Obadiah had tried to tell the world that part of Tony Stark had never really returned from Afghanistan. Granted, in saying that, he’d been trying to get Tony locked out of his own company and weasel his way into warlord territory, but still. As much as Pepper didn’t want to admit it, he’d been right.
Tony didn’t sleep. And not just the usual ‘camping out in the workshop for 36 hours and forgetting to eat’ kind of thing. This was more of a ‘chronic insomnia and night terrors’ kind of thing.
He’d never given much thought to bad memories in the past; he was used to pushing his away and not dealing with them. But these memories were bigger and badder and much harder to ignore.
It was the little memories that got to him the most- how they crept into everyday life and wormed their way into whatever sense of normalcy he was trying to craft for himself in the aftermath of Afghanistan-
How heavy those jumper cables had been, connected to his chest and the car battery.
How the NG tube had rubbed his throat so raw and swollen he’d thought he was choking when he first opened his eyes.
How damned cold those caves had been, despite being in the middle of a desert in the Middle East.
How fists pounding on doors echoed in his skull.
How that blinking red light in the corner of his peripheral vision reminded him that he was always, constantly being watched.
Reminders of those little moments would creep up on him when he was least expecting it- blur his vision and suck air from his lungs and make him forget how to breathe. It could be something as simple as DUM-E dropping a wrench, and there he was, back in that goddamned cave.
The big moments hit him most often at night, when the lights were out and creeping shadows morphed into Yinsen’s bloody body slumped on the floor or Raza waiting in the shadows. Attempts at sleeping brought flashbacks and night terrors, ones that left Tony shaking and panting and covered in a sheen of sweat that made him shiver.
So instead he just didn’t sleep. He worked in the lab until he was so drained he passed out on the couch and had JARVIS wake him up in 20 minute intervals to make sure he never made it into REM territory.
“Sir, this current sleeping pattern is extremely unhealthy. I would recommend at least a few hours at a time and not working to the point of exhaustion.”
At this point, Tony would mute JARVIS until his next alarm went off.
Pepper walked in on one of these relay style nap sessions early one morning. She rapped on the glass outside the lab before rolling her eyes and punching in her code.
At the sound of the door opening, Tony shot upright and gasped awake, throwing off the blanket he’d draped across his legs. “Jesus, Pepper- a little warning might be nice!”
“I knocked.” Pepper frowned and took a sip of her coffee.
Tony swung his feet onto the floor and rubbed his eyes with the palms of both hands, running fingers through his sweaty hair. He absentmindedly raised a hand to clutch the bottom of the arc reactor as he attempted to breathe his way back to the present.
“Tony, are you okay? Because you most certainly do not look okay? JARVIS, how has Tony been sleeping?”
“Sir has slept for 98 minutes in the past 48 hours, never for more than 13 at a time.”
“Can it, J, or I’m donating you and DUM-E to city college.” The AI didn’t respond.
“Tony.” Pepper sighed and set down her coffee to rub at a headache blossoming between her eyes. “I shouldn’t need to explain to you why this is a bad idea.”
“Why? I’ve made a lot of progress on the suit and I’ve made some much-needed upgrades to the arc reactor. Gotta keep this thing going.” Tony tapped a spot on his chest next to the reactor, where his heart was kept beating millimeters away from fatal shrapnel.
“You’ve also gotta keep this thing going.” Pepper reached to tap Tony’s head, but he ducked out of her grasp and took a large slurp of her coffee. “Honestly?”
He nodded and took another gulp. “I must have super soldier metabolism or something; caffeine barely does anything for me anymore.”
“You know what would do something for you? Sleep. And food. And hygiene.” Pepper wrinkled her nose. “You know what? I refuse to do this today. You have meetings to deal with, things to sign, Rhodey needs you for a press conference, and a few engineers from R & D are upstairs with some plans for the factory arc reactor. Give me this.” She snatched her coffee cup out of Tony’s grasp, stalked across the room, and dumped it down the sink.
“Oh, and JARVIS?” She snapped.
“Yes, Miss Potts?”
“Try to keep Tony from self-destructing while I handle an art auction today.”
Pepper slapped a file of unsigned documents marked ‘Urgent’ next to a disassembled engine on Tony’s workbench and stalked out of the lab. He waited for the echo of her high heels to disappear up the stairs before he said, “DUM-E, brew another pot of coffee. JARVIS, bring up the Mark II specs.”
“Right away, sir.”
During the Ivan Vanko and associated palladium disaster, both Rhodey and Pepper had tried to force Tony to slow down. He was tired, and they could tell. But almost dying does that to a guy.
They didn’t understand that dying wasn’t something that one sat back and quietly watched; it was a challenge- a race (not unlike the one in which he had first met Vanko). High speed. Breathless. Terrifying. Unlikely to result in a happy ending.
Having that ticking time bomb inside him, that reminder every time he stuck his finger, was like a promise Tony made to himself. ‘If I can’t engineer my way out of this one, I’m damn well going to make sure that I have a good time on the way down.’ There were so many things he still wanted to do, and the fact that he wouldn’t get the chance to make it to the end of that list made him feel sicker than the palladium near his heart, which was really saying something. Starks did not tolerate missed opportunities.
“Tony, can you at least please try and pretend to be a responsible adult for once in your life?” Pepper was full-on screaming at this point, red creeping up her neck and chest and blossoming across her cheeks. “I almost watched you die today at the hands of that, that- maniac!”
“Let’s be honest, Pep- that was not the dumbest thing you’ve watched me do.” Tony clicked the armor suitcase shut and tugged off the charred remains of his racing gloves. He was glad he’d foregone the neck brace typically worn by racecar drivers, or else he would have had a hell of a time getting the helmet on.
“No, but it was certainly up there! I prefer not to have to rick my life at every fundraiser we attend together!”
“Happy was there- so was the suit. When those two things are together, nothing can get either one of us.”
“You’re luck is going to run out one day, Tony. I just hope I’m not there to watch.”
Instead of patching himself up and letting Pepper talk him into dinner and a night in front of mindless TV, he shrugged her off and left her tapping through emails on her StarkPad. He retired to the workshop, where he set about repairing the Mark II armor and trying not to think about how Vanko had gotten his hands on the technology to build his own arc reactor in the middle of bumfuck nowhere.
It was his fault; it had to be. No-one had control of that technology besides him, and Tony’s actions alone were responsible for it showing up across the world.
So far, failed attempts at recreating his armor. But today, in Spain. Today had been the world’s second success. He had been the first, of course, but this one was arguably far more dangerous. Tony had many flaws, but he was not a delusional mass murderer. He had that going for him, at least.
A news reel played gently in the background, commentary dull amidst the thundering of his lab playlist. But it was there nonetheless, flashes of exploding cars and Vanko’s whips crashing through civilians.
‘If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in him.’
‘All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.’
‘There will be blood in the water and sharks will come.’
Ivan was loud. Crashing cars were loud. Explosions were loud. Screaming civilians were loud. Pepper and Happy screaming in that car were louder still. But the voice in Tony’s head was loudest of them all- thundering around inside his skull until he was sure the headache associated with it was going to fracture his skull or rupture his eardrums. Or both.
This was Tony’s fault. He should have been more responsible with the arc reactor technology, should have held his armor closer and kept it under heavier lock and key. Everything that happened at Monaco today- that was his fault. Everyone who died- they were his responsibility.
He could have done something. If he’d had the armor with him in the car. If he’d used his brain for half a second and not driven the car at all. He could have responded quicker. He could have kept Pepper much farther from harm’s way.
“Tony, look at me.”
He could have been more, done more. Vanko’s whips had killed a lot of people today, but the blood was on Tony’s hands.
Someone was crouched on the ground in front of him, prying a screwdriver from his white-knuckled grip. Wait, why was he on the ground? He’d been sitting at his desk just a minute ago.
The AI switched off both the music and the TV, and Tony’s eyes were able to focus long enough to realize that Pepper was the one on the floor with him, worry wearing her skin pale and thin.
“Tony? You with me?” Her tone was gentle and soothing as she reached out to smooth his sweaty hair, tuck a few strands behind his ear.
“What? Y-yeah, I, I’m good.” He scrubbed his face with his hands and tried to forcibly push the intrusive thoughts out of his skull. He’d learned after Afghanistan that that most certainly didn’t work, but it was worth a shot. Anything to get his brain to quiet the fuck down. He couldn’t concentrate when everything was so loud.
“Tony, what was that?”
His hand instinctively strayed up to the arc reactor, where he thumbed the bottom of the metal. Could it be the core? No, he’d just swapped it out yesterday. He knew the palladium was getting to him, but not like this. This was something different.
“Nothing. Nothing, Pep- I’m fine.”
“Cut the bullshit, Tony.” She rocked back onto the heels of her feet and crossed her arms. “Give me a little credit; I’m not that stupid.”
“No. No, I know that. Pepper, you’re, uh, very smart. Why do you think I gave you an entire company?” It had, in fact, been another panic attack, but Tony wasn't about to tell Pepper that. He scooted back from her so his back was pressed up against the cool metal of his workbench. His eyes flashed to the TV screen across the room, which was still off. Pepper followed his gaze and sighed.
“Don’t pay any attention to that stuff, Tony. You know it doesn’t mean anything.”
“But it does! It means everything, Pepper, because it’s all my fault!”
“What are you talking about? You’re not here one who invited Whiplash to Monaco.”
“Maybe not, but I might as well of! He had one of these!” Tony tapped his arc reactor through his T-shirt. “He had a piece of me! And he turned it into- into my worst nightmare!” He stood up and used one hand to steady himself against the desk, wishing his chest would stop aching and remember how to breathe at least semi-normally.
“H-he took my tech and he turned it into a weapon of mass destruction! I might as well have signed my name on the blueprints, Pep!” He slammed a fist down on the workbench, making all his stray tools jump and a few clang to the floor. Pepper flinched as a wrench bounced a few inches from her head. “Shit, sorry. God, I-“
“Tony, stop. Just stop talking. Can you do that for like, a minute and a half?” She extended an arm, and Tony helped her up off the floor, resting a hand on her waist to steady her as she regained her balance on three-inch heels. “Come here.”
She gathered his head in her hands and pulled him close to her chest. Tony stiffened at first before allowing himself to be pulled close to her, close enough to smell her French perfume (perfume he’d probably bought her). She kneaded gentle fingers into the back of his neck, digging into knots of anxiety bubbling up in his muscles that nearly made him groan.
“Breathe,” she whispered. “This was not your fault. Sure, his designs were based on yours, but generic Poptarts aren’t nearly as good as the original, are they?”
“This is so much bigger than breakfast pastries, Pep.”
“It was just a metaphor.” She sighed before gently lifting Tony’s chin to force him to look into her eyes. “You did not do that.” She gestured blindly at the TV. “You did, however, do this.” She pointed at his arc reactor and the armor lining the walls of the workshop in their glass cases. “You gave the world a gift, Tony. It’s not your fault it doesn’t entirely know how to handle it yet.”
“I should have kept it to myself if the world wasn’t ready yet.”
“If you had, who knows how many more people would have died today? How many more people would have died at the hands of the Ten Rings? And Obadiah? You need to get out of that head of yours, Tony. It’s a brilliant place but it’s also tearing you apart.”
He nodded. “I’m too tired to even attempt to argue with you right now.”
“That can’t be a good sign. JARVIS, how much sleep has Tony gotten this week?”
“Sir has slept a total of –”
“If the answer ends in ‘minutes’ instead of ‘hours,’ I don’t want to know.”
The AI remained silent.
“I want to stop thinking, Pepper. It’s all too loud. I can-I can’t breathe these days. Everything is too much.”
“I know. Come on, let’s go to bed.” Pepper steered Tony towards the door. “I won’t let anyone get to you tonight, I promise.”