happened. So, despite Jack's protests, she went into the office a little after six am and has been present ever since, trying to catch up and pretend everything is normal.

It's clearly not normal. Even her bare arms and throat show injury, Pepper covered in a wide array of small bandages over various injuries, the worst being at the side of her neck. Her skin is oddly sallow, and not with sickness this time. Her eyes are exhausted and a touch glassy, but she's going through the motions, getting the books together. Sipping coffee. Everything is fine. This is life. Even her jaunty little green and black mod dress looks off on her right now, too colorful compared to the rest of her washed out self.

*BZZT* "Pepper, can I see you in my office?" *BZZT* is said over the intercom sitting on his assistant's desk. While Tony hasn't been from 6am, he knew that she -was- there thanks to some of the security he installed. He was a bit of a mess the two days she was missing but also had some of his own things to deal with, such as tabloids throwing shade on him attacking a look-alike (who was really a demon from the Hellmouth). It's usually Pepper's job to deal with such things so he might have made it worse in his attempts.

Now that she's back though, he's been keeping a covert eye on her at the office since his arrival not too long ago. She was given some space, but he's grown impatient.

"Yes, Mr. Stark." Pepper responds, numb and distant, the proper, automatic response. She finishes up the sentence she had been writing — to one of those memos in attempts to clean up the mess she left behind her. She then stands up, walking a touch gingerly against the ache that pervades her entire body, but within a few moments she's coming up to his door and pushing it open. She doesn't bother to knock, he called her, he knows she's coming.

A heartbeat later, Pepper is there, standing stiff and quiet in front of his desk. She's tried to do something with her hair, but bits of it have been pulled out (along with all the bandaged gashes on her skin) so a tight, careless pony tail just keeps it all off her pale face, somehow making her look a bit more severe for the plain style. "…I am sorry I was out, Mr. Stark. I… did not have a phone to call in. I'm handling everything now."

Tony sits at his desk, a big, imposing thing apparently inherited from his father's decoration of this particular office. For some reason, it gave him satisfaction to sit at the desk where his father did after basically making sure that he kept the company despite Howard's return from the dead. He looks up at Pepper, brown eyes taking in her appearance and the bandage and the way she's carrying herself before he gestures to one of the more comfortable chairs in the room, "Sit." It's not a request.

He then gets up and goes over to the not-dusty (anymore…he made sure it was cleaned) mini-bar and pours a hefty tumbler of scotch. It's brought over and pressed into Pepper's hand. "I don't care what time it is, you are going to drink this and take a nap in that bed," his other hand gestures to the Murphy bed that is already out. "If you don't, I will make sure you eat strawberries and go to the hospital and -force- some rest on you." He remembered! Today…

The redhead watches him quietly, patiently waiting for other assignments, maybe to be scolded for not calling off work, or to take notes on his newest idea. What he DOES do is not what she expects in the least and she blinks slowly, something of the old Pepper coming forward to simply help her deal with emotions that the rest of her does not know how to process. She swallows tightly, taking a steadying breath through her nose. If she lets herself feel things, she's going to cry again and there is no crying at the office. So, she tries to push it back.

She does take the scotch glass. Normally one to protest during working hours, she simply brings it up to her lips and takes a long, burning gulp of it. She barely winces. The glass returns to be nursed between her scraped up hands in her lap. She does, finally, shakes her head rather firmly. "N-no… no… I don't want to sleep, Tony. I… tried. Jack made me try…slept a few hours. It's…worse, sleeping… I… I see… them…" She can't meet his eyes now, something far too raw behind her pale, glassy gaze. "…they killed… so many…I couldn't do anything. I should have… done something… I don't want to sleep. I don't. Please, don't make me sleep…"

"Ok, Pep, look…as much as I'm not a fan of Jack, we're both concerned for you." Tony moves to sit at the front of his desk so that he can face Pepper directly. "I don't know what happened, but it looked like you've been through Hell. If I was there, I would have tried to stop it…I just didn't know and that's on me." And he obviously feels terrible that he wasn't there to rescue her. "However,' and he launches into a scientific monologue on the effects of sleep deprivation. If she won't listen to people talking from the heart, maybe she'll listen to hard facts. "Drink the rest of that, it might help with the dreams. But even if it means getting you sleeping pills, you can't -not- sleep, Pepper. It can -actually- kill you." As one who has been on the brink of that a few times, he should know."

She does, at least, take another few sips of scotch. The scientific rant, however, isn't actually getting through to her this time. She just shakes her head slowly, knuckles going white around the scotch glass at the thought of sleeping. "…I…I know I have to sleep, Tony. I know. I just… I don't want to sleep now. I slept a few hours last night, before it got bad… " Blood loss and shock will do that to a girl, making getting to sleep a bit easier than she thought. "But… please. I… I just want to work. I want to forget it and make everything normal again and… and do anything to… " To distract herself, to pretend it didn't happen. To feel functional. Her voice is almost begging him to understand, not to make her explain. Even when she was sick, or scared, or her most angry at him… He's never seen her like this.

Tony knows that look. He saw it in the mirror not long after he returned from Vietnam. Pepper is watched in silent for a long, maybe even too long of a moment before he gets off of the desk and moves to crouch down in front of her. His manic behavior is gone, his mind isn't necessarily going a billion miles a minute right now. But he -understands-. A hand reaches out to her's, willing to rest it over one of the one's holding onto the tumbler.

"You don't forget, Pepper. You never forget."

That's the problem.

"You have a new 'normal' now and you need to find it. The old 'normal' is gone and you can't get it because because you've been changed. It's up to you if it changed you in a better way or a worse way, but I know how strong and stubborn you are and I know that you'll just be stronger from whatever happened. But you can't go back in time and you can't pretend it didn't happen. Because it did and now you're different."

A little bit of the 'normal' Tony comes back and he gives a smile, "I mean, I tend to prefer you when you're all in one piece, but you'll get there." He nods to the bandages as if to mean physically.

It takes a moment or two, but Pepper's pale eyes come to focus on him as he crouches before her. She does see him, at least. She is listening. She takes a slow, shaking breath as she watches his handsome, slightly older features. Her free hand reaches off the glass to ever so gently touch the side of his face. It's like reminding herself that he is real, this isn't some sort of pleasant dream that she'll wake up from and be trapped back with that man.

"…I don't…don't know how, Tony. I know how to do…everything. I don't know how to…do this…" Pepper whispers raggedly, just the edge of tears held back behind her tone because she's trying not to cry again, but admitting that, saying those words that Pepper Potts would NEVER say, it's probably a step in the right direction. She blinks against a sudden sting behind her eyes. Those tears are harder to keep back when someone shows they care. Easier when she can pretend no one does.

Tony reaches up with a hand to take the one Pepper has on the side of his face. Just to show he's there. Just to show he's with her. "I don't either. The thing is, I don't think anyone does, but we either let it crush us or make us stronger. Now, I -know- that you're not going to let it destroy you so there's only one other option. But building ourselves back up isn't easy." He speaks from experience there. "And sometimes you don't do it quite right and you have the only person who ever really cared about you remind you, several times, that she's concerned. So you try to go back in and fix things that you didn't care were broken before."

And that's not really what she needs to hear. "Sometimes you need to just listen to what your heart is telling you. Or in some cases, what used to be your heart."

And there it is, the first tear, then the second, daring to escape down her cheek even if she's managing not to fall into outright sobbing like last night. She's trying to be put together, but the tears just keep coming, streaking down her cheek and across her jawline. She swallows back tightly, her hand against his cheek pressing just a bit tighter. She drags in a shaking little breath against those tears, letting it out just as slowly.

"…God..Tony… I… I do care… about you…and I don't know what… fuck, I don't know what hell either of us have been through… but no… you're not alone in this either… I've been trying to tell you that for months…" Pepper whispers raggedly, but it may just have taken going through her own personal hell to realize just where his brain has been. And maybe for both of them to understand each other a bit better.

His free hand moves to take the tumbler of scotch from her and set it on the floor. The last think they need is to have booze spilled all over both of them. As the tears start falling, Tony tries to gently pull her into a hug…no funny business, just someone to hold. "I'm sorry you had this happen to you, Pepper," is murmured truthfully. No one should have to deal with that sort of Hell.

And he'll just be there to hold her for as long as she needs him to be. He's not Jack and he's not trying to be Jack. Not at this moment.

The hug is enough, though. She's not trying to get him to be Jack. She's known him longer. She's watched him close to his worst. She knows the heart that is left in his chest and all of that matters so much right now. So, Pepper just sinks into him, half sliding forward off the desk chair. They are probably going to end up on the floor together, but at least the scotch isn't everywhere. She sinks into that glowing chest, her head pressing too tight against his throat as more tears come. She just can't fight it now, not when he's caring so damn much.

"…I…I tried…to save the child…little girl, I tried…s-she…she couldn't have been more than six…but…They killed everyone else. Drank them… broke their necks… then the girl… she was one of them. Little… teeth. She tried to eat me… we killed her… it… she couldn't have been more than six, Tony… god. How… how does this happen? One of them was a cop… a mom… there were so many and t-they were just… food." He might not entirely understand what she's saying, but it all comes out with the tears, the quiet horror of the situation.

Tony just holds onto Pepper for as long as she needs it. He really should have locked the door as this would be an interesting picture should someone walk in; he sitting on the floor in his three-piece suit and Pepper in her office dress holding onto him and sobbing. He really isn't sure what words he can say to soothe her even as she talks about people being killed so he lets her talk. He doesn't know what she told Jack, but maybe if she talks through it and gets it out, it'll help?

He never bothered too much with psychology. Not terribly interesting to him. Too much of a 'soft' science.

"We're kind of in a bubble here," is offered when she asks a question, "A lot of bad stuff happens that we just don't see." It's one of the reasons why Iron Man is around.

"I-I…I know… and… I… I need to do more. Should have done more…I c-can't hide from it…and I was. Better to do the things…that are easy, like ledgers, and helping you run this place than…That." Pepper breathes out into his neck, but the sobs aren't quite so rough as they were before. Talking is at least giving her some focus that isn't the glassy eyed look that she came into the office with. SHe's still holding on, not caring one jot about who sees what or what they might say. They say it already. She'd rather them see Tony being human and sweet instead of his impossible, mad genius he so often is.

She takes in another few, shaking breaths before forcing herself back from him, her entire face splotchy where she's not paled out. She still looks a wreck. "…I…I'm ruining your suit…" She mutters with a weak, apologetic tone behind her words. She's almost trying to laugh, but she doesn't quite get there.

"You're not invincible, Pepper, and you were scared. No one is going to insist that you should have done more. No one is going to ask why you didn't sacrifice yourself." Tony is well aware of the Self-Preservation instinct. He actually does have it, occasionally. But letting her talk seems to help so he's not going to try and talk over her too much.

When she pulls back some and mentions his suit, he looks down and shrugs, "Eh, I was tired of this one anyhow." Even though it probably cost as much as someone's mortgage.

"…He… I don't know if… he's going to come back for me. Jack killed him, I think…or tried. But he could turn into…gas, or bats, fly away. It's what he did the first time, how he caught me. And he…he thinks I'm his…Countess. He Elizabeth. That man wants me… me to be with him, to be his wife and nothing I said or did could make him see who I was. If he's still out there…" The fear is back now. Going through the emotions, the guilt, the numbness and letting it all out has completely undone the plug on the dam of things she was holding up. And, behind it all, still, is the fear. Her eyes a bit too wide, still too much the trapped animal she felt for the last few days. "A-are…are vampires real, Tony? I think he…they were vampires… They drank blood, could fly…didn't…they didn't have a heartbeat. He was dead, but…not… God, Tony… He was so strong…"

Tony doesn't answer immediately. He's found that in this instance, listening is better than talking. When she asks the direct question though, he opens his mouth and takes in a breath, but doesn't say anything just yet. Finally he points out, "I don't have a heartbeat. And I can can fly. And I'm really strong," in the suit, at least. "Am I a Vampire?" He hasn't done the drinking blood thing, but he's still young.

This does sound worse than the doppleganger he fought the other day.

"We're living in weird times, Pepper. But…" and he sort of hates saying this, but, "Is Jack staying with you in your apartment? Or are you staying there? Because you probably shouldn't be left alone. I can make sure you get to and from the office to wherever you want to go…" basically have an escort and have someone with her at all times. Just in case.

"You don't necessarily have a pulse, Tony… but you absolutely have a heart. I know that. You are alive, Tony. More alive than most people I know…" Her fingertips drop to rest over that glowing light at the center of his chest, pressing her warm, small palm there gently, but with full affection. She's never feared this part of him. "The…the things that took me, they most certain were not alive. I know that. It… they were the worst monsters I've ever seen." Pepper confesses, but then she has lead quite a sheltered life up until now.

Then he moves onto practicalities and she breathes out quietly, nodding, "I… think Jack is going to stay with me. He barely let me go to work this morning, walked me here. He's…protective. And sweet. I… I'll be careful about it. I don't want to go anywhere alone either. Not now. I… I can't go back to him, Tony. I'd rather die than become that woman he wants me to be."

Tony doesn't particularly like hearing that Jack has moved in so closely, but they both knew he never had claims on Pepper outside of the office. "Eh, for now I'm alive if a little pickled," he jokes before standing and offering a hand to Pepper as well. "You won't go back to him. I promise that. I'll be by tonight with something for you, ok? I just need to…" invent it …"make it. But it'll keep you safe." Or something. Maybe. At least that will be the plan. "But you have to sleep, ok? You can sleep in here if you want…you know no one's coming in here without security knowing about it," and at least three secretaries gossiping about whomever it may be.

The hand he offers her is taken quietly, Pepper still a little unsteady as she gets up, but she takes her feet and stays there. It's a good sign, at least. She swallows back tightly again, trying to steady herself as much mentally as she does physically. "…Jack's working now…I…I'm not going back home now. I really would rather work. I'm not that tired, Tony… If… if I need to nap, I'll come here, alright? But work is better." Pepper's doing her best to pull herself up by her bootstraps and be as strong as everyone thinks she is. Even if she's going to look a wreck to anyone outside the office who sees her. She nods at the offer of something to help, a hint of relief in her features. She trusts him through and through, that much is clear. Whatever he makes, she'll take.

He looks dubious, but he agrees to let her go back to work, "All right. But if you're tired, you come in here to sleep, ok? Don't try to muscle through and don't try to lie about it. I'm serious about those strawberries." Mostly. Tony reaches down to retrieve the glass of scotch and hand it over, "If you need it." He won't force her to sleep and he most certainly won't force her to go home alone. It does mean, however, that any other work he was going to look at is now superceded by the tracking device he's going to make for Pepper.

"…Thank you, Tony…" Pepper does take the scotch glass and, at least, pounds back the last of it before resting the empty glass on the edge of his desk. She'll take it to relax, because relaxing is necessary. She then gives him a momentary, genuine smile before leaning up on her tip toes and kissing his cheek with an innocent, but genuinely felt warmth. "You're the best boss in the world. And… and a good friend." She grabs one of his hands, giving one last squeeze before turning on the ball of her high heeled foot and stepping back outside to the front room and her desk. At least she seems a bit more life like than she didn't when she walked in.

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