October 27, 2016
Pepper sat straight up in bed, heart racing, staring at the involuntary radiance of her body under a thin sheet and wondering what had woken her. The glow from the City bounced off the ocean, casting a dim greenish light through the wall of windows in the master bedroom. For a moment, she gripped the tablet she had been reading before she fell asleep and wondered if Tony was in trouble.
“Ms. Potts,” Friday’s voice was soft and without the tension she associated with Tony having blown up another City. Or himself. “I am sorry to disturb you, but Miss Aguilar is in mild distress. Her breathing is above normal resting rate and her expression is…I believe she may be suffering a nightmare.”
Pepper was halfway out the door before Friday had finished. Taking care of Maria over the past two weeks had quickly ranked in the top three most rewarding and frustrating things Pepper had ever done, alongside working for Tony and loving Tony. The girl was tough; she had been passed around from relatives and foster families for as long as she could remember, but she still had a sense of humor and a passion for things she enjoyed. That wasn’t to say that everything had been easy. They had gotten into a horrible argument her second day at the house when Friday alerted Pepper that Maria had stashed peanut butter and crackers under her bed. Things had escalated quickly and Pepper had been near tears – Maria packing her one bag and threatening to run away – when Friday called Darcy.
It turned out that many foster children hoarded food. Maria had been particularly worried when she realized there was very little in the Malibu house aside from fancy cheese, olives, and plain yogurt. Pepper had planned to sit down with the girl and order groceries, but she hadn’t told Maria that and the girl assumed she would be on her own for meals. Once the misunderstanding was resolved, a massive food order delivered, and Maria in bed with a stomach full of free-range chicken breasts and processed macaroni and cheese (a compromise) Pepper had done in-depth research. She learned not to touch Maria’s worn backpack and small, sorry-looking suitcase, and for the new clothes she ordered the girl she also purchased a second bag – with Maria’s name stitched on it so that she would know she could take it with her. Pepper rode with Maria every morning to her school even though it was forty minutes out of her way, where Happy dropped her off with the oldest car in the SI pool so no one would think Maria had anything worth bothering her over. Pepper also set up a non-negotiable routine that had her staff speechless.
Happy picked up Maria after school and she usually ate a snack with him on the way home. Once there, she had to start her homework. Friday would verify that it was finished before any media would play in the house. Pepper left the office promptly at four-thirty to beat traffic and arrived home by five-thirty – meaning Maria was only on her own for an hour and a half. And Friday was always available in case of emergencies. They made dinner together. Despite her lifestyle as the CEO of an international company and Tony Stark’s girlfriend, Pepper had grown up with family meals and she knew how to make spaghetti like anyone else. After dinner Maria would load the dishwasher and then was allowed to watch tv or use any of the gaming consoles – but she had quickly established a preference for tinkering in Tony’s workshop. Friday had the more dangerous half-finished projects locked down and Darcy vouched that Maria knew what she was doing, so Pepper worked until it was time for Maria to get ready for bed. Then after bedtime it was more work for Pepper until she fell asleep and things started all over again.
She had never been so exhausted in her life. Considering she had been the subject of illegal human experimentation, that was quite a feat.
Pepper’s fatigue was completely forgotten as she raced to the other side of the house and into Maria’s room. Friday brought the lights up to thirty percent and Pepper could see what had the AI so concerned. Maria was curled into a ball at the very edge of her bed, whimpering. Sweat made her dark curls stick to her forehead and neck, and the t-shirt she slept in was twisted around her torso and damp.
“Maria,” she called softly. When the girl didn’t stir Pepper knelt by the bed and pressed her palms gently against her shoulders. “Maria, sweetie, it’s okay. It’s just a dream.” Her arms were cold and clammy. Without thinking Pepper sent a little heat into her fingers and rubbed them slowly across Maria’s skin. “Wake up, Maria. You’re okay.”
Maria tensed, freezing in place. Her breath evened out into an obviously forced pattern and her eyes remained closed. Pepper wasn’t sure what to do. “Maria? Honey…it’s Pepper. You were having a bad dream. Are you okay now?” Her muscles relaxed just as suddenly as they had tensed and she opened her eyes slowly.
“Hey there.” Pepper smiled, trying to think of something else to say. Maria was ten – too old to want to cuddle even if life hadn’t hardened her against showing that kind of weakness, but she was shaking a little. Pepper also worried about the instinct to pretend she was still asleep. She didn’t know what experiences would make a little girl afraid to acknowledge when someone woke her, and Pepper wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
Maria’s eyes were dark and wide, her face a little gray and shiny with sweat. Tears collected at her lashes and that was when Pepper got truly concerned. Chin trembling a little, she whispered, “I think I wet the bed.”
Pepper blinked. That was not what she had been expecting. And yet, she had an unfortunate amount of experience with people who ruined their bedding. Although it was usually vomit. “Well…I think I can find some clean sheets if you want to rinse off in the shower. Do you want help getting untangled?” Maria nodded, her head down as if she was embarrassed after admitting to the accident. Pepper asked Friday to warm up the water while she unwound the sheet and blanket. Maria practically ran for the bathroom, so Pepper collected one of the new pajama sets from the dresser and set them just inside on the tile floor. In less than twenty minutes Maria was back in bed, warm and dry, and Pepper hesitated to leave. The girl looked nervous, whether from the dream or worry she would be punished for the sheets, Pepper couldn’t tell.
“You know…” she began, and then hesitated, hoping she was going forward the right way. “You know, this house was destroyed once.”
“’Cause your boyfriend is Iron Man,” Maria said softly.
“Yeah,” Pepper smiled slightly and leaned against the arm of an overstuffed reading chair. “That, and because he’s an idiot who told the bad guy where to find him.”
“He needs to watch more Batman. Batman never tells anybody where the batcave is.”
“That would certainly save us a lot in construction fees,” Pepper mused. She took another deep breath, noting how Maria had lost her usual bold voice and brazen body language. “A lot of people know Tony is Iron Man and that our house was blown up.”
“He’s on the news a lot. His beard is kind of stupid.”
Pepper snorted. “But not a lot of people, in fact only five people – six including you now, know that I was here when that happened.” She had Maria’s full attention. From the depths of several massive pillows, dark brown eyes stared out from a pale face. Pepper sat down on the arm of the chair. “I was so scared, because Tony was here too, and the roof was coming down, and the ground was shaking. I thought we were going to die.”
“But you didn’t.”
“We didn’t,” she confirmed. “Tony made his Iron Man suit protect me, and then once I was outside, it went back to him and kept him safe. Later, when I came back here, I thought I would never be able to live here again. Tony rebuilt the house, because he can’t stand to just leave things alone, but I lived in New York with him for a long time because I didn’t even want to see this place. It reminded me of that feeling, that moment when I thought we wouldn’t make it.”
“But you don’t think about that anymore?”
“Oh, no. I still think about that sometimes. And other things, scary things, that have happened since then. I wake up in the middle of the night, and sometimes I feel like the floor is moving, and that the house is being attacked again. And Tony thinks about it too. He calls me sometimes – or has Friday spy on me – when he wakes up with a bad dream and worries I might be hurt.”
“Iron Man has nightmares?” Maria looked skeptical. She pulled the blanket up closer to her neck, squirming down a little into the bed as she listened.
“Oh yeah. And it would be more worrying if he didn’t. Tony has seen a lot of scary things, he’s done a lot of scary things-”
“Like fly into space.”
“God,” Pepper whispered, closing her eyes. Here she was trying to comfort Maria and she could barely stand to think about the Battle of New York. “Yeah,” she breathed out shakily, “like fly into space. Or fight an evil robot, or save a floating city, or punch Thor, or-”
“He punched Thor?”
Pepper smiled and slid into the chair, picking up her tablet where she had left it and holding it in her lap; she used it to keep her hands still. “But do you know what the scariest thing is for Tony? And you can’t tell anyone because it would make him really sad and embarrassed. The scariest thing for him is doing the right thing. That was really important to his dad, and when he was a kid, his dad was killed because some bad people didn’t want him to do good. And so Tony worries about that all the time. Worries about bad people like the ones who killed his parents, worries how to stop them, worries how to find them and protect everyone else. He has trouble going to sleep sometimes, thinking about all of that.
“I don’t remember my mom or dad.” Maria’s voice was quiet, but no longer shaking. “I remember living with my half-sister – Kara. She always had a lot of juice boxes. But then she went to prison – I don’t really remember that, and I lived with our cousin for a while. Then there were some other people, and a big home with lots of kids, and then my first foster family.” They were both silent for a few moments. “My parents died in a car accident. That’s pretty bad, even if I don’t remember it. But I think it would be worse if I had known them. And if someone did it on purpose, instead of just being drunk…” There was a longer pause, and Pepper had to grind her teeth to not object. To not insist that having your parents killed by a drunk driver was bad. It was awful and no one should ever have to deal with it. Certainly no child should think it was normal to shrug that off because – it could have been worse. “I don’t ever dream about them.”
Friday had dimmed the lights lower, but there was still enough to see Maria smoothing out the blanket. She looked small. Defenseless. Her sarcasm and adult vocabulary stripped away in the wake of her fears. The darkness made the house seem close and silent, and Maria must have felt it too because she spoke in a near whisper, “Do you dream about stuff? Scary stuff?”
“Sometimes. Like the house being blown up. Or Tony flying into space. Before Tony became Iron Man, I used to dream that I was late for a meeting, but I didn’t know I was supposed to be there, so I was still in my pajamas and I had all the wrong files for the meeting.”
“Why would you go to work in your pjs? Even if you were late?”
Pepper chuckled. “I have no idea, but it always seemed so real. I’d wake up sweating and my heart pounding. Once I dreamed that Tony had hidden all of my clothes and shoes – to be funny – and so I had to go to the meeting in one of his Iron Man suits. When I woke up I was still so mad I pinched him so he couldn’t sleep either.”
Maria giggled. It was the sweetest, most childlike sound Pepper had ever heard from the girl who worked so hard to be independent. To be brave and uncaring and invulnerable. Her chest was tight and her heart twisted in a pleasantly uncomfortable way. Pepper decided right in that moment that she would do everything in her power to hear it again.