The benefit wasn't his usual scene, but he was bored, and rangy, and feeling uncharacteristically dissatisfied with himself. He couldn't figure out why, exactly: Rhodey and Obadiah were irritated with him, sure, but they'd come around eventually. They always did. Things were going great with the flight suit—for the first time since he'd come home, it seemed like his life finally was back on track. He wasn't quite sure what to do about this growing sense of malaise, this feeling that he was missing something.
In the end, he'd reverted to type—dissolute playboy billionaire—and decided that what he needed most was a fast drive down a long stretch of open road, then a prohibitively large amount of some type of recreational substance, followed by dirty, sweaty sex with at least half a dozen women, either consecutively or concurrently.
So it was with this predatory mindset that he sleazed his way across the ballroom to the bar, set himself up with a drink, and began to assess the various opportunities in the room. He was in mid-prowl when the ubiquitous Agent Coulson started nagging him about a debriefing…
And then he spotted her.
She was a strawberry blonde with a stunning figure, and her flawless skin had the delicate blush of a Georgia peach. Even from this awkward angle, he could see that worlds of promise lay in the smooth expanse of her bare back and the sultry curve of her pert little backside. Her dress was the blue of the ocean, and she wore it with a casual elegance that bordered on the sublime, inviting him to dive right in. He imagined lifting her hair and kissing the nape of her neck, sliding the straps of her dress down the gentle slope of her shoulder and letting it drop to the floor…
Tony sipped his drink and reviewed his options, wondering which approach was likely to work in this situation. The pricey setting suggested she wasn't as likely to be dazzled by his wealth, but the slinky dress suggested that she might not object to the offer of an intimate rendezvous. Maybe, if he really pulled out all the stops—gallantly asked her for a dance, plied her with drinks, maybe bought her a car or something—
It was then that he caught the first glimpse of the girl's face in profile, and oh God, it was Pepper.
A hot, sick flush engulfed him, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of shame. He felt as though he'd been caught mentally undressing his sister. And liking it.
It was definitely Pepper, and she was laughing. At him? Had she seen him staring at her behind? How did she always know? It was like she had a sixth sense. In her ass.
He tried to rearrange his expression into something less openly incredulous, but his facial muscles didn't seem quite equal to the task. He felt a sudden, dense weight in his chest, like he'd inhaled a brick. If it weren't for the uninterrupted vibration of the RT, he would have wondered whether his heart had stopped.
It struck him now that she was speaking to the person beside her; she wasn't laughing at him at all—hadn't even noticed his presence, in fact. He'd been afforded an extremely rare opportunity to observe her in the wild, to see how she behaved when divested of the restrained, deadpan outer shell she adopted around her boss.
He'd heard for years, through the grapevine, that Pepper was fun at parties—but he'd never been able to picture it in his head. Accountant parties, maybe. Undertaker parties.
Everyone in the small group that had gathered around her seemed transfixed as she spoke. The man standing beside her asked a question, and Tony felt an irrational surge of irritation as she touched the guy's arm affectionately. Who the hell was that asshole, anyway?
She really was a different person without him: more open, more relaxed, softer… watching her like this was like suddenly putting on blinders. Or maybe, suddenly taking them off.
Where the hell did she get that incredible dress, he wondered? He'd never seen her wear anything even remotely like that, in all the years they'd worked together. Was this how she dressed when he wasn't around?
Where the hell did she get that incredible smile?
Somehow, in spite of the fact that the entire world had flipped upside down, Agent Coulson was still talking. And Tony was talking back. About what, he had absolutely no idea. His brain was in overdrive.
Pepper was the only woman in his life that he'd ever counted as a friend. And, sure, from time to time it would cross his mind that she was cute, but it had never seriously occurred to him to actually act on it. After so many years together, he'd come to think of her in the same category as Rhodey or Obie or Happy—like a member of his chosen family. Like a sister.
But Pepper wasn't his sister, and this very key revelation seemed to open up a series of increasingly intriguing possibilities. She was smart, she was hot (God, was she ever), and best of all, she'd already seen the worst sides of him and hadn't yet run screaming into the hills. There wasn't anything about the idea of them together that made it wrong, really. Well, apart from the distant potential for a sexual harassment lawsuit.
He was willing to chance it.
He agreed to a rendezvous with Coulson—he would have agreed to just about anything at that point, simply to extricate himself—and started walking towards his assistant.
It was time for them to have an unscheduled meeting.