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Perish Twice

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Tony wakes up because the bed is shaking.

His first thought is: I wasn't even dreaming.

His second is: Earthquake.

His third is: New York, your Malibu house is gone, no earthquakes in New York, aliens robots terrorists robot-terrorist-aliens no arc where's the arc Pepper oh god where's Pepper?

He opens his eyes. The bedroom is lit, dimly, from the city lights bleeding through the curtains and from cool blue light from hidden sconces in the walls. It's not a nightlight, Jarvis, he'd said to his snarking, but Tony would never get used to sleeping in the dark again.

Pepper is beside him. The sheets are tangled on her side, and her eyes are still screwed shut. She's the one shaking, violently now, though all her muscles are locked tight and her arms are rigid against her sides. She makes no noise, biting her lip—self contained even in her nightmares. Tony stares at her; he's had some experience with nightmares, but they're usually his own.

He doesn't want to shake her awake—though at least she won't summon weaponized robots if startled (he tries not to think about scorched sheets and orange light)—so he slides gentle hands down her arms. She's warm under his cool hands but not Extremis-warm, the weapon in her veins quiescent now, controlled. Half-awake, and she chokes back something that might be a sob, and Tony's heart feels like it might break.

“Pepper,” he says, and she gasps awake, breathing hard like she'd been running, like she'd been falling. Her eyes are wide, startled, he sees a glint of orange before she tamps it down firmly.

“Where—?”

“The tower penthouse, New York City, February third,” he says glibly. They're both getting better at this. Pepper takes a deep breath.

“I'm okay,” she says, pressing a hand to her eyes. She sounds like she's talking to herself, not Tony. “I'm okay.”

She's quiet for long moments after and Tony thinks she might've fallen back asleep, which makes him strangely useless, but then she says suddenly, “What do you dream about?”

Two months ago, that question would have sent Tony into The Bad Places, but he's been doing good now, he's even been to a therapy session, maybe, once. For a little while. Totally counted.

“Space,” he says, though it doesn't seem to encompass that black vastness, the dead, dead coldness, the flashbang of bright light from the explosion chased by darkness as his systems failed. Pepper seems to understand, though, because she's moving; stiffly like she's just remembered she could, to lie with her face in the crook of his neck. Her hair is a little sweat-damp but still smells like her shampoo, unidentifiable and familiar. She traces around the flat pink scar where his arc reactor used to be.

“Is it beautiful?” she asks, and he feels that sudden spark of being understood, mixed with guilt, warm and a little painful. It's been happening a lot, ever since she'd fallen into fire and come back fighting.

“Yeah,” he says. “I should take you sometime. In the suit. Maybe without alien spaceships this time, though.” She snorts into his chest, and he strokes her hair.

He's not used to being the one that's currently slightly-less-screwed-up, but he's learning how to put someone else back together. He's not sure how to say it to her—to be honest, he's terrified of trying, because there is no Hallmark card for 'you've been tortured, subjected to unwanted scientific enhancements, and had a near-death experience and I've never felt so well-understood in my life'.

She dreams about heat and he dreams of coldness, and maybe the world doesn't end either way, and maybe they'll put each other back together.

When they fall back asleep, they don't wake until morning.