Howard Anthony Stark was a man who kept his promises.
He’d been raised to do so, and knew from hard experience that the consequences of NOT keeping pledges were often worse than failing to make them. His cautious nature insured that he made very few in his lifetime, but those he did, he kept.
And yet this one, this one was troubling to his very soul.
Maria smiled at him, her eyes luminous with love, long dark curls shining in the moonlight, and in that moment, Howard’s trepidation lessened. So what if the pledge seemed based on future events not yet determined? No one could know what lay ahead, and making a promise based on the airy unforeseen in exchange for true and beautiful happiness in this moment seemed . . . a bargain.
“Yes,” Howard murmured. The word hung in the still air of the night, taking on weight and solemnity, until the echo of it seemed to vibrate through the fiber of each leaf; the solid grain of every stone.
In the glade, bright eyes glowed all around, and the company nodded as one, well-satisfied with the arrangement. At that moment, moonlight, cool and silvery, spilled through the canopy of trees, lighting Howard and Maria as they stood on either side of the glittering stream, their hands clasped over it.
“The pledge is made; the promise sealed over water and under moon,” a deep voice intoned. “Let what is bound here stand until the time of Union comes again. So be it.”
Tony scowled, trying to work a section of wire through a series of tiny loops prior to welding it in place. Normally this sort of manual dexterity was a piece of cake for him, but at the moment, his usual skill was lacking.
“You’re in my light, Potts,” he growled, using the convenient excuse.
“You’re coming off of your caffeine high and about ready to crash,” she replied calmly. “That does tend to leave you less than on the cutting edge, Mr. Stark.”
He shot her an irritated glare and tried to ignore the seven empty mugs sitting around the table. “Caffeine doesn’t affect me.”
“Just your fine motor skills,” Pepper quipped gently. “Tony, please, just go take a twenty minute rest and you’ll be back to your usual quicksilver self, all right? That will give me time to clean up the dishes and scrape up the crumbs.”
“I’m only doing this because you said ‘please,’” came his grumbly sigh. Tony set down the micro-welding tools, switched the power off and ambled away from the table, stretching. The various creaks and pops of tendons and joints sounded loud in the workshop, and he caught the faint smirk Pepper tried to hide when he turned on her. “It’s nothing. Just a little stiff.”
“You sound like a bowl of cereal. Go lie down,” came her soft order. “Please.”
“I still have the speed and dexterity of a panther, Potts. Don’t forget it—”
“I’m trembling in fear,” she assured him. “Twenty minutes, eyes closed.”
Tony trudged up the stairs and she watched him go, feeling an empathetic ache in her own shoulders. How long had it been since she’d allowed herself a full stretch? Too long, Pepper chided herself, and mentally scheduled a nice quiet flexing session at home behind closed curtains.
She turned and looked at the worktable, sighing at the sight of sticky plates with half-eaten sandwiches, cold mugs with just enough coffee in them to be spill hazards, crumpled napkins, condiments now crusting over on various surfaces and strewn through it all tools, wires, bits of tape, notes and design schematics.
A typical Tony table, Pepper mused as she began to stack plates. From across the room, she concentrated on running the water over in the sink and let it warm up before focusing on the plug, which bounced into the bottom of the basin and nestled into the drain.
When it was ready, Pepper carried over the plates and cups, adding them to the rising water, and reached for the soap. One good squeeze and she let it froth. On impulse, she made a circle of her index finger and thumb, and dipped it into the water. Lifting it, she blew in the center, creating a perfect soap bubble.
She pointed at it, and the soap bubble rose higher, dancing upwards, bouncing along in the air. Pepper stared at it, and the bubble changed shape, moving from a ball into a triangle, and quivering for a moment before popping audibly.
Upstairs, Tony stretched out on his bed and took a deep breath, grateful that he let Pepper boss him around periodically. It DID feel good to lie down, and he closed his eyes, willing to humor Pepper, who would probably check on him within a few minutes anyway. It wasn’t as if he was actually going . . .
to . . .
He saw the place clearly, and the perfect detail and definition startled him. This was the Start; where all his dreams began, ever since he was a toddler old enough to describe his night fancies to his mother.
Any night he dreamed, he always began here; sometimes only in the briefest flash, but still, it was the doorway.
Tony walked through it, still intrigued by the degree of detail in this tiny anchor point in his mind. He could smell the cool leafy scent of the forest, and hear the bubble splash of the water along the brook, soothing and somehow compelling too.
Details, always rich, always vivid.
He took a breath and waited on the far side of the water, knowing that if the dream was going to change this would be when and where it would happen. The process was like waiting for a ride, and Tony relaxed, listening to the gurgle of the water. The stuff here always had sort of a musical quality, and when he was younger, he swore the fish in it watched him.
The shift came; a flash of color and Tony braced himself for whatever amusing, terrifying and or interesting shit his mind wanted to set up for him tonight. Would it be some insight of creative genius? Would it be some jumble of quest and chase? Would it be a sensual adventure?
He hoped for the latter; Tony knew he was overdue for some mental compensation for his self-imposed celibacy of late, and erotica here on the astral plane was always mind-blowingly good. Not that he remembered the faces or names of this dream partners, but ahhh the release, that’s what it was all about.
A familiar setting: his office. Tony looked around feeling slightly disappointed, but in the next moment, the door opened, and a heavyset man stepped in. A sense of panic hit as the man glared at him, letting Tony get a good long look.
Burly, beefy, large—they all seemed inadequate adjectives to describe the general build of the behemoth who lumbered up to the desk. He seemed more like a living slab of rock; a flesh iceberg in a leather vest and jeans. Tony noted the Fu Manchu mustache and the thick eyebrows; the un-amused scowl and gold hoop earrings on either side of a bald, bullet head.
The monster managed a cynical smile, and rumbled, “Enough screwing around, Stark—time to make good and join in the bond of matrimony. Start considering what you want in a Life Mate, and get your trewsoo ready, Princeling. Oh, and just so you understand this is serious?”
The hulk came closer, leaned over the desk, and lightly slapped Tony’s face. Tony and chair skidded sideways behind the desk, crashing into the wall. He crumpled to the carpet and awoke—
--with a jolt.
He was still on the mattress; given the realistic feel of the blow Tony expected to wake up on the floor having fallen off the bed, but that wasn’t the case.
Still, his jaw ached and he moved to rub it gingerly, wincing at the pain. Dream or not, that love tap had hurt. He blinked again because Pepper was hovering over him now, blue eyes big with concern. “Tony?”
“You know that slugging your boss in the middle of his naptime is a fire-able offense, right, Potts?” he mumbled, working his jaw back and forth.
She blinked, and tried to smile, but then reached down and turned his head to the right; her fingers lightly touched his left cheek and Pepper’s lips tightened in concern. “I have an alibi, Mr. ‘Never washed a dish in my life’ Stark. Who hit you?”
“Funny you should ask,” Tony grunted, swinging his feet over the edge of the bed and sitting up. “Big bald guy with a handlebar mustache and hands like V8 engines. What the hell is a trewso, by the way?”
“A what?” Pepper asked, but Jarvis broke in softly from overhead.
“A trousseau is traditionally the household goods and linens of a bride’s dowry; in contemporary times it refers to a bride’s personal wardrobe with an accent on the lingerie.”
“Lovely,” Tony rolled his eyes. “I’m dreaming of bikers who want to marry me and then beat me up—Jarvis, scan and neutralize any toxic fumes in the workshop area, okay? I’m a scared little princeling now.”
Pepper paused as she brought a wet washcloth from the master bathroom and gave him an odd look. “Did you just call yourself a . . . princeling?”
“Eh,” Tony shrugged, “That’s what my biker boyfriend called me, right before his smack of affection there.” He reached across his chest to scratch his shoulder. “Dreams never make any sense. Don’t you have weird dreams, Potts?”
Pepper hesitated a fraction of a second too long; Tony shot her an inquisitive look and she cleared her throat. “I have flying dreams.”
And she did, although in her case, most were treasured memories.
Tony managed a brief smile. “Flying is the bomb, Pepper. Give me the word and I’ll whip you up a Suit; you can make those dreams a reality you know.”
“Thank you, but I’m not sure I can justify an armored Suit as part of my working wardrobe,” she murmured with a sweet smile. The man was generous, and had she expressed ANY interest, Pepper knew Tony would make it without the least hesitation.
“Who knows; it might improve efficiency!” he enthused. “Think of it—you could accompany me on missions and feed me my daily briefing!”
“There’s multi-tasking and then there’s suicide, Tony,” Pepper replied, lightly dabbing his face with the folded damp cloth. “I’d rather not distract you in life-or-death situations if that’s all right with you.”
“Are you implying I can’t handle it?” he teased back, arching an eyebrow at her. Pepper smirked back.
“I’m suggesting that I’m very happy to stay here and out of the line of fire, sir. And you need to stop dreaming about bruisers with earrings out to bitchslap you. Let me get you some Cock-a-leekie soup and crackers; you need more on your stomach than stale Oreos.”
Tony took the wet washcloth from her and watched her go, frowning a little; he didn’t remember mentioning the gold earrings.