Moments After

She comes to a stop halfway down the stairs, stands there, hands clutching the railing, eyes staring sightlessly into the night-blurred passage ahead. Her hands still tremble a bit – a fine residual tremor brought on by the unexpected spike in adrenalin from having been manhandled by a goddamn machine. But the almost painfully loud, rabbity rhythm of her heart has now simmered down to a much calmer cadence, and the irrational, fear-born anger from before was gone as well, having seemingly bled out of her along with the panic. She feels simply tired now, yearning for the peaceful release of sleep she had been so unceremoniously pulled from not ten minutes prior. And that tranquility is just within her reach, too. All she has to do is walk down the remaining few steps, settle on the more than comfortable couch there and just… sleep. With no more interruptions, no more crazy suits that threaten her bodily harm as she tries to pull their creator out of a goddamn nightmare…!

She blinks, shakes her head, feeling some of her anger return. Because this is ridiculous, this whole arrangement they got going. Because how is she expected to share her life with him, to share his bed, for crying out loud, when she has to worry about one of his machines getting triggered into strangling her in the middle of the night. How is any of this supposed to work?

It isn't, a small angry voice inside her echoes and she nods in grim agreement, lets go of the railing, moving to resume her descent…

And stops as the memory of Tony's broken, breathless plea for her to stay rings unbidden in her ears.

She hadn't really registered it at the time, hadn't really listened to any of his gasped out, jumbled words. She didn't want to. Was too angry, too unnerved, her heart pounding too loud in her ears for her to focus on anything else. But now… Now that she's had a chance to calm down... Now that she can reflect with a bit more levelheadedness on the past few minutes….

She's mortified.

She left him. She… left him.

After he opened up to her about his fears. After he confessed to her that he couldn't sleep and told her all the reasons why. After she convinced him to rest beside her, promising him that she would watch over him. After he allowed himself to relax, lulled by her presence, only to be pulled into another vicious nightmare – so vividly terrifying, apparently, that he subconsciously called on his armor to save him. After he begged her, begged her not to leave him alone…

Oh god…

She wobbles suddenly, her knees growing weak, and she grabs convulsively for the support of the railing, her free hand clamped over her mouth in shock.

Oh god, what have I done

She doesn't remember running back up the stairs, her feet moving on their own accord. Doesn't notice the decided tremble in her hands as she reaches for the door (her fear now of a completely different nature). She needs him to be okay is all she can think as she pushes the door open. Please, please, please, be okay.

The room is just as she left it – the rumpled sheets, bathed in the faint amber glow of the nightlights; the pieces of the Iron Man armor strewn in a haphazard heap on the floor at the foot of the bed – the oddly oppressive, fragmented canvas of a night terror she was unwittingly privy to. She shudders at the sudden, pervasive chill that drifts over her as she watches the broken suit pieces – a ghostly touch that seems to flow right through her, its icy fingers clenching briefly around her heart. And she feels an irrational stab of fear, as if some remnant from Tony's nightmare has somehow pierced the fabric between dream and reality and stayed behind, poised to wreak havoc on the world of the living.

She presses her lips together, swallows down an urge to turn back around and follow through with her original plan. Squares her shoulders, taking a slow but determined step toward the bed, toward the impossibly small figure huddled by the headboard there.

He doesn't see her, his head hanging low, face hidden behind the folded arcs of his arms that are elbowed on his drawn up knees. He sits perfectly still in the surrounding gloom, his black clothes blending him in with the creeping shadows. But she can hear the telltale hitch in his breathing in the overwhelming quiet of the room, can see the way his bare shoulders shake with silent sobs.

She hesitates no longer.

"Tony," she calls out softly, crossing the distance between them. "Tony."

She reaches out, hesitant because he still has not acknowledged her presence. Places her hand on the too-too cold, trembling shoulder, and gasps as he startles violently at her touch, dark head jerking up toward her.

"Pep?" he whispers, unsure, voice shredded by the strain of holding back a dam's worth of emotions that seep through the ever-widening cracks even as she watches him. Wide eyes, nearly black with poorly concealed anguish and fear, stare up at her from a sheet-pale face as if trying to ascertain if she's real or a figment of his nightmare-wrought imagination.

She grips his shoulder harder then, lays her other hand against his tear-stained cheek, her own eyes filling as he flinches against her skin, his face crumpling into a mask of shame and self-loathing.

"Honey, I'm sorry," he rasps, desperate hands reaching beseechingly toward her, the movement aborted before his fingers make contact, hands falling limply down onto the sheets. Swallows convulsively, wavering between hesitation and an intense, desperate need. "I'm so sorry, I–"

"Shhh." She presses a finger against his lips, muting the rest of the needless apology. "I'm here now." She steps flush toward him, cups the back of his head, gently pulling him in. Sucks in a surprised breath as his arms wrap around her in turn, his grip bruising in its desperation. Hugs him closer still, tilts her head to plant a gentle kiss into the tangled sweat-damp locks. "I'm here," she whispers again and smiles as she feels him release a shaky breath, relaxing minutely against her.

And I'm not going anywhere is left unsaid.

FIN