Chapter 1: if you want this
“Let’s call it… having pizza,” Tony suggests.
Pepper hums critically. “I don’t like it. Too many opportunities for mixed signals.”
It’s mid-morning on a hot summer day. They’re seated outside, by the pool, in matching deck chairs. Tony is fully reclined, hands locked behind his head, sunning himself like an iguana. He’s wearing a pair of emerald-green board shorts and his favourite red checkered Ray-Bans, and nothing else—taking business casual to its natural conclusion. The flat, polished surface of the reactor winks in the sunlight.
Pepper is perched on the edge of her lounger; she’s wearing a slate-grey dress, pearls, Prada sunglasses. A notepad is balanced on her lap. The only concession she’s made to the location of their meeting has been to slip off her shoes, lining them up neatly at the foot of her deck chair.
Just a basic workday for Stark Industries’ CEO and CTO; they’ve even been photographed like this, for one of those cheesy ad campaigns trying to entice people to move to California. Tony wore a t-shirt that day, of course.
The discussion they are having now is definitely not work-related.
“I might forget,” Pepper adds. “I don’t want you showing up on my doorstep every time I say I'm in the mood for takeout.”
“Hmm.” Despite his relaxed posture, Tony is giving the discussion his full attention—bringing every ounce of his considerable intellectual weight to bear on this important problem. “Do we really need a code phrase? We’re both adults. If we’re going to do this thing, we should be able to talk about it.”
“I have no objection to talking about a casual sex arrangement with you,” says Pepper, more inscrutable than ever behind her large tinted lenses. “I just don’t think the whole world needs to know about my personal life, that’s all. And you are physically incapable of being discreet.”
“Which is why ‘having pizza’ is so perfect. No one will suspect a thing. Look, if you’re ever not sure whether we’re talking about pizza or… pizza, just ask, ‘What kind of pizza?’ The answer would be, ‘pepperoni pizza.’”
He lifts his sunglasses. And watches her. And waits. (And resists the urge to ask her to repeat the phrase ‘casual sex arrangement.’)
A look of horrified realization steals over Pepper’s face. “Okay, that is—seriously, Tony, if I ever hear you use that word to describe the two of us, in any context, this is over.”
He holds up his hands defensively. “Hey, I didn’t come up with it. I heard it around.”
“Around where?” she challenges.
Tony watches the ripples on the water, absently calculates surface tension. “Just… around.”
“The term has appeared in some of the more tawdry celebrity gossip magazines, as well as on the internet.”
“Thank you,” she says primly.
“Mr. Stark currently has several Google Alerts pertaining to—”
“Mute,” interjects Tony, loudly. “Traitor.” He makes a mental note to disconnect the intercom by the pool once Pepper leaves.
Pepper smiles, gracious in victory, and it takes all of his willpower not to focus on the sultry curve of her lips. Not to mention her other, more formidable assets: the graceful line of her neck; her small, proud breasts; the gentle swell of her hips and sweetly rounded backside; and of course, those amazing legs. Even her feet are sexy—long and slim, with high arches and delicately pointed toes. Her toenails are painted an inflammatory shade of red. Tony has never been especially fond of women’s feet as a rule, but Pepper’s are the exception. He particularly likes to imagine them digging into the backs of his thighs.
Even when negotiating future opportunities for sex with Pepper, he can’t stop thinking about all the sex they could be having at this precise moment.
He stands up, throws his sunglasses on the chair, and walks over to the far end of the pool, the tile and concrete warm under his feet. It’s a strategic move: if he’d known they were going to have this conversation today (or ever), he wouldn’t have chosen to have it while lying down, wearing only a pair of swim trunks. It's difficult to maintain credibility while doing his best impersonation of a sundial.
“We still need to set some ground rules,” she tells him.
He snaps his spine taut and plunges into the cool depths, his body slicing through the still water. He swims the length of the pool, then breaks the surface and breaststrokes lazily back over to where Pepper is still sitting, watching him intently, and maybe—he hopes—getting turned on by his impressive display of athleticism. She does look a little flushed, although it could just be the heat.
“Okay,” he says, blinking up at her in the dazzling sunlight. “Ground rules. Go.”
She reaches down and passes him his Ray-Bans. “Number one: whoever makes the request has to drive.”
He scrubs the water from his hair, pushes it back. “Drive, as in, make the first move?”
“Drive, as in, you can't just call me and then expect me to deliver sex to your house. I'm not a fast-food burger. You call, you come to me, that's how it works.”
She scribbles something on her yellow pad.
“Are you taking notes?” he demands incredulously.
“Not about this—I have that stakeholders’ call at two, I just wanted to remind myself to—”
“Rule number two, no talking about work,” he interjects. It isn’t just that she’s a workaholic; he knows himself, and there is a vast and thus far untapped potential for Pepper to use sex as a bargaining chip in their professional dealings.
“Or Iron Man,” she counters, setting the notepad down beside her.
“I am Iron Man.”
“You know what I mean, though,” she persists. “Superhero talk counts as work. The latest update from SHIELD? Not sexy. And I refuse to call you Iron Man in bed.”
“You won’t be calling me anything.” He leans forward, adopting a serious tone. “You’ll be lucky if you remember your own name. I've been known to cause women to lose their powers of speech entirely.”
“Pretty full of yourself, aren’t you?”
“You bet. Want to be full of me too?”
Pepper rolls her eyes. “Rule number three: no sleeping over.”
Tony is surprised—most of the women he’s been with have wanted to spend the night. “Sounds good to me.”
“I mean it, Tony. The last thing I need is for someone to spot your car in my driveway overnight—and no, that is not a euphemism,” she adds, seeing him poised to interject. “Rule number four: no talking about this arrangement. To anyone. Ever.” She gives him a pointed look.
“Who, me? I am the soul of discretion.”
“I’m sorry, what was that? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of your naked ass all over the internet.”
He flicks water at her empty shoes.
She raises her sunglasses and glares. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
He plants his forearms on the the pool’s tiled edge and lifts himself up out of the water. As he emerges, her eyes do a lingering sweep over his shoulders and chest. He reaches out, his wet hand ghosting over her the top of bare foot. He thinks she’s going to jump back at the unexpected contact—but instead she flexes her leg, arches into the touch, and gives him a smile, slow and predatory. He’s not used to seeing that look on Pepper, but he likes it. He’s acutely aware of the bright sun overhead, beating down on his bare skin.
“So when do we start?” he inquires.
Her foot slides free of his grasp. “Start what?”
He waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
“When you grow up, apparently.” She stands up and slides the notepad into her bag. “I have to go.” She shakes a few stray droplets of pool water off her foot before stepping into her shoes.
“How about now?”
She shakes her head. “Stakeholders’ call. Remember?”
“Do it here. You can use my office. We can use my office. There’s a futon.”
He’s gotten pretty good at gauging her level of annoyance by her posture. She’s standing very straight now, spine rigid, hands on her hips. Not a good sign. “If I’m getting paid to sleep with you, then what does that make me?”
He knows he shouldn’t say it, but he can’t resist. “Stark Industries’ Employee of the Month?”
He watches admiringly as she walks away.
Tony takes a quick shower—just long enough to rinse away the chlorine and sweat, and to take care of his persistent sundial issue. The nice thing about working from home is that he can set his own schedule. Pepper doesn’t particularly care what hours he keeps, as long as the work gets done on time; she knows him well enough by now to know when he needs handling and when he can be left alone.
After getting dressed, he takes a lap around the house. The reno is moving forward on schedule—Tony can use his office and his gym, and he isn’t sleeping in the workshop anymore, but his living room still has a big pit in the centre where the floor ought to be. He keeps telling Pepper that he’s going to install a fireman’s pole so he can slide down to the workshop in emergency situations. She usually greets this suggestion with the frosty silence it deserves.
His personal life is in equal disarray—but that’s a long-standing issue, one he’s used to dealing with, and one that seems less pressing just now. It’s less likely that he’ll trip over his post-traumatic stress in the middle of the night on his way to the kitchen and break an ankle.
He sits on the couch, directly in front of the hole, in the spot that was Pepper’s preferred location when she worked for him. It’s a different vantage point, a different view of the room than he’s used to—which is exactly how he feels about their conversation out by the pool.
He’s still in shock: Pepper Potts, of all people, suggesting they negotiate the terms of a friends-with-benefits arrangement. Not that he thinks Pepper is a prude—he knows she’s had boyfriends, he assumes they weren’t all priests or eunuchs—but she doesn’t seem like the type of person who would be open to that sort of thing. He can’t help but wonder what crucial piece of the puzzle he’s missing.
The loudest, most dominant part of his brain (physically located slightly south of his belt buckle) is advising him to shut up and accept what she’s offering. To take whatever he can get. To enjoy the ride while it lasts.
But the last thing he wants is for her to quit, and walk out of his life completely. Mixing sex and friendship has a tendency to get messy. This is the main reason that Tony doesn’t have female friends. Pepper doesn’t do messy. Pepper does tidy and rational and clear. Pepper does boundaries.
She made that abundantly clear to him in New York.
Chapter 2: ask nicely
Tony calls Pepper at home on a Sunday evening, just over a week after the initial conversation by the pool. His palms are sweating; he hasn’t felt this nervous about phoning a member of the opposite sex since he was twelve, and hung up on Julie Berkowski’s father. Twice. At least there isn’t much chance of Pepper’s dad answering the phone, given that he’s in Maryland. And dead.
She picks up on the third ring. “Hello, Tony.”
Of course she recognizes his number. He probably has his own special ring. Hopefully it’s something cool—he vaguely remembers dating a girl who chose to represent him in her phone with ‘Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.’ Shockingly, the relationship didn’t even last an entire weekend.
“Hi, Pepper. How are you?”
“I’m well, thank you. How can I help you?” Her tone is pleasant, even warm, but the question makes him uncomfortable—like he’s still her boss, making unreasonable demands on her time.
Still, he's in this now. No harm in asking. “Want to have pizza with me tonight?”
“What time will you be here?”
He’s caught off-guard; he hadn’t expected such ready acceptance. “Uhh… give me an hour?”
“Okay. I’ll see you then.”
Simple as that.
He showers and shaves in record time, experiences only minor indecision regarding what to wear, and makes the drive to Pacific Palisades in under thirty minutes, pedal to the metal the entire way.
He thumbs the doorbell repeatedly, his free hand drumming against his thigh. He’s coursing with pent-up energy.
Pepper answers the door in stretchy cotton pants and a ribbed white tank top. Her hair is in a simple ponytail. No makeup. The pants are cornflower blue, with a ribbon of sunny yellow scrolling up the side of one leg. He’s momentarily taken aback—he’d imagined her standing at the door in lingerie, or better still, wearing nothing at all. Her understated attire drives home the fact that this is not mere fantasy anymore. That this is real. Beneath the RT, his heart is racing.
“You’re early,” she says, with a peculiar smile that he’s never seen before. She’s smiling like she knows something he doesn’t, and he isn’t sure he likes it.
She stands aside to let him walk in, then closes the door behind them and follows him into the living room. She’s slightly shorter than he’s used to, because she’s barefoot.
He’s never been in Pepper’s condo before. It doesn’t seem possible, given the length of time they’ve known each other and his flagrant disregard for personal boundaries, but there it is: the one line he’s never crossed. Until now.
Tony makes a quick assessment: open plan main floor, with glass double-doors leading out to a terrace. The living room is lined with bookshelves, which isn’t surprising; he knows she never goes anywhere without a thick paperback novel in her purse. A rolled-up yoga mat is propped against the wall by the front door—evidence of Pepper’s other favourite pastime. There’s a loft over the kitchen; he’s willing to make an educated guess that the bedroom—and hence the bed—is up there. There’s art on the walls, fresh flowers on the dining room table, and music—a few faint bluesy notes coming from a stereo somewhere in the room. The tune is vaguely familiar, but he can’t immediately identify it, and he doesn’t ask because he isn’t really invested in hearing the answer.
Pepper seems completely at ease—which makes sense, as she has the home court advantage. “Can I get you anything?” she asks. “Coffee? A cold drink? I just made some—”
Without warning, he grabs her by the shoulders and kisses her. He drinks deep, bending her backwards, his whole body pressing into her. He’s done thinking about this. He needs to reassure himself that sexual tension is the only reason he feels so on edge.
She responds with more eagerness than he’d anticipated, returning the kiss with a bruising intensity. Her little hands tighten around fistfuls of his hair and pull, hard—the sharp sting of it serving as a small release, if not precisely the kind he’s craving.
He backs her into a bookshelf; there’s an abrupt impact, and they break apart, both breathing heavily.
“…iced tea,” she concludes, in a dreamy sort of voice. She’s flushed, glassy-eyed. She doesn’t seem all that aware of what she’s actually saying.
He leans in and nuzzles at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, and she inhales sharply, her fingernails scratching his scalp. “Sounds good,” he replies lazily, mouthing the words against her skin. He kisses a trail along her throat, tastes her collarbone.
“Iced tea. Maybe later?”
“Okay,” she says, in a low rasp that sets all his nerve endings ablaze.
He returns to the ridge of her shoulder, and she tenses again, gasping and gripping as he scrapes the tender skin with his teeth. That’s the spot, he thinks.
In Tony’s considerable experience, women’s bodies are like cars: there are a variety of makes and models, but they all have the same basic components, and they’re all capable of the same internal combustion reaction—provided you know how to turn them on. Tony is very, very good at locating ignition switches.
His hands skim around Pepper’s waist, locate the waistband of her pants, and yank them down. She’s wearing striped cotton underpants—yellow and cornflower blue, a perfect match. It’s very Pepper. He smiles.
“Bedroom?” Even as she makes the suggestion, she’s flicking open the button of his fly, delving inside. Her eyes widen in mild surprise—she obviously expected underwear, but there’s only him, filling her hand. He moves involuntarily at her touch, grinding into her palm.
She smiles, and eases his jeans down over his hips, giving his ass a quick squeeze as she does so. He slides his hand over the swell of her backside and along the back of her thigh, guiding it up to rest against his hip. He catches the heavy scent of her arousal, salty and fragrant, and he can’t wait anymore.
Her hands fly to the waistband of her panties. “I’m still—let me—”
“I got it.” He hooks a thumb around the gusset, yanks it aside, and slides all the way up into her in a single smooth stroke.
“Ohh—!” She’s much louder than he would have expected; he’s not used to hearing Pepper raise her voice, except when she’s angry at him.
He holds her there a moment: pinned between him and the bookshelf, impaled. She tries to move, but there’s nowhere to go; she tries to get him to move, but he’s strong, and solid as a wall of granite. She bites her lip, squeezes her eyes shut, writhes against him—it’s the most exquisite kind of torture.
“Fuck, Tony,” she breathes. “Come on.”
When he finally shifts, his first thrust is so forceful that a couple of paperbacks tumble from the highest shelf, glancing off his shoulder. She cries out again, fingernails digging into his shoulder blades.
He finds a rhythm, rocking into her; slowly at first, drawing out each movement. She’s vocal in her approval, and her vocabulary is both expansive and exact.
He starts to pick up speed, can feel his body beginning to tense—he knows he should stop, slow down, change positions, something, anything. But she’s so hot, and so wet, and he’s wanted this for so long, and it feels too good—
“Come on,” she whispers.
Her fingers are tangled in his hair, her breath hot against his neck. “Please.” She’s squeezing in time to his thrusts now. There’s a dim sense of reversal, an awareness that he’s usually the one leading this dance, the one coaxing his partner over the edge. “I want it,” she urges. “Come for me, Tony.”
It takes a moment before he returns to a full awareness of himself and his surroundings. He relaxes his grip, and she slumps against him, clutching at his shoulders.
“You okay?” he asks, wondering if he’s hurt her.
She smiles up at him. “Jelly legs.” Her hair is loose and damp, plastered to her face; there are bright spots of colour on both of her cheeks.
She shakes her head. “Close.” She says it as though she’s disappointed with her own lack of efficiency.
He almost repeats his dad’s favourite aphorism about horseshoes and hand grenades, but manages to hold back. He reaches down and lifts her up easily, tucking her against his chest. “Bedroom’s upstairs?”
“Yes.” She’s peering over his shoulder at the books scattered on the floor.
He bounds up the stairs with her cradled in his arms. In the bedroom, watery light filters in through the shoji screen that divides the loft from the rest of the apartment. He’s able to distinguish only the most prominent features in the room—the bed being the one he’s most interested in.
He sets her down, then peels off his t-shirt before dropping down next to her; the RT casts a blue glow across her pale skin, making her appear lit from within. It reminds him—in a typical Tony Stark moment of synaptic exuberance—of a project proposal that came across his desk recently, about bioluminescent trees. He’s been wanting to get Pepper’s thoughts on it all week, but hasn’t had the time.
He’s already formed the words “Can I ask you a question?” before he remembers Rule Number Two.
“Do your panties always match your outfit?” he asks instead, his square, blunt fingertips trailing over the cotton and elastic at her hip. He’s delighted by the thought of all that underwear, so organized and meticulously colour-coordinated; he likes the idea of always knowing what she’s wearing under her clothes.
She smiles that smile again, like she’s swallowed a secret. “No, but it’s good to be prepared.”
He considers making a comment about the Boy Scouts, but that’s still a sore point between them, and he’d rather not have an argument at this precise moment. “Is that right?” He dips his fingers into the waistband of her underpants and lets them wander, stroking lightly, teasing.
She gasps, her hips rising up off the mattress. Her whole body is taut and straining.
“What do you want?” he asks, softly, mockingly. This is more familiar ground now; for the first time since she opened the front door, he feels fully in control of the encounter. He slides his hand up, over her belly, rucking up her little tank top. Now that the feeling of urgency has passed, he wants to explore, to chart this intriguing new territory and stake his claim.
She grabs his hand and shoves it back down between her legs; it’s a command, not a request. Her thighs are hot and slick.
“Is this what you need, Pepper?”
She gives an inarticulate groan, and presses his knuckles insistently with both hands, until he slides a single finger into her slippery core. Then another.
She grips tightly, bearing down, wringing what she needs from him. He’s fascinated by how ruthless she is when it comes to taking her own pleasure, and how precise; she’s just as focused and determined in the bedroom as she is in the boardroom.
Tony feels strangely depersonalized, and tangential to the entire process. As she gets closer to climax, it occurs to him that maybe he isn’t really needed there, and he isn’t sure what to think, how to feel. He thought that their being together like this would be different, somehow. He feels used. He feels useless.
Then she says, “Talk.”
“You want me to talk?”
“Yes,” she hisses, teeth clenched. “Just—I need—please.”
Tony is pleased to have the opportunity to demonstrate one of his strengths: he excels at talking dirty. He’s received many compliments over the years.
He moves closer to her ear, pitches his voice low. “Pepper,” he murmurs. “I’m going to make you come so hard—”
It’s all he has time to say before she achieves release—flushed and breathless, bucking against his hand, saying his name over and over again until it becomes indistinguishable, a string of gibberish.
He can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. His mental image of the always decorous, always correct, always articulate Virginia Potts is irrevocably shattered, but he’s not about to mourn the loss when the alternative has so much more… potential.
And all it took was the sound of his voice.
She exhales, a long, satisfied sigh, stretching and flexing her arms up over her head. Then, most astonishingly of all, she opens her eyes, says, “That was perfect, Tony, thank you,” and cranes her neck to give him a quick, sloppy kiss.
So, he reflects, smiling to himself. Not entirely useless, after all.
Chapter 3: stretched out
Pepper rises from the bed, switching on the bedside lamp before disappearing down the stairs.
Tony hears the pipes working as she washes up, and then the sounds of her moving around in the living room—presumably restoring the books to their rightful places. Pepper abhors disorder in her life, which is undoubtedly why even her friends-with-benefits arrangements come with a strict set of rules.
He sits up, taking in his surroundings for the first time. Like the rest of the apartment, the bedroom is bright, spacious, and tidy. The walls are painted a sunny yellow, and there are some prints hanging: impressionist stuff, water lilies, reflections of clouds in lakes. Either Monet or Manet—Tony can never be bothered to remember which is which. More bookshelves: paperbacks, more well-travelled than the ones downstairs, including a surprising number of trashy romance novels. Her comforter is soft and plush, dark green with gold accents.
He peels back the covers and drapes the sheet modestly around himself; in spite of the circumstances, it feels somehow inappropriate to be casually nude in Pepper’s private sanctum.
A few minutes later, she returns. She’s wearing the blue yoga pants again, and has Tony’s jeans tucked under her arm. She’s also carrying a tray: two tall glasses of ice and amber liquid, each garnished with a slice of lemon. She hands one to Tony, and sets the other on the bedside table. She looks quizzically at the sheet in his lap, but doesn’t comment, merely drapes his jeans over the trunk at the end of her bed. The message seems clear: any time you want to leave…
The iced tea is cold, and just slightly sweet; he drains the glass in three long, delicious swallows. Pepper sits beside him on the bed, facing the headboard, drawing her knees up to her chest.
He settles back on the pillows, sighs, and stretches languorously. He can’t remember the last time he felt this good without some sort of chemical enhancement. It’s similar to the kind of buzz he gets when he’s able to carry an exciting idea to a successful conclusion—like when he created the new element.
As if she’s somehow managed to follow his train of thought, Pepper reaches over and traces the flat surface of the new RT with one fingertip. “What did you do with the old one?” she asks.
“Melted it for scrap.” Catching sight of her look, he adds, “It was poisoning me. Come on.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to. You made the face.”
“The face you make when you think I’ve made a bad decision.”
“That’s my default expression,” she deadpans, taking a sip of her drink.
He senses he’s treading on thin ice, and decides to change the subject. “So, nice pictures,” he remarks. “Manet?”
“Right. Which one do I like?”
“You like Monet.”
He squints at the prints on the wall, but finds himself unable to muster much feeling about them either way. “Which one did the naked girls?”
She sighs. “Manet.”
“Then I think I like Manet.”
He trails a finger lightly over her foot and up the front of her leg. She ignores him.
“Imagine them both sketching in a train station.” Her head is cocked to one side, her tone slightly pedantic, as it always is whenever she relays Important Facts About Art. “Monet paints the trains; Manet paints the passengers. You like machines, you like movement and colour and perspective, and you don’t always like people. And you hate cats.”
He concedes defeat, and casts about for a new topic. “So, engineered bioluminescence: cool, or creepy?”
“Ask me on Monday.”
Swing and a miss.
“So, that sex we just had.”
“On a scale of one to ten, ten being the best you’ve ever had—”
“If you need to ask, you weren’t paying attention.”
“Maybe I’m just heavily invested in personal development.”
Pepper says nothing, but he sees her lips curve ever so slightly.
“Tony, don’t feel that you have to stick around and make small talk, or whatever this is. You got what you came here for. It’s okay if you want to go.”
He watches her, and waits.
When he doesn’t move, she shifts and stretches out, facing away from him but with her back resting against his side, her head tucked into the hollow where his arm meets his shoulder. Her arms are crossed awkwardly over her chest; her shoulders are stiff, unyielding. It’s a bit like lying next to a board, and he isn’t quite sure what—if anything—he’s supposed to do.
Tony has never really understood the appeal of cuddling. Despite the prodigious amount of sex he’s had, he is not someone to whom intimacy comes naturally. His experience of communal sleeping is limited to his days as a tomcat: he can vividly recall many instances of waking up in the night, still drunk and slightly claustrophobic, with a naked, sweaty stranger draped over him. No matter how he tried to rearrange the tangle of limbs, no matter how small an area of the bed he occupied, somehow, even in sleep, he was never quite able to escape. He remembers the agonizing slowness of the breaking dawn, his increasing frustration with the fact that this woman (whose name he usually couldn’t recall) was still in his house, in his bed, while he was trying to sleep.
He remembers, too, the day it finally occurred to him that he could just disappear into another part of the house until the girl (or girls) eventually left. He had a whole house full of rooms, many of them containing empty beds. Happy and JARVIS, and eventually Pepper, handled the details; the three of them somehow managed to work out a sort of assembly-line process, and the boss never had to get his hands dirty. It was one of the many, many ways in which it was good to be Tony Stark.
He can tell when Pepper finally relaxes, her long, lean body melting into his. She’s warm, even through the thin cotton of her clothes and the sheet that’s still tucked around his hips.
He rolls onto his side and skates the fingers of his free hand lightly along the swell of her ass, the slight ridge of her hipbone. His hand slides over her belly and up under her shirt, cupping her breast in his palm in a move that’s more possessive than sexual.
“Comfortable?” she asks dryly.
He gives her a squeeze. “You know how to make a guest feel welcome, Potts.” He dips his face into her hair and inhales deeply. The weight of her on his arm and against his chest is strangely satisfying.
“Well, don’t expect this level of hospitality every time you visit.”
“I like your place,” he says, mostly because he feels as though he ought to say something. The longer he’s quiet, the more opportunity she has to suggest that it’s time for him to leave. “What is it, 1524 square feet?”
“It’s exactly that. Have you and JARVIS been stalking me?”
“I did the math downstairs. Although JARVIS does have a little crush on you.” He slides his foot over, resting it between her ankles. She shifts, and pushes against his instep with her toes—it’s an enjoyable sort of tension.
“Well, if the superhero business ever dries up, you two could always go into real estate.”
“I’ll take that into consideration.”
“Sometimes I wonder what it must be like, being inside your head.”
“Likewise.” It comes out sounding flip, but the truth is that he is envious of Pepper’s ability to talk to people on their level. He knows that the world is made up of hundreds of subtle social dialects, and he is aware that he doesn’t speak any of them fluently—but Pepper does. He loves that about her.
He loves a lot of things about her.
She remarks, “I’m not a radio, Tony. Please stop trying to tune me.”
He realizes he’s been fiddling absently with her nipple, worrying it between his thumb and forefinger. “Sorry.”
She pats his hand, and yawns. “Don’t go to sleep.”
“I won’t,” he says, closing his eyes.
The next thing he knows, he’s being nudged awake. “Tony.”
“Mm?” The room is dark and he’s groggy, disoriented—he doesn’t usually sleep so deeply unless he’s been up for days. And never in a strange bed.
“Get up.” The nudge becomes something more akin to a shove. He rolls over, and now everything is awash in blue light. Pepper is propped up on her elbow, looking down at him, squinting a little in the sudden brightness.
“Pepper? What—?” It takes him a second to realize where he is, and what’s going on.
“You have to go home.”
He peers past her shoulder at the clock radio. “It’s 2 a.m.”
“Those are the rules,” she insists, turning away from him and burrowing deeper into the covers in a vastly unsympathetic manner.
He’s awake now—some parts of him more so than others. He slides his arm around her waist. “Rules were made to be broken.”
“Not these ones.” She reaches behind her, presumably to give him another shove, and her hand accidentally brushes his erection. “Tony,” she says, mildly disapproving. But she doesn’t pull away.
“Since we’re both already up…” He lightly caresses her shoulder and down the length of her arm, and is rewarded with a soft hum. “I thought we could…” Pepper tips her head, exposing the long line of her neck; he nuzzles it obligingly. The hum becomes an open-mouthed moan, her fingers tightening on his thigh. “Yeah?”
Compared to the first time, their coupling is positively leisurely. Tony is more determined than ever to take his time and show her exactly what she’s been missing, and Pepper seems content to have him in the driver’s seat. Her breathing is quick and shallow as he kisses his way down her throat and along her collarbone, paying lavish tribute to each of her breasts in turn before pausing to lightly scratch the sensitive skin of her sternum with his chin. She hisses her approval, tiny fingers flexing against his ribs.
He runs his hands and his mouth over every inch of her skin until she’s trembling beneath him, breathless with want. He finds two more of her sensitive spots: the area just above her hip, and the hollow at the small of her back.
Now that he knows she likes to hear him talk, he keeps up a steady stream of chatter: narrating what he’s doing, explaining what he’s going to be doing. He kisses and coaxes her to climax once before he enters her.
There are advantages to having his own built-in night-light, the major one being that he gets to watch her face—the gradual escalation of her need, the exact moment when she gives in and loses control. The second time she comes, he’s so excited that it doesn’t take him long to follow.
Afterwards, he finds he can’t stop looking at her. Even at her most relaxed, there’s still something closed about her—lying on her stomach with her long arms folded and tucked against her sides, like a bird’s wings. Her bare skin is dewy with perspiration, shimmering in the soft light. He lightly traces designs on her back, over and over, until her eyes flutter closed and her breathing gradually slows and deepens.
When he sneaks down to use the bathroom, he thinks he’s avoided waking her. However, he emerges to find Pepper standing at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a robe, holding a neatly folded pile of his clothes.
Once he’s dressed, she politely but firmly escorts him to the front door. It’s hard to get a read on her in the dim light, but she doesn’t seem upset or angry. In fact, apart from the casual attire and bed-head, she looks exactly the same as she always does.
“See you tomorrow,” she says pleasantly, and closes the door in his face.
The following evening, after work, they’re in the back of the Bentley. Tony is headed home; Pepper is headed to an awards gala, to accept an environmental stewardship award on behalf of the company. One of the best things about her taking over as CEO is that Tony gets to skip out of these kinds of ridiculous, self-congratulatory events.
Pepper is an excellent public speaker: perfectly pitched, devastatingly poised, and charmingly earnest, as Tony imagines a high school valedictorian might be. She writes her own speeches, deliberating over every single word. And she never deviates from the script.
Tony is slouched over his phone, skimming a research article: Validation of Genetically Engineered Bioluminescent Surfactant Resistant Bacteria as Toxicity Assessment Tools. He knows that he needs to get up to speed on developments in the field, but organic chemistry bores him to tears. He’s still a little cranky about being kicked out of a warm and comfortable bed for no good reason.
Pepper, looking enviably fresh and well-rested, is reviewing her speaking notes. She’s dressed to the nines, wrapped in a swath of emerald silk: sleeveless and backless, with a wide waistband and asymmetrical hem, the dress seems to have been hand-molded to her curves. It’s the kind of dress that imparts a sense of the miraculous, a feeling of higher purpose. A silver pendant and a sleek pair of sandals completes the ensemble. Her hair cascades over her shoulders, an amber curtain of curls; he can still remember the soft brush of it against his face, his chest.
Happy, in the driver’s seat, is in black tie; he’s working security detail for Pepper this evening. His tux is slightly creased, and the jacket sleeves are far too short. He looks a bit like a costumed circus bear, but he’s grinning like he’s going to prom with the head cheerleader.
Pepper pulls a pen out of her bag and makes a decisive note on card number three, reminding herself to pause for effect.
Tony remarks, in a conversational tone, “That pizza last night was pretty good.”
“Mm,” she says neutrally. She frowns at the card in her hand, absently poking her lower lip with the pen.
“Didn’t you think so?”
“Yes, it was fine.”
“Fine?” Fine is a word he’s heard Pepper use to describe a five-hour budget meeting, or coffee from a convenience store. Fine is, frankly, a horrifying prospect. “You don’t think it was the best pizza you’ve ever had?”
She puts the cards down and meets his gaze with a stony glare, her clear eyes picking up some of the vibrant green of the dress.
“I bet it was at least in the top five,” he adds.
“It was fine,” she repeats. “Before I forget, did you ever send those technical schematics to Roger in R & D? I don’t think he got them.”
“You had seconds.”
“You offered.” Her lips curve in that secret little smile. “It seemed only polite.”
He’s suddenly engulfed by a sense memory—one in which Pepper is groaning and sweaty and demanding and anything but polite. In which everything in the world that she could possibly want is located in the sound of his voice, the movement of his body against hers. In which the only word she has breath for is his name.
“Tony.” She’s prodding him with the end of her pen now, irritated.
“On it.” He shifts a few things around on his phone, exports the documents in question.
“We also need to talk about when you’re going to make the unbitrium announcement.”
“Starkium,” he corrects absently.
“Unbitrium for now.”
Tony scowls. “It’s my element. I discovered it—actually, my dad discovered it, but I synthesized it, so I get to name it. End of discussion.”
“Until IUPAC has a chance to convene and review your report—”
“I know you’re jealous, Potts, but I offered to name it after you and you turned me down.”
“You can’t name it after me. I’m not a scientist, I’m not a place, and I’m certainly not a mythological concept.”
“That dress is a mythological concept. You look amazing.”
He watches as the colour blossoms in her cheeks before blooming across her chest and back.
“You should talk to the boys in R & D, they mythologize you pretty much non-stop.”
“Be that as it may,” she says evenly.
“I sent those drawings to Roger weeks ago, he just wanted an excuse to call you.”
“Is it so much to ask that I get to have one thing named after me before I die?”
“You have a whole company named after you.”
“After my dad. Not me.”
“That bar in West Hollywood named a shot after you.”
He’d forgotten about that—Bacardi 151 and blue curacao and some other toxic chemicals, flamed in a shot glass. “You’re right, Potts. Now I can die, knowing that my legacy will live on.”
He means it as a joke, but Pepper doesn’t laugh.
“I named a cactus after you once,” she muses.
“You did? That’s… huh. Why?”
“I guess it just reminded me of you.” She reaches over, and as her hand nears his face he catches the familiar top-notes of her perfume—crisp and slightly alcoholic, cucumber vodka with a hint of citrus. She traces the manicured line of his beard with a single fingernail, sending a jolt down his spine and straight to his groin. “Probably because it was prickly,” she adds.
Tony is too stunned to reply at first. Pepper rarely touches him when they’re in public—and then only supportively, never seductively.
“You’ll have to point it out to me,” he says at last. “Next time I’m over at your place.”
“It died, actually.”
Tony has no idea what to do with that information, so instead he opts for a change of subject. “Think there’ll be dancing at this thing?”
“Maybe. Too bad you’re not coming. I’d like to see you bust a move.” She flashes him a cheeky smile. “You must have at least one.”
“Oh, I’ve got moves, Potts. I’ve got moves the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
“I believe it.” She lays a hand against her clavicle, fingers brushing over a slight abrasion that is almost certainly the work of Tony’s goatee, and he can feel the blood rushing to his cheeks. Among other places.
As the car pulls into Tony’s drive, he remarks, “I’m not doing anything tonight, and that dress is too good to waste. Why don’t we cut Happy a break?” He’s already picturing her sprawled across his bed, wearing nothing but those silver heels. “I’ll come by and pick you up later.”
Pepper’s smile dims slightly, and Tony finds himself talking faster now, the words spilling out before he has time to reconsider.
“I’ll take you out for drinks. Something to eat, too, if you want. Maybe dancing after.” He forces a grin. His face feels uncomfortably hot. “I’ll show you all my moves.”
Happy abruptly yanks the door open on Tony’s side of the car—it’s all Tony can do to keep from tumbling out into the driveway.
Tony is still watching Pepper’s face, but it’s like trying to get a read on a marble statue. In the dark. With both hands tied behind his back. She opens her mouth to speak, but closes it again without saying anything.
“Have a good night, sir!” shouts Happy, in case Tony has somehow managed not to notice that they’re idling at his front step with the car door hanging open.
“What do you think?” Tony prompts.
“I think I’ll stick to the plan,” says Pepper, softly. “But thanks for the offer.”
Tony gives a calculated shrug, and slides out of the car. “Have fun,” he says, dubiously.
As soon as Tony clears the door, Happy snaps it shut again and climbs back behind the wheel without further comment.
Tony stands on his front step and watches, feeling vaguely unsettled, as the car’s brake lights dim and disappear.
An hour later, Tony has a double scotch on the rocks in his hand, his bare feet up on the coffee table. The pizza—actual pizza, with sausage and green peppers and extra cheese—arrives at the same time that Rhodey does.
Rhodey—who makes it a point never to show up empty-handed, even when the invitation comes at short notice—has brought both imported and domestic fare: German beer and American potato chips, respectively. They fire up the Xbox, the spectre of the green dress fades away, and Tony starts to feel real again.
It was a dumb thing to do, he thinks: talking to her like that, with Happy standing right there. Pepper made it clear from the start that she wanted to keep their extra-curricular activities strictly on the down-low; regardless of how she was dressed, she was still on the clock, still had an image to maintain. What the hell was she supposed to say?
He and Rhodey are knee deep in Call of Duty: Black Ops when Tony asks, “Have you ever done the friends with benefits thing?”
“You better be talking about a woman,” says Rhodey, executing a skillful sniper shot. “Cause there ain’t enough beer in this whole damn state.”
“Hey, handsome, I won’t ask if you won’t tell.” Tony scoots over to Rhodey’s end of the couch and bats his eyes flirtatiously.
Without taking his eyes off the screen, Rhodey shoves Tony away. “Stop trying to killjack me, man.”
They play through to the end of the mission, trash-talking all the while, before Rhodey picks up the dropped thread.
“So… you and Pepper—”
Tony suddenly realizes that he’s on the verge of breaking Rule Number Four. “It’s not Pepper,” he interjects.
Rhodey looks unconvinced. “The hell you say.”
“It’s someone else. You don’t know her.”
“You have a friend that I don’t know. A female friend.”
“Hey!” It’s true that Tony doesn’t have many friends, mostly because there aren’t a lot of people he trusts—and his interactions with women do tend to have a relatively narrow focus. But when Rhodey says it like that, it makes him sound like he couldn’t get a date at a women’s correctional facility. “There were about a hundred girls at my last birthday party alone.”
“True. But they weren’t your friends.”
“I know a lot of people,” Tony protests. “I could have female friends.”
“You could. But you don’t.”
“You know what?” Tony tosses his controller; it skids clear across the coffee table before clattering to the floor. “Forget it. You’re right. I’m an entitled asshole. I’m lucky I have any friends at all.”
Rhodey shuts off the Xbox, then leans over and places his own controller on the table. He settles into the couch, one arm slung over the back, watching and waiting.
Tony opens another beer and passes it to his friend. It’s about as close to an apology as he usually gets.
Rhodey accepts it with a nod.
“So, you and this woman… there’s no money involved, right?”
“No!” Tony has never paid for sex in his life, and he’s insulted that Rhodey feels the need to ask. There are times when he seems to think Tony is still fifteen years old and in need of a mentor. “It’s nothing like that. She just asked me not to talk about it.”
“Of course she did. So, naturally, the first thing you do is tell me.”
“I said forget it.”
“Okay. On an unrelated topic, how are things going with Pepper?”
“They aren’t going.”
“I thought you two had a thing.”
“So did I. Maybe she didn’t take kindly to being compared to a semi-aquatic marine mammal.”
“I told you I was sorry about that. I just saw you guys arguing, figured I’d stay out of it. But I didn’t think that was the direction you were gonna take it in. I wanted you to know I was there before you got too into it. It was the only thing I could think of to say.”
“Yeah, thanks a million for that one.”
“Pepper seemed pretty happy, though.”
“She did, didn’t she? And that’s what I don’t get.” Tony replays the scene over in his mind: the way she froze in utter shock the moment their mouths collided, arms hanging awkwardly at her sides; the way her knees buckled a little, causing her to stumble forward; the way she finally, finally responded, her mouth opening to his, her hands moving over the front of the suit—caressing it like it was any other part of him. “That kiss was like—I don’t know, it was like—”
“I know what it was like. I was there,” Rhodey reminds him. “So what happened?”
“I don’t know. We got back to the penthouse, and she said she thought we should sleep on it. Alone.”
Rhodey says nothing, but his look is sympathetic and understanding. Tony hates that look.
“The next morning, she said she didn’t think it was a good idea. And… that was it. She wouldn’t tell me why. She wouldn’t reconsider. Just ‘not a good idea.’ End of discussion. That was it. And then the other day, out of nowhere, we’re sitting by the pool, and she…”
He’d made a suggestive comment—Is it hot out here or is it just you?—and Pepper had put down her notepad and retorted, You’re all talk and no action, Tony Stark. And just like that, they were making rules and she was giving him that look and it was a done deal.
Tony gives his head a shake. “Nothing.”
“I tried it once,” says Rhodey. “The friends with benefits thing.”
“Hey, man.” The airman throws up his hands in the time-honoured gesture of neutrality. “First rule of Fight Club. Right?”
“Okay, no identifying details, but—come on. You have to give me something.”
“Another officer. I knew her in flight school.”
Tony waits, but Rhodey doesn’t volunteer anything further. “And?” he prompts.
“It was good for a while, but then it got complicated.”
Tony looks at his friend curiously. Thanks to a combination of good looks and easy charm, Rhodey has never lacked for female companionship, but his dating style has always been a little old-school. It’s hard to imagine him getting into anything complicated.
“It wasn’t fun anymore. I wanted more, and she liked things the way they were. And she was right. It wouldn’t have worked out. We didn’t have a lot in common, except in bed.”
“But the sex, that was good?”
“While it lasted? Oh yeah.”
“Did you have rules?”
“Not really. It was more like a… standing arrangement. Tuesday nights.”
“Your Tuesday night poker game at the base?”
“That’s why you never let me crash,” muses Tony.
“No, there really is a poker game. And I go sometimes. But I don’t play cards for money with a man who cheats.”
“I don’t cheat.”
“Bullshit. I’ve been to Vegas with you, man. I have seen you cheat.”
“Being familiar with the laws of probability isn’t cheating. Look it up.”
“What kills me about it is, you’re part owner of the casino. You’re cheating against yourself. There’s something deeply wrong about that.”
“Gran Turismo 5?” he suggests around a mouthful of pizza. “Unless you think I’m going to cheat.”
“I’ll still kick your ass,” retorts Rhodey, picking up the controller again.
After a few laps, Rhodey observes, “I believe you when you say it’s not Pepper.”
Studiedly casual, Tony inquires, “Why’s that?”
Rhodey leans sharply to the right. It always amazes Tony how, in spite of decades of flight experience and tens of thousands of hours logged in state-of-the-art simulators, the lieutenant colonel still plays every driving game like he’s a kid at the go-kart races. “She would know you well enough to know you can’t keep your damn mouth shut about anything. If you were really sleeping with her, you’d buy a billboard or call a press conference.”
“How big of an asshole do you think I am? I would never do anything that stupid.” Tony pauses for effect before adding, “No one reads billboards anymore.”
Research: Naming conventions for new elements
Chapter 5: between your hips
Tony and Pepper have a Friday afternoon tradition called the Executive Retreat. At around 5:00, the CEO and CTO change into casual attire, find a relatively unpopular bar, and have a quiet drink together. It’s a chance both to decompress and to rally—neither of their jobs really stop at the closing bell.
After the way they left things on Monday, Tony isn’t sure what to expect—but at 4:45 on the nose, Pepper appears in the doorway of his office and asks when he’ll be ready to leave.
This week’s establishment is called The Lineup—which is ironic, because there certainly isn’t one. Tony jokingly calls it “Fronty’s,” because the fact that it manages to survive without any visible means of income points to its being owned by some kind of organized crime outfit. But the drinks are cheap and the atmosphere is pretty mellow, which suits their purposes just fine. Happy drops them off with a promise to be back in two hours’ time.
Tony has hardly seen Pepper all week. They’ve e-mailed every day, and they’ve participated in a couple of the same teleconferences, but their in-person contact has been limited to rushing past one another in the hall while on the way to something.
It’s strange, spending so much time apart, after having her in his orbit for so long. It isn’t that Tony is averse to change—he’s what the marketing department would refer to as an early adopter—but Pepper has been one of the few constants in his life over the past decade, and without her steadying influence he feels unmoored.
She’s wearing a short-sleeved blue gingham button-down, and a pair of jeans that she appears to have been lovingly stitched into. Tony’s doing his absolute level best not to ogle, but it’s been a long week, and he can’t help noticing the way her chest bounces a little as she scoots into the booth. He wasn’t intending to give her a second opportunity to shoot him down, but now he’s considering it.
Tony buys the first round. He also orders wings for them to share—largely for the pleasure of watching Pepper lick Tabasco from her fingertips, the heat flooding into her cheeks. He teases her about the way she stows the extra wet-naps in her bag: “How much do you make a year, these days?”
She shrugs. “Force of habit.” But she doesn’t put them back.
“How was the awards night?” he asks, against his better judgement. “Did you dance?” He pictures her gliding across the floor in that amazing green dress, in the arms of… who? Some handsome young politico looking for a photo-op? A self-made industrialist who admires her work ethic? Happy Hogan in his wrinkled monkey suit?
“No. I ended up getting cornered by Senator Stern, of all people. He decided that I really needed to hear his opinion about carbon offsets.”
“I’m not sure.” Pepper grimaces. “I was tired, and he was drunk, and after a while I just stopped paying attention.”
“Be careful, Potts. That is how unplanned pregnancies happen.”
“Maybe to you,” she retorts.
Pepper buys the second round, and they lapse into a companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts—until Pepper’s Blackberry starts juddering across the table. She gives it a surreptitious glance before silencing it and tucking it into her pocket.
“Don’t mind me, boss,” says Tony, cheekily, two ounces of liquid courage burning a hole in his chest. There is no work allowed at the Executive Retreat; in fact, it has many of the same rules as their other arrangement. Tony wonders whether the rest of Pepper’s social life is as strictly regulated.
“Don’t worry, I don’t.”
“That’s a pretty powerful vibrate setting.”
There’s a certain tension in her shoulders that he’s seen before, when she’s been exasperated with his come-ons. He figures she’s going to smack him in a minute.
“It has its uses,” she says, her voice low and slightly ragged. Her small fingers sweep her bangs sideways, out of her eyes; she seems transfixed by his hands, which are resting lightly on the table. He’s pleased—Tony’s never been particularly modest about his dark good looks, but his hands have always been one of his secret vanities.
“I’d love to hear about them.”
Her gaze flicks up to his face. “I’m sure you would.” She takes a sip of her gin and tonic, her mouth pursing around the straw in a way that makes him have to shift in his seat.
He knows it’s dangerous, but he wants to see just how far he can push this particular line of inquiry. “Do you own any of that kind of hardware, Pepper?”
She’s silent for so long that he doesn’t think she’s going to answer. He’s already half-formed the next thing he’s going to say when she replies, “I did, but it met with a tragic demise.”
She licks her lips slowly, deliberately. She’s a little tipsy—enough to use terms like tragic demise —but not so drunk that she’s unaware of the effect she’s having on him.
“Potts, you sly minx. You wore it out?”
“Fried the motor?”
“Snapped it with the sheer strength of your pelvic floor?”
“Stop guessing or I’m not telling you.”
He nods, and gestures for her to continue.
“I dropped it in the shower. The plastic cracked, and the inside got wet. I aired everything out, but now it makes a weird noise, and I’m terrified of electrocuting myself.”
He has to smile, because it’s so entirely Pepper: her compulsive thriftiness, her stubborn refusal to let go of her outdated tech—whether it’s last year’s phone or a waterlogged vibrator.
“I should just throw it away,” she adds, more to herself than to him.
“Wrong.” His mouth is talking, functioning independently of his brain—which is busy building a set piece for future fantasies, involving gleaming white tile and warm water trickling over fair, freckled skin. “You should let me fix it for you. Better still, I’ll build you a new one. Waterproof. Shatterproof. Soundless. Long-life battery.”
Pepper gives him a devilish smile. “Then what would I need you for?”
Tony’s blood is thundering in his ears, desire slamming into his gut like a sucker punch. He counters with, “Come over tonight and I’ll show you my long-life battery.”
“No thanks,” she says briskly.
“If you’re hungry, we can get dinner first.”
“It’s not that. I just don’t relish the thought of being spotted leaving your house in the middle of the night with my shirt on inside out.”
“Just a shot in the dark here, but… don’t put your shirt on inside out?”
“I’m speaking rhetorically, Tony.”
“Okay, let me get this straight.” He leans forward, puts both elbows on the table, and steeples his fingers to keep his hands from fidgeting. “You’re not objecting to the proposed activity—just the potential damage to your professional reputation?”
Her gaze is still fixed on his hands. “Correct.”
“Well, rhetorically speaking, did you notice that the bathrooms here are singles with locks on the doors?”
She looks perplexed for a moment, and then her colour swiftly rises, flourishing across her skin in crimson bursts, like fireworks. “I didn’t.”
“Well, don’t just take my word for it.” He grins. “We should go and collect some empirical evidence.”
“Tell you what. Why don’t you go and do a preliminary study, and then I’ll come along in about,” she glances at her wrist watch, “three minutes, to check your results?”
Her smile is like a shot of current straight to his solar plexus. He can’t quite believe she’s actually going along with this. “Three minutes is a long time.”
She nods slowly. “Use it wisely.”
He knows what that means, or thinks he does, but Tony spends most of his three minutes pacing the length of the small room, shoes squeaking over the linoleum. He’s in high gear, every muscle tense, his entire body coiled to spring. He ticks off the seconds in his head, wondering if she’s taken the opportunity to slip out and hail a cab.
Pepper knocks softly before pushing the door open, glancing over her shoulder as she does so. He grabs her arm at the elbow and pulls her the rest of the way inside. The moment she’s in, he shoves the door closed and locks it, herding her towards the wall until her shoulders are squared against the tile. Her eyes, hard and blazing as sapphires, never leave his face as he works his way down the front of her shirt, flicking it open button by button.
It’s the first time he’s undressed her under such a bright light, the first time he’s been able to fully appreciate the light dusting of freckles over her neck and shoulders, her décolletage. Pepper’s freckles have always been an emotional barometer: he can tell if she’s been working too hard, spending too much time indoors, by how much they’ve faded. He remembers how dark they were that day on the tarmac at Edwards, as though they’d been waiting three months for his return to make their appearance.
He skims his hand down to the fly of her jeans. They’re fitted and faded, the denim soft and feathery, the low rise exposing her sleek abdominals, the divot of her navel. He dips his fingers lower, the heat of her radiating through the fabric.
“Mm,” she says, and surges into him, trapping his hand between them. She kisses him hard and hungrily, her open mouth grinding against his. He nibbles her lower lip; she tastes like wintergreen and juniper and he just wants to devour her whole.
Which, he reflects, is probably exactly what she needs after such a long week.
He kisses a trail down to her midriff, lowering himself until his knees are pressed to the cold floor. He unfastens her jeans and peels them down slowly, exposing her hips, her thighs. He’s surprised to discover that she’s wearing thong panties—red, with a tiny satin bow on the front. “Look at that,” he remarks, approvingly. “Pretty sexy for a day at the office.” Not to mention very, very convenient.
“Practical,” she counters. “No panty lines.”
He kisses her belly just above the little bow, sliding his hands around to cup her buttocks, pulling her towards him.
“Tony.” There’s a tremor in her voice. “You don’t have to do that.”
He’s been on the receiving end of enough of this kind of attention in public places to know how she feels—so powerful, and so exposed. Self-conscious, excited, aware of her own body in a way that only heightens the experience.
“I know.” He mouths the words into damp cotton, breathing hot against her. “I want to.”
She whimpers a little, her fingers plucking at his hair.
When he sweeps the fabric aside and presses his lips to her, she makes a very un-Pepper-like squeak. Her hands tighten reflexively into fists, sharp little knuckles drilling into his skull—but the pain is barely there, white noise amid the clamouring of his nervous system. He darts his tongue out to taste her.
“Ahh—!” She starts and yanks on his hair and he feels the jarring impact of her head hitting the wall behind her.
He tilts his head back and grins up at her. “Hang on to something,” he advises.
He starts off more slowly this time—a few long, lingering kisses—and keeps the movement of his mouth steady and gentle. He stays attuned to her growing need by thinking about the physics of her: the interplay of joints and muscles, electrical impulses, positive feedback leading to the exponential growth of oscillations.
“Tony,” she keens, drawing out the syllables of his name.
He starts to switch things up a little: applying his tongue, his fingers; gradually varying movement and pressure and lubrication; experimenting, increasingly aware of the pleasurable tension building at his own core. He blocks out everything superfluous—the cold hard tile under his knees and the buzz of the fluorescent lights and the thready beat of whatever top 40 song it is that’s playing in the bar—until all that’s left is Pepper, her movements and her noises, the tang of her skin on his lips and the flutter of her femoral pulse against his cheek.
Her approval of his methodology is evident: in fact, she’s making way too much noise, her wordless cries echoing off the tile, but it’s such a rare and wonderful thing that he can’t bring himself to tell her. Besides which, his mouth is occupied.
She draws her body upwards, quivering like a taut bowstring, her breathing quick and irregular. Bracing her firmly against the wall with his hands splayed over her hipbones, he hums into her. He says her name, again and again, until finally she gasps and releases, salt and scent flooding his mouth.
He laps at her gently through the aftershocks, her hands still fisted in his hair as she rides the receding waves.
When she finally stills, he rests his damp chin on her belly and peers up into her face, his arms wrapped around her legs. She’s slumped against the wall, breathing hard: radiant, wrecked, and amazing.
“There,” he murmurs, drawing the word out. His fingers are still flirting idly with the soft skin of her thigh.
“Thank you,” she says hoarsely, her grateful tone telling him far more about her previous experience than the words themselves.
He can’t help but wonder what kind of selfish jerks she’s been going out with.
He realizes she’s been talking to him while he’s been staring off into space. “Huh?”
She reaches down and musses his hair. “I said, what about you?”
He smiles, licks his lips, tastes her again. “What about me?”
She dances her fingers lightly along the back of his neck. “I have a lot of excess lubrication in certain areas. I thought you might want to take advantage.”
Before he can act on this tantalizing suggestion, there’s a staccato knock on the door. “Security!”
“Occupied,” Tony calls back, jumping to his feet.
“I know there’s a girl in there with you, buddy. I heard her moaning.”
Tony shoots a glance at Pepper, who covers her mouth with both hands, looking utterly mortified. He’s dimly aware that he has the capacity to talk his way out of this, but his mind and his senses are so full of her that he can’t focus on anything else.
“I’m giving you assholes thirty seconds before I come back with the keys.”
Pepper quickly buttons her jeans and shirt, then steps across to the toilet and lifts up the lid. She beckons Tony over frantically. “Get down,” she whispers, putting both hands on his shoulders and shoving him until he drops to his knees. “Put your head in there.”
“Just follow my lead.”
She unlocks the door and opens it, taking a step back to allow the bouncer to wedge himself into the room. He’s in his mid-twenties with a shaved head and a beard, and the dimensions of a full-size fridge.
“My friend isn’t feeling well,” Pepper explains, softly and sweetly.
She gestures to Tony, who tucks his chin against the porcelain and retches obligingly.
“I think it might be something he ate,” she adds, with just the right combination of apology and reproach. The unspoken implication is clear: I think it might be something he ate here . Then, in case he’s missed the point, she says, “You might want to let the kitchen know.”
The bouncer looks at her uncertainly. “Oh,” he says at last. “Yeah, thanks.”
“I’m sorry about all the noise.” Pepper crouches on the floor beside Tony and strokes his back reassuringly. “How are you doing?” she prompts, in a stage-whisper.
Tony gives a loud groan, clutching his stomach.
Pepper smiles engagingly up at the bouncer, and Tony can practically hear the guy’s heart melting. “I think we’re going to be a couple of minutes still.”
“Yeah, no problem. Take your time. Really. You need anything, bro?”
Tony wipes his mouth on his sleeve, and gives a half-hearted wave over his shoulder.
“I think we’ll be okay,” Pepper assures him. “Thank you so much.”
The door clicks shut, and Tony bounds to his feet and sweeps her up, crushing her to his chest. “Brilliant,” he murmurs, the word muffled by her hair. “You’re brilliant, Potts.” A surge of affection overtakes him, and he doesn’t want to let go. So he doesn’t.
He dips his head a little, and then a little more, and then he’s grinning as he kisses her, stamping his own smile onto her open mouth.
It takes her a second to respond, but then her hands move instinctively to cradle his face, pulling him insistently into the kiss. It’s slow, and playful: a teasing tangle of tongues, rather than the urgent crush of lips and teeth that he’s come to expect from her. His hands land on her hips, fingertips grazing the cottony denim. They kiss, and kiss, and for once he doesn’t feel that pressing need to crowd her against a hard physical surface, to assure himself that she isn’t going anywhere.
Tony doesn’t kiss goodnight, because his dates don’t end at the front door if they are going well—but if he had to characterize this moment, if he had to choose a name to file it under in his mental directory, a goodnight kiss would be the closest fit. Sweet and sexy and deliciously full of promise.
They break apart—far too soon—when something rumbles against his hip. Pepper stares up at him, looking as dazed and uncertain as he feels.
She pulls the phone from her pocket and stares at it uncomprehendingly for a long moment before reporting, “Happy’s outside.”
He moves to kiss her again, but she ducks away, slipping out of his grasp to stand by the door, her fingers poised on the handle. The look she gives him is indecipherable.
Her tone is dry, but her hand is shaking a little as she adds, “I think we’ve had enough excitement for one evening.”
Chapter 6: in the back seat
“What’s the plan for tonight, boss?” asks Happy.
The question startles Tony—he’s jumpier than usual, edgy with unsatisfied need.
“Not sure.” He carefully avoids looking over at Pepper, seated beside him in the back of the limo. “Home first to change, then maybe… what was that bar in Santa Monica where we closed down the VIP room?”
“It’s just called M, sir. Like the letter.”
“Hm. Pretentious. Whatever. The girls were cute and the bartenders free pour.”
“That place has been shut down multiple times for health code violations,” Pepper points out.
“Happy has hand sanitizer, we’ll be okay.”
Tony projects a relaxed nonchalance: legs splayed, head tilted back against the leather seat. He gazes at the ceiling and tries to fit together the magic combination of words that will convince Pepper to go home with him.
He’s distracted by the persistent mental image of Pepper pleasuring herself in the shower. He wants to ask her whether it’s part of her morning routine, whether it’s the reason she’s able to be so focused in her work, whether she—
It’s Happy who notices the way Pepper can’t seem to settle in her seat, the way she keeps rolling her shoulders, rubbing at her neck.
“Sore back?” The driver shoots her a sympathetic glance in the rearview mirror.
She waves his concern away with a graceful flick of her long wrist. “Too much time spent hunched over a desk.”
Tony immediately pictures Pepper bent over her desk, short-skirted and spreadeagled. He places himself in the scene, walking up behind her, grabbing her by the hips, and—
“I hear that.” Happy’s reply abruptly derails Tony’s train of thought just as it was about to enter the tunnel. “Sitting in the car all day plays hell with my sciatica. You oughta get yourself one of those lumbar pillows, Pep.”
Tony scowls. That’s Ms. Potts to you, buddy. Which is patently ridiculous—he’s never been big on formality with his staff, and Pepper and Happy have been friends for years.
“Maybe.” Pepper locks her fingers together and stretches her arms out in front of her until her shoulders pop loudly. She gives a satisfied little sigh, leans back, and closes her eyes.
Tony crosses his legs and looks out the window.
Happy asks, “D’you sleep on your stomach?”
Tony is absurdly pleased that he already knows the answer to that question.
“Yes,” she replies, absently massaging the back of her neck. “Is that bad?”
“Probably doesn’t help. When you sleep like that, you get all out of alignment. You’re supposed to keep your spine straight.”
“Still working on that correspondance M.D. from Hollywood Upstairs Medical College, Happy?” Tony smirks, acutely aware that he’s being a prick.
The subtle barb flies right over Happy’s outsized head. “You bet, boss. Gonna be a cosmetic surgeon. That’s where all the money is in this town.”
Tony opens his mouth to say something hilariously inappropriate, but is silenced by Pepper’s warning look.
“I need to start going to yoga again,” she tells Happy. “I skipped my last few classes, and now I’m paying for it.”
“Oh, yeah? My physio guy recommended I look at doing some yoga. Said it’d be good for my back. Is it a good workout?”
“It isn’t what you’d call high-impact, but it’s a good tension release. I find it very energizing. You should come and check it out. I usually go on Sunday evenings.”
Tony remembers last Sunday night: Pepper’s casual clothes, the yoga mat waiting by the door. She’d skipped her class for him. At least she got her exercise, he thinks, grinning.
“Sure, yeah, okay,” says Happy, a little too quickly. “I mean, just to see what all the fuss is about.”
“Great. Text me on Sunday if you’re not busy.”
Tony interjects, “Pepper, can I bend your ear about something for a second?”
“Sorry, Happy. Contract stuff. NDA.” He thumbs the button to raise the privacy glass.
“No problem,” says Happy cheerfully.
Once they’re safely enclosed, Pepper turns to him expectantly.
He points out the window behind her. “Look over there.”
She twists, squinting at pinpoints of light through the tinted glass. “What am I supposed to be...” She trails off as his hands land on her shoulders.
He pushes against muscle and bone with the heels of his hands—gently at first, then gradually increasing the pressure.
“Oh,” she says. “Mm. Okay.”
He digs in with his fingers, kneading, probing, and she groans feelingly. It’s a good sound.
He can’t help grinning. “Maybe I should start advising my dates to stretch first.”
“Not a date,” murmurs Pepper, but she leans into his touch just the same.
He squeezes and releases, his thumbs finding and working at the knot between her shoulder blades. The muscles of her shoulders and back are strong, pliable, and—most pleasingly of all—familiar. He feels her shiver as he strokes up along the nape of her neck; she’s sensitive there, he remembers. He rubs his fingertips over her scalp, loosening her ponytail, tilting her head forward to allow him better access to the cluster of nerves at the base of her skull.
She drops her chin, and then he’s holding her head in his hand. It suddenly strikes him just how completely she must trust him: he can’t remember the last time he gave himself over to anyone so entirely, the last time he left himself so exposed.
Or the last time he wanted to.
“I’m not hurting you, am I? Those are happy noises?”
“Mm-hmm.” She shifts and braces her back against him, one hand curled around his knee. “It’s good. Though I suspect that you might have an ulterior motive.”
He honestly doesn’t. While jealousy and possessiveness may have prompted the initial action, Tony isn’t trying to escalate things beyond a back massage. He’s satisfied just being able to touch her. It’s an unnerving realization.
He tugs playfully on the end of her ponytail. “Pepper, are you calling me selfish?”
Her laugh is deep and throaty. “What was I thinking?”
Pepper’s hand is steadily working its way up his thigh. He tells himself it’s completely accidental—the car is moving, she’s seated at an angle, she’s just trying to keep her balance. It doesn’t stop him from getting hard.
“Of course, if you’d like me to be selfish...”
“Probably not a good idea,” she warns—in a tone of voice that suggests she believes that, in point of fact, it would be an excellent idea. “We’ve been drinking.” Her fingertips are digging into his inner thigh with definite intent now, grabbing and kneading.
He politely refrains from pointing out that the drinking happened before the evening’s first round of entertainment. “There’s a reason they call it social lubricant.”
“I think you’re misinterpreting the expression.”
“Potts.” He watches his breath raise goosebumps on her skin. “I’m gonna do things to you that they don’t even have names for.”
“I like the ones that have names,” she says, breathlessly.
“Oh, I can do those too.” He tugs her collar aside, presses his mouth to the side of her neck, and plants a trail of kisses along her shoulder before adding, “And we don’t have to be at the office tomorrow, which means I can do them all. Night. Long.”
“Well, I can’t.” She’s unzipping his fly. He’s surprised, given all of the emphasis on discretion that has preceded this moment, but he’s not about to protest. “I have plans.”
“Gonna go home and give yourself a little shock therapy?”
Her hand slips into the opening in his shorts. “Maybe.”
“You do that a lot?”
“What, this?” Her palm is dry and she’s pulling at him, a little roughly—but it feels good. Really good.
“No, I—I mean—” He’s hunched over, almost defensively, even though the last thing he wants to do right now is shield himself from her. “God, Pepper…”
“Depends what qualifies as ‘a lot.’”
“What—what do—when you—” There’s a lot of friction and it’s too much, too fast, he can’t get the words out.
“What do I think about?”
He manages to produce an affirmative noise, his mouth muffled against her shoulder. He’s distantly aware that his hand is gripping her hip, holding her tight against him.
“When I’m touching myself?”
He wants to pull her into his lap—to drag her pants down and drive himself up into her—but doing that would mean interrupting what she’s doing now, and what she’s doing now feels incredible. Her hand is finally slick, and she’s stroking him ruthlessly. Efficiently.
“You just want to know if I think about you.”
“Uh-huh.” He feels as if he’s holding his breath, even when he can hear himself exhale.
“Yes.” She says it so quietly that he thinks he might have just imagined it. “Yes,” she repeats, louder. She sounds… almost angry. But excited, too. Maybe both, he isn’t sure, he isn’t sure if he really cares. “Of course I do.”
The rhythm of her hand movement changes, like she’s shifting gears, and it’s too soon, it isn’t fair, it isn’t—
“Don’t stop,” he pleads. But she isn’t stopping; she’s speeding up, tightening her hold on him. His hips slide forward on the leather seat, rising to meet her hand in counterpoint.
“Come on,” she urges. “Come on, Tony.”
And then he’s biting her shoulder to keep from crying out, the entire world telescoping inward as he spends and spills into her hand.
When he’s able to open his eyes again, Pepper is rooting around in her purse, finally emerging with a purloined wet-nap. Watching her scrub her hands clean, he can’t help but wonder if this was their intended use when she dropped them into her purse at the start of the evening.
She passes him a fresh one before turning aside, with what seems like an excessive amount of modesty. Tony takes the opportunity to make himself decent.
“Thanks,” he says, a bit awkwardly—she’s thanked him twice now, and it seems rude not to return the gesture.
She turns and flashes a wide smile, reaching over to lightly scratch his goatee. Her fingers smell lemony, astringent. “You’re welcome.”
Tony doesn’t normally want what he can’t have; the things that he can have are so numerous and so prolific that there’s never been any point in chasing rainbows. He’s unaccustomed to this, the subtle knife-point of thwarted desire twisting in his stomach.
“Come home with me.” He closes his eyes, leans into her touch. “We can make up some excuse about work.”
She draws her hand away. “I don’t think so,” she says, carefully. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me over the weekend.”
He sits up straight. “Are you pissed off at me?”
“No. Tonight was fine. But I think we need to establish some distance.”
“Why do we need distance all of a sudden? You seemed okay with being up close and personal until about a minute ago.”
She sighs. “I feel like you’re getting the impression that this is something more than it is.”
“Is this because of that crack about my dates? It was a joke, Pepper.”
“I know.” She bites her lip, a sure sign that she’s holding something back.
Tony feels the heady rush that means he’s about to do something reckless. “While we’re on the subject, what is it about us dating that is so unappealing to you?”
“You don't date,” she tells him evenly.
“Sure I do.” He forestalls the inevitable interjection with, “Okay, maybe not lately. But I have dated.”
“No, you haven't,” she insists. “In all the years I've known you, you have never been on an actual date. You take girls out for expensive meals, and then back to your house for sex, and then they wake up in the morning, and you're gone.”
“That's not true.”
“In what sense is what I just described not true?”
“Sometimes I take them to my car for sex.”
Pepper doesn’t laugh.
“Just because I date more efficiently than you do—”
“It’s not a date when you don’t make any effort to form a connection that isn’t physical,” she asserts. She’s beginning to sound distinctly pissed off. “What you do when you go out with girls is not dating. It’s an exchange of goods for services.”
“Pepper, come on.”
She ignores him. “You don’t talk to them, unless it’s to break out a pick-up line. You don’t listen to them, unless they’re telling you something you can use to get them into bed. Half the time you don't even know their names. You use women, Tony. You consume them, like they're fast food. Which is fine—I mean, it’s not fine, it’s shallow and it’s disrespectful—but it can work, as long as everyone involved has clear expectations.”
“I don't understand what this has to do with you and me.”
“Look. I think it’s great that we can be friends. I enjoy spending time with you. And I’m okay with us having this arrangement, because it’s convenient: I’m too busy to date, I’m not comfortable having sex with strangers, and I’m not interested in being celibate.” She enumerates the points on her fingers for emphasis. “And you’re pretty good in bed.”
“Pretty good?” echoes Tony dubiously.
“I’ve read the gossip magazines. You don’t need any more testimonials,” she retorts. “My point is, this is just sex. Period. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking it’s anything more.”
“But what if we want it to be something more?”
“I’m not interested in negotiating the terms, Tony. We either have a deal, or we don’t.”
“Are you seeing anyone else?”
“I’m not sleeping with anyone else.”
“Are you planning to?” He can think of at least one other person they both know, who fits Pepper’s criteria of a non-stranger, and who would be more than understanding about her work schedule. Someone who’d be willing to do things like attend a yoga class on his day off just to be around her for a few hours. Someone who notices when she’s hurting.
“No. But I’ll tell you if that changes. And I’d like you to do the same. I don’t expect you to be exclusive, but I do expect you to be honest.”
I don’t want anyone else, he thinks. But he knows better than to say it out loud. “Okay,” he says instead.
“Seriously though, Pepper… only pretty good?”
He persists with, “Any notes you’d like to give me?”
“My enthusiasm almost got us caught earlier tonight. Do you think I’m faking?”
“How’s your back?”
She twists experimentally. “Better. Thanks.”
“So. We’re done? We can raise the cone of silence?”
Pepper looks surprised, but nods.
Tony hits the button. On the other side of the partition, Happy is listening to a baseball game.
“Who’s winning?” he asks—knowing he’s in for about a ten-minute recap, which should eat up most of the time it will take to get to Pepper’s condo.
As Happy talks, Tony leans forward, elbows on his knees, and feigns an intense and all-encompassing interest in the world of professional sports. He feels safer not being alone with her: there’s less chance he’s going to say something that neither of them will be able to forget. Or forgive.
In the periphery of his gaze, he can see Pepper still watching him in the rearview mirror. It strikes him that they’ve spent the majority of the time they’ve known one another observing each other through mirrors and lenses and screens, trying to find the way they’re supposed to fit together. And he’s further away from the answer now than ever.
Tony doesn’t remember starting to fall in love with Pepper Potts—and he has no idea how he's supposed to stop.
Chapter 7: business hours
On Monday morning, a photographer comes to the office to take Tony’s picture. She’s from either GQ or Esquire, Tony can’t remember which. Her name is Nicki, and she’s cute: punk-chic, with tasteful piercings and big dark Disney princess eyes. She sizes him up immediately, and shakes his hand with all the confidence that youth and beauty have to offer.
Nicki approves his trim black Armani suit and green suede skate shoes. “I don’t want any of that tortured corporate hero bullshit with soft lighting and you looking up at the ceiling,” she tells him, getting right into his personal space. “I miss badass Tony Stark. Let’s bring that guy back.”
“You’re the expert. I’m putting myself completely in your hands,” he tells her.
“Sounds like fun.” There’s mischief in her smile.
She poses him in the hallway outside his office, next to a framed oil painting of his father—leaning jauntily against the wall with his hands in his pockets, his pelvis jutting out. He tells himself it probably feels more suggestive than it looks on camera.
In the executive conference room across the hall, Pepper is leading a meeting. She’s all in black, her expression steely and uncompromising. It takes her, in Tony’s mind at least, to a whip-cracking-dominatrix kind of place that is highly relevant to his interests.
He waves to her, rakish grin firmly in place. She ignores him, and he tries to ignore the roller-coaster rush that he feels watching her. He’s grateful to have had the weekend to set himself back on track.
“Don’t smile,” Nicki orders. “I didn’t come for your smile, I came for your smoulder.”
He glowers, trying to look piercing and brilliant instead of slightly bored and in dire need of a double shot of espresso. Her comment about missing the old Tony Stark amuses him—she isn’t old enough to remember his glory days as a playboy. He wonders if he’s become retro-cool, like skinny jeans.
Nicki peers at him disdainfully over the top of the camera. “Is that all you’ve got?”
He glances across the hall again, and recalls that first night—Pepper, pinned against the bookcase, demanding that he move inside her. He holds that moment in his mind as he looks into the lens.
“Hot,” says Nicki, and snaps a few exposures. It’s probably a good thing that they’re only from the waist up, because his pants are suddenly a bit snug.
Fortunately, Nicki seems to take it as a compliment. She gets handsy with Tony when she’s staging the next shot in his office: adjusting his tie, fixing his hair, positioning his hips. She rests her hand lightly on his chest while she gives him instructions. She takes her time bending over to grab some piece of equipment from her bag, making sure he has ample opportunity to take stock of her assets. She could just be doing her job, trying to handle him—but he’s been around the block enough to know when there’s more to it than that.
Flirting with her like playing tic-tac-toe, after months of the same endless verbal chess match with Pepper. The gains aren’t quite as satisfying, but the strategy is almost non-existent, and endgame is pre-determined from the first move. She’s smart, and she’s hot, and she knows what she wants. It’s a familiar story, and in the old days it would have definitely had a happy ending.
When her hand brushes against his crotch, he’s already at half-mast, and he briefly considers going for it. He can picture the events unfolding in his mind: he’d offer to walk her to her car, and they’d either make it as far as the backseat or duck into an empty meeting-room somewhere along the way. Both of which would amount to the same outcome: fumbling and thrusting, sweaty and sloppy—but intensely, if briefly, pleasurable.
But it feels disloyal. Even though he and Pepper have agreed that their arrangement isn’t exclusive.
Before she leaves, Nicki tucks her business card into his breast pocket. She’s too hip to say the words “call me,” but she doesn’t have to.
The rest of the morning is uneventful. Shortly before noon, he’s knee-deep in the stack of reports on his desk when the phone rings. His brain is still parsing the phrase nonpolar narcosis baseline toxicity mechanism may be useful as a general tool to validate the functioning of genetically engineered bioluminescent microorganisms when he realizes he’s talking to Pepper.
“I just wanted to ask about lunch.”
He’s puzzled: she’s never asked his permission to take her lunch breaks, even when she was his assistant. “What about it?”
“We talked about a lunch meeting. In your office. How do you feel about pizza?”
He almost asks her what in the hell she’s talking about—and then it clicks. Pizza. “Sure. Ready whenever you are.”
“Great,” she says crisply, and hangs up.
Tony has never been a religious man, but he takes a moment to thank whatever forces govern his life that he didn’t take the photographer up on her offer.
He feels a hot surge of tension and pressure in the pit of his stomach. Some of it is arousal, but the greater part of it is sheer nerves. He suspects that this is a test—that Pepper is going to be watching him for signs of not having attained the appropriate measure of perspective on their arrangement.
When Pepper arrives, he’s propped up against the front of the desk, studiedly casual, in a pose Nicki referred to as ‘sex on legs.’ It seems to do the trick: Pepper gives him an approving once-over, smiles, and locks the door behind her.
“I have something at one-thirty,” she says matter-of-factly, walking over to him. “Can you be fast?”
Without waiting for the answer, she grabs at his belt buckle.
“I can be fast if you can be quiet,” he retorts. “You won’t be able to sweet-talk your way out of this one if people hear you.” He’s dimly aware that he could still screw this up if he talks too much.
“You’ll just have to find a way to keep my mouth busy.” She’s unwrapping him like it’s Christmas morning, biting her lip in anticipation. Pepper taking charge in any situation is about the sexiest thing he’s ever seen. Pepper taking charge in this situation in that outfit is the stuff dirty dreams are made of.
“I can do that,” he assures her.
“Good.” She kisses him, hand palming the front of his boxers. The knot of tension behind his navel tightens and shifts lower. “Stand up,” she murmurs, squeezing him through the fabric.
Tony obligingly moves aside, and she takes his place on the edge of the desk, legs spread. He opens the top two buttons of her blouse, exposing a black lace camisole and pale, freckled curves. He’s barely touched her, but she’s already breathing hard, her chest and neck flushed. He kisses the faint circular bruise on her shoulder, and feels her grasp tighten in response.
“Why so hot and bothered, boss?” he asks softly, lips brushing the pulse point in her neck. He’ll need to be careful not to scrape her fair skin anywhere that will show. “Good quarterly projections? Hostile takeover?”
“Your fault, Mr. GQ.” She gives him a leisurely stroke, and he grunts into the hollow of her throat. “Showing up here looking like that, and then strutting around in the hallway all morning like you own the place.”
He raises his head. “Uh, point of order—I do own the place.”
“I always liked you in this suit,” she confesses, pushing down his pants and underpants. “But I think I like you even more out of it.” She slides her hands down to the small of his back and over his ass, drawing him towards her insistently.
He’s incredibly turned on by the thought of Pepper sneaking glances at him all morning, but the desk is too high, making it an awkward angle of approach. “I’ve never done this in here before,” he offers, by way of explanation for the delay.
“If you’re using that line to get my panties off, don’t bother.” She smiles wickedly. “I’m not wearing any.”
He kisses her soundly, tasting the inside of her mouth as he slides a hand along her thigh and up under her skirt, verifying her claim. It’s true: she’s not wearing underpants, but she is wearing stockings. Thigh-highs, to be precise.
“Fuck, Pepper,” he breathes.
“A lot of talk in that department, Mr. Stark, but not a lot of action.” She gives a pointed glance downward.
He takes the hint and hikes her skirt up, his palms flat against her thighs just above where the stockings end. She shifts towards him obligingly, bracketing him with her knees, bracing herself against the edge of the desk with her heels.
“Were you like this all morning? In that meeting? Don’t answer that.” He raises himself up on the balls of his feet. “If the answer is yes, I’m not gonna make it.” He wishes he’d worn shoes with lifts. He wonders how much credibility he would lose if he grabbed a book to stand on.
“You’ve really never had sex in here before?”
“It was my dad’s office.” It’s a bit like when she talks to him in the workshop: he only barely registers their conversation, being primarily focused on the task at hand. “Lean back a little.”
She stops short. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed…”
“It’s okay,” he assures her. “This is you and me. It’s different. Here, just put your legs—”
“No, it isn’t.” She puts both hands on his chest and shoves, hard enough to set him off-balance. He stumbles, falls back a half-step. “We’ve been over this, Tony.”
Her mouth is set in a long, thin line, her eyes steely and dark. She’s angry, he realizes, the thought penetrating his brain through the dense fog of arousal.
“I know—I know it’s just sex, but…” Stop talking, he tells himself. She’s here, and she wants you—just tell her whatever she needs to hear to make it happen. “It is different with you,” he insists. “I like that it’s different.”
She slides off the desk, yanking her skirt down. “This was a bad idea.” She brushes past him and starts walking towards the door, still buttoning her blouse.
“Seriously?” He’s trying to walk and argue and fasten his pants over his raging hard-on, all at the same time, and it’s going about as well as can be expected. “I’m in an acute state of distress here, Pepper!”
“You’re good with your hands. You’ll figure it out.”
“Let’s do it in your office,” he suggests, desperately. “I’ve had girls in there before. Lots of times!”
She slams the door on her way out.
At 4 a.m., JARVIS wakes Tony up to report that a cache of Stark weapons has turned up in a terrorist cell in Indonesia. Just a couple dozen guns and a few missiles—not even a blip on SHIELD’s radar. It’s still dark outside when he lifts off from the terrace.
He feels as though he should call Pepper and say… something. But he doesn’t relish the thought of waking her, and he has no idea what’s going to come out when he opens his mouth anyway. He’d probably only make things worse.
In the end, he just texts her, letting her know he won’t make it in to the office that day.
Chapter 8: feel the daylight
Tony arrives home on Friday morning. He isn’t entirely certain of either the Friday part or the morning part until JARVIS confirms both. The last thing he remembers is crossing the international date line, after which he dozed for a while with the suit on autopilot.
He remembers a dream: driving along the Pacific Coast Highway at night, the trees at the side of the road softly pulsating with an eerie green light at regular intervals. He wonders how the experiments in the lab are going. He could ask JARVIS to find out, but he doesn’t.
When he finally gets the armour off for the first time in days, he’s sweating—but there’s a chill deep in his bones, and a tightness in his chest that no amount of coughing seems to ease. His joints ache, and not just with the beating he’s taken. His body and his brain feel stretched and strained and incalculably heavy.
After lying on the concrete floor for an indeterminate amount of time, he slowly climbs the stairs to the main house. He’s staggering a little on bare feet—the cold floor under his toes usually helps him gain his land legs, but his balance is off, and without the boots to compensate, he’s lost. His head is full of cotton and static, his skin is grimy and gritty, and he reeks of stale sweat and neoprene.
“Honey, I’m home,” he calls out to the empty house. It amuses him more than it should, which is how he knows he’s sick.
“Nothing. Never mind.” He drops onto the couch, feeling around for the remote—he’ll just make sure the world hasn’t ended, and then he’ll go to sleep. He wonders if there’s any Gatorade or Vitamin Water in the kitchen, and whether he has the energy to go and check.
He tries not to think about the fact that downstairs, machines are scrubbing and polishing dried blood from his armour. It isn’t his; there’s not a mark on him, in fact. Nothing to indicate where he’s been or what struggles he’s been involved in. How many people have died because he was a second too late.
He thinks instead about the bioluminescent highway markers in his dream. It would be nice, just for once, to invent something that saves lives instead of destroying them. It’s a soft, pleasant sort of thought, a fluffy white cloud drifting placidly across the landscape of his consciousness, and he can feel himself starting to float away on it.
He’s on his feet, wide awake, hands up. “Who’s there?” He’s had the suit on for the better part of three days; without it he’s soft, small, exposed. All it would take would be for someone to reach into his chest while he slept and—
“Oh.” He sits down faster than he intended, his knees suddenly giving way. “Oh,” he says again, his voice a rasping croak. His heart throbs painfully as the adrenaline abruptly dissipates.
She enters from the hallway that leads to the kitchen. She’s wearing jeans, wool socks, a faded Stanford sweatshirt. Her hair is down around her shoulders, careless, spun gold in the morning light. She doesn’t seem angry with him, which is why he’s halfway convinced he’s dreaming.
“Who else would it be?”
“I don’t know,” he replies honestly.
“Are you okay?” She seems far away and small, as though he’s looking at everything through the wrong end of a telescope. “You look terrible.”
“Really? I feel great.” He puts too much effort into it and overshoots the mark, sounding like a parody of himself.
“That’s a relief,” she says, in that tone that makes it clear she’s humouring him even though she thinks he’s full of it. “I put some Vitamin Water in the freezer, do you want it?”
He nods, and she turns around and walks back towards the kitchen.
He is definitely dreaming, he decides.
She returns with two frosted plastic bottles, setting them down on the coffee table. He cracks one and downs the sweet, icy liquid in a few noisy swallows. It’s probably just the placebo effect, but it does make him feel a little less awful. He opens the second bottle and chugs that one as well, then swipes the back of his hand across his mouth.
“Thirsty?” she inquires.
“This isn’t your job anymore.”
He thinks that might be the wrong thing to say, but she just laughs softly.
“You were off the radar for a while, so I came to check on you. My codes still work.”
“Yeah.” He’d left them in place in the hope that Pepper would initiate a late-night visit. This isn’t exactly what he had in mind.
She’s standing over him. “JARVIS told me you’d be home soon, so I waited. He also told me you were running a fever.”
“Sounds like you two had quite the chat.” He tries to formulate a snarky comment about sleepovers and pedicures, but he can’t quite make it happen.
She presses the back of her hand to his forehead, tilting his head back. He shudders, his eyes closing involuntarily. The suit is a sensory deprivation tank: after being in it for so long, his skin is hypersensitive.
“You’re hot,” she tells him.
“You’re not so bad yourself, Potts.”
When she musses his hair, it’s too much to stand, thousands of tiny needles piercing every nerve ending—yet his body craves it, in that way that Tony has always instinctively wanted more than he can handle.
He hooks his fingers into the belt loops of her jeans and pulls her towards him, pressing his cheek to the front of her sweatshirt. He’s breaking all of her carefully-defined circles of engagement, and there’s a moment where he thinks she might pull away—but then she rubs her palms over his shoulder blades and down his back, embracing, caressing. Everything is still, and the only sounds in the entire house are the slow slide of skin against skin and her deep, even breathing.
Being held by her feels good, but it’s still not enough, and Tony pushes his hands up under the sweatshirt. She isn’t wearing anything underneath. He’s shivering uncontrollably; her warmth only makes him realize how cold he is in all the places where they aren’t touching.
“Hey,” she says, but it’s not a protest.
He holds onto her hips as he rises, moving his hands up her body as if he’s climbing her in stages. He tugs at the hem of her sweatshirt, pulling it up, up, over her head and off. He feels so raw that the brushed cotton is like sandpaper, but Pepper’s skin is smooth as silk, and he fills his hands with it, over and over again. It’s as though he’s trying to memorize her—even though his kinetic memory is absolutely perfect, and always has been.
He kisses her open mouth, hard, swallowing whatever comment she was about to make. He can feel her heart hammering wildly, a tiny fluttering bird in a cage of muscle and bone. He’s never thought of Pepper as fragile, until now, but she is. They both are.
“Please,” he says roughly. What he means to say next is, I need this, but what comes out instead is, “I need you.”
“What you need,” she says shakily, “is a shower.”
It takes every ounce of energy he has in reserve, but he cracks a smile. “Are you implying something, Ms. Potts?”
“I’m not implying anything, Mr. Stark.” She scrapes her fingertips lightly over the bristles on his cheek, his jaw. “I’m telling you outright: you’re scratchy and you smell bad.”
She’s soft and she smells fantastic, even with the copper-penny tang of the suit on her skin. He puts his face against her shoulder and just breathes her for a minute. Her arms are around his neck, his hands perched on her hips. He thinks they might be swaying ever so slightly, or maybe he’s just unsteady on his feet. It’s how he imagines a middle school slow dance might be: sweaty, awkward, longing.
“Stay,” he murmurs.
“Go. Bathe.” She hugs him before gently pushing him away. “I’ll be here.”
Chapter 9: on my bed
Tony falls asleep in the shower. Twice.
More accurately, he wakes up on two separate occasions when his head knocks against the tile wall at his back—which is the only thing keeping him upright. It hurts to stand and it hurts to sit and it hurts to think; it hurts to exist, and all his mind wants to do right now is get as far away from his body as possible.
Still, the hot water scrubs away some of the ache, while the steam works its magic on his cough. Through a dense haze of exhaustion, Tony starts to feel human again.
He has JARVIS project the latest news reports on the glass wall of the shower. All they’ve got on his recent outing is a few seconds of blurry footage of a warehouse exploding. The water beading over the screen makes it look as though it’s raining on the camera’s lens. No mention of Stark Industries or Iron Man in the brief report. This is good news: he isn’t able to summon much enthusiasm for the press at this point, and his secretary at the office is new, and not yet as skilled in deflection as he needs to be.
When he steps out of the shower, he sees that Pepper has left clean clothes for him on the counter: shorts, pajama pants, undershirt. There’s even a new toothbrush, resting on the rim of the sink. He notes with a smile that she’s laid out his electric trimmer. He plugs it in and runs it quickly over the rough patches on his cheeks, his throat—he’s too tired to bother with fine detail work, so his face looks slightly smudged when he’s through.
The living room is cool, and still blessedly dark, even though the sun has to be up by now; JARVIS must be keeping the windows in blackout mode. He spots Pepper in her usual corner of the couch, though it’s not her usual position: her arms are wrapped around her folded legs, her chin resting on her knees. He wonders if this is how she watches TV at home. The blue-white light of the television illuminates her skin in much the same way the RT might.
“I’m going to bed,” he announces.
Pepper continues to stare at the screen, transfixed—even though it’s just the same pixelated explosion, over and over.
“That was an invitation,” he adds. “In case you were wondering.”
“It’s ten a.m.” She’s still looking at the television.
He walks over to stand beside the couch. “We don’t have to sleep.” When she doesn’t respond, he gives her shoulder a gentle shake, like he’s trying to wake her from a deep sleep.
She manages to tear herself away from the screen long enough to give him a disparaging once-over. “I thought you were sick.”
He touches her neck lightly, brushing his fingertips down and along her shoulder. “Sick, yeah. Not dead.” Tony isn’t even sure he especially wants sex—he only knows that he wants to be close to her, and that this is the only type of closeness she’ll allow. He still feels chilled, and he wants to immerse himself in her warmth.
“You should rest.” She stills his hand by covering it with her own. “Is it okay if I stick around and use your office? I need to check in.”
“It’s fine.” He’s grateful that she’s at least willing to stay, to spare him the indignity of admitting he doesn’t want to be alone. As he turns to head back towards the bedroom, he adds, “You didn’t have to get me a toothbrush, Potts. I have an electric one, I just keep it in the charger on the—”
He’s puzzled, and there’s a second where he actually doubts himself. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d seen something that wasn’t there after a few days without sleep, although a toothbrush would be a bit of a departure from the usual dead parent sightings.
But then Pepper looks up at him, horrified, and he realizes that he has erred on two critical points: one, the toothbrush isn’t new, and two, she didn’t buy it for him.
“Wait,” he says, slowly, drawing the word out.
“Actually, I’m going to go.” She’s on her feet, snatching up her bag, racing for the front door.
“I said wait.” He steps in front of her, blocking her exit. He feels as though the world has shifted slightly, and he needs her to stand still long enough for him to recalibrate. “Pepper. You—didn’t just get here. Did you?”
She shakes her head slowly.
“You’ve been here all night?”
“Where did you sleep?”
She looks away, bites her lower lip. “Your bed.”
Tony rubs the bridge of his nose, trying to ease the pounding in his head. “I don’t get it, Pepper. Seriously, I don’t. I’m not allowed to sleep in your bed when you’re in it, but you’re allowed to sleep in mine when I’m not even home? How does that make any sense at all?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” she says, angrily. “It was an invasion of your privacy, and it was wrong. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize!” The words come out loud enough to make his skull vibrate. “Fuck, Pepper, I—I’m just trying to understand what’s going on here, okay? I thought what we were doing wasn’t personal.”
“It’s not, I—I was—I made a mistake. It was a stupid thing to do, and I said I was sorry. What more do you want?”
Tony is both too tired and too wound up to heed the note of warning in her voice. “You don’t get to have it both ways,” he insists. “Either we both play by the rules, or there are no rules.”
Pepper tenses, her colour rising rapidly, as though she’s been immersed in boiling water. “And of course you like the option where you get to do whatever you want, with no consideration for anyone’s feelings but your own!”
“Why are you trying so hard to shut me out?” He hates that he’s whining, hates that he can’t just stand back and let her walk away. “Why is this the only part of you I get to have?”
“Oh, you’re one to talk.”
The words have a bitter edge that stops him short, makes him wonder if he might be dreaming. Pepper never talks like that. To anyone.
All his exhaustion and frustration over the failed mission flares into righteous anger. He isn’t the one who got them into this situation in the first place. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?!”
“It means that you consistently shut me out of things that are going on in your life!”
“That’s bullshit. I’ve never lied to you.”
“But you’ve never been completely honest with me, either,” she counters. “Let’s review: I only found out about Iron Man by accident, because you nearly got yourself shot out of the sky and couldn’t get your armour off...”
“I would have told you.”
“You sent me to steal files from Obadiah without warning me about what I could be dealing with...”
She’s ticking the instances off on her fingers. Which means a list. Which means she’s thought about this for a while. Tony isn’t sure he wants to hear the rest of the list.
“I knew he was trying to pull the rug out from under me,” he protests. “I didn’t know he was nuts! I never would have—”
“You went behind my back and hired Natalie because you wanted to sleep with her—”
“I needed an assistant and she was there!”
“You ran off to drive that fucking racecar and nearly got yourself and me and Happy killed—”
Tony’s eyebrows shoot up. Pepper has never dropped the F-bomb, outside of the bedroom.
“You disappeared for days because you were working on some top-secret project with Nick Fury—”
“I explained that. He had me on lockdown in my own house! And when I did get out, the first thing I did was go straight to you.”
“—and you couldn’t even be bothered to tell me that… that you...”
Everything suddenly clicks into place. “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?”
“It’s about boundaries, Tony. It’s about the fact that I can’t trust you.”
“Yeah, okay. I get it now.”
“Do you?” She’s standing on the balls of her feet now, aiming her body at him like a loaded gun: fists clenched tightly at her sides, spine ramrod-straight. “Do you, really? Jim knew. JARVIS knew. Fury knew. Natalie—Natasha—whatever the hell her name is—she knew. But I didn’t know! After twelve years, Tony… I deserved more than that. I deserved your honesty.”
“Don’t you think I wanted to be honest with you?”
“What stopped you?”
“I tried, Pepper. I really did. I went to the office that day intending to get it all off my chest. But what would have been the point of telling you I was in love with you when I was about to die?”
“What? Telling me you… what?!”
“You didn’t know?” His voice is ragged from all the shouting.
She shakes her head emphatically.
“Then what were we talking about?”
“I was talking about you being sick! About you almost dying!” There’s a note of something like panic in her voice now. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”
“Shit,” says Tony, reflexively. “You really didn’t know?”
“Tony…” Her fury seems to drain away, replaced by an incalculable weariness. “How on earth would I know that?”
“Come on. You can’t tell me there weren’t signs. I’m not that subtle. The fact that I kissed you wasn’t any indication at all?”
“You kiss a lot of people.” There’s a droll little quirk to her long mouth, as though she’s trying not to smile. Or cry.
“But that wasn’t just any kiss. I kissed the hell out of you. And you kissed back.” He jabs an emphatic finger at the empty air between them. “There was a lot going on, but I remember that part very distinctly.”
“Yes, well.” She’s blushing again—but not the hot flush of anger this time. “Jim told me you kissed him once.”
“Okay, number one? That was in college. Number two, it was on a bet—which, by the way, I won. Number three, I had smoked like a bale of weed that night.” He grins. “I’d hardly had any recreational substances the night I kissed you.”
She doesn’t smile back. “Nice, Tony. Thanks.”
“What about when we were in my office—”
“It was my office—”
“It doesn’t matter whose office it was, and the fact that you remember proves that you know exactly what I’m talking about,” he observes. “I tried to tell you then, and you didn’t want to listen.”
“You said, ‘I need you.’ That isn’t the same thing.”
“For me it is.”
“Maybe that’s part of your problem.”
“I can’t believe Rhodey told you about that,” he grumbles. “All that guy ever does is cockblock me.”
Pepper emits a bark of laughter that seems to surprise even her. “I wouldn’t call that completely accurate.”
“And that’s another thing! What about our little arrangement—which, by the way, was all your idea? What was that?”
Pepper’s lips curve ever so slightly. “Meaningless sex?”
“Nuh-uh. No way. I have had a lot of meaningless sex in my day—”
“I’ll say,” retorts Pepper.
Tony is not going to allow himself to be derailed. “That’s not what this is,” he persists.
“Then what is it?”
Meaningful sex, he thinks. If he says it like that, though, she's going to think he's being a wiseass. Instead, he opts for complete and total honesty.
“Look, Pepper... you know how I feel. You know what I want. This friends with benefits thing isn’t giving either of us what we need, clearly. My vote is, we either do this all the way or we don’t do it at all.”
Pepper crosses her arms tightly, as though she’s hugging herself, or holding herself back. They stare at each other from opposite sides of a seemingly irreparable rift, a fault line of hurt and anger and obstinacy that’s been gradually opening up between them for months.
Tony can feel himself starting to go cross-eyed. He suspects his remaining moments of consciousness are measured in minutes, not hours.
“I’m going to bed,” he says, slowly, making an effort not to slur his words. “To sleep. You can join me, or not. It’s up to you.”
He turns and starts walking without waiting for an answer.
He’s almost out of the room before Pepper calls after him, “Is that an ultimatum?”
“No,” he replies over his shoulder. “More like… a boundary.”
He keeps moving without looking back.
Chapter 10: I'll hold you up
Tony wakes in darkness.
His skin is papery, his tongue sticking to the inside of his mouth. Pain flickers along his spine and smoulders in his skull, flaring outwards when he tries to move. The Egyptian cotton beneath him is uncomfortably damp.
“Time?” His throat feels ragged and his voice is barely audible, even to his own ears.
He rolls over with an involuntary groan; as he does so, a starburst of blue light glints off the rim of a glass on the bedside table. He manages to get his fingers around it on the third try. The water is room temperature, and stale, but he gulps it down anyway.
Next to the glass is a small pile of Advil and his cell phone. Tony dry-swallows all four of the little capsules, managing to only gag on the last one. His entire body is desperate for more water; he estimates about twenty-five steps between the bed and the bathroom, and wonders whether he can make it without collapsing. It seems like it might be a long shot.
Isolated words from the conversation that morning start to surface in his mind, gradually weaving themselves into dialogue. He wishes he’d taken a last quick look at her face—he has no idea what reaction she had to his final statement.
She isn’t lying next to him now, so clearly it wasn’t good.
“What time did Ms. Potts leave?”
Almost twelve hours.
“Nope, we’re done.” Commiserating with an AI over a failed relationship would be a new low, even for Tony.
He reaches for his phone, but bumps it off the nightstand, sighing as he hears it clatter away into the dark. His abused joints protest as he slides off the mattress and crouches on the cold tile floor.
Calling her right now is probably a bad idea, but it's the only thing he can think of.
He knows Pepper has her voicemail set to kick in after eight rings—long enough to give her time to wrap up whatever she’s doing and grab her BlackBerry. Pepper's commitment to her cell phone borders on the compulsive. He wonders whether, in the course of their long association, he’s ever spoken to her while she’s been in bed with someone else.
His brain immediately renders the scene in exquisite detail: Pepper—gloriously naked, radiant and breathless—diving over the side of the bed with an exasperated sigh, fishing the phone out of the pocket of her hastily-discarded pants. She'd check the call display, then answer with a brusque, “How can I help you, Tony?” Her voice would be deeper than usual—dark and smoky, like good cognac. She'd answer all his questions efficiently, and if she seemed slightly put out, he'd attribute it to the lateness of the hour…
Yes, he’d definitely be able to tell if he'd interrupted Pepper at play, now that he knows the signs. Which is a thought so unpleasant that Tony banishes it immediately.
Around the fourth ring, Tony becomes aware of a sharp trilling emanating from down the hall.
Still with his own phone to his ear, he traces it past his own bedroom door, down the darkened hallway, to the door of the guest bedroom at the end of the hall. The door is ajar; he nudges it with his foot.
Pepper is sitting cross-legged in the centre of the king-sized bed, holding the chiming BlackBerry at arm’s length, as though it were a bomb. She’s wearing different clothes: blue and green plaid pajama pants, and a green V-neck sweater that looks like it would be soft to the touch.
She glances up when Tony clears his throat. Her eyes are clear blue, bottomless, and he suddenly feels in danger of drowning.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi.” He hits the end call button on his phone, and the room is abruptly silent. “You went home.”
She nods slowly.
“But you came back.” Which is what JARVIS was trying to tell him. “You were going to sleep here?”
“I wanted to be sure you were all right. You looked awful this morning. And when I came back, you still had a temperature and your breathing was weird. Did you take the Advil I left you?”
She continues talking in a low, steady voice, not quite meeting his eyes. “I know you don’t like hospitals, but I think you should see a doctor if your fever doesn’t go down by tomorrow.” Adrift in the enormous bed, she suddenly seems small and distant.
He spreads his hands helplessly. “I don’t… I’m not sure what this means.”
She exhales, long and slow, then takes a deep breath. “You said it was ‘all the way or not at all,’” she says. “I think we’ve established that ‘not at all’ isn’t possible for either of us. But I think ‘all the way’ is a little much to expect right now. Is that fair?”
He nods. “So... where do we go from here?”
She shifts to one side, and pats the comforter beside her. “Do you want to sleep with me?”
Tony scratches at the back of his head, shamefaced. “Okay, honesty time: I’m too tired to make it happen right now. It’s not you. Really.” Off her exasperated look, he adds, “But I mean, if you need a little something, I can—”
“I meant sleep,” she clarifies. “That way I don’t have to get up five times during the night to check on you.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“No. But I don’t want to do this when you’re sick. We can talk about the rest of it another time.”
His instinct is to press her, but instead he asks, “What are the rules? Just so I’m clear.”
“There’s only one rule: no sex. Just sleep.”
“You and me.”
“In the same bed.”
“At the same time.”
“You got it.”
“Are we doing this or not?” She sounds annoyed, but she’s smiling.
“Okay.” He nods. “Okay. I’m in.”
He walks around to the opposite side of the bed and climbs under the covers without taking his eyes off her. He can’t shake the feeling that this might be a fever dream; if he looks away, she might vanish.
Pepper peels off her sweater. She’s wearing a cotton tank top underneath, a blue that complements the blue in her pajama pants. Tony wonders how much time she actually spends making sure that all her leisure outfits coordinate, and why she is so careful to avoid accidental combinations.
She turns off the bedside lamp, then rolls onto her stomach and folds her arms under her pillow, her face aimed towards his.
“I hear that’s bad for you,” he remarks, referring to her favourite sleeping position.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” she whispers. “Sometimes I do things that are bad for me.”
He shifts closer, rests his cheek against her bare shoulder. Her skin is soft and cool, and the contact seems to ease the pounding at his temples. “Is this okay?”
He coasts his fingertips over the slope of her back, strokes along her side to her hip. She shivers a little at his touch, core muscles tightening, goosebumps rising on her skin.
“Yes.” She sounds slightly less certain.
Gazing along the length of her body, he feels a sudden urge to design something with the same long lines—a missile, a building, a car. Tony is, at heart, an exhibitionist, and this is how he shares his private self in the public arena: he builds.
But he also wants to protect this moment, to be the only person ever to trace these curves with his hands.
It’s the first time in a long time that he can remember touching a woman without feeling expressly entitled to do so. He feels… lucky.
He hooks two fingers into the waistband of her pajama pants, just above the rise of her buttocks, and lifts the elastic up about an inch. He’s dying to know if her underpants match her pajamas. It’s dark, but if he angles the RT just right, he can—
“That’s pushing it,” she tells him.
Having established the limits, he settles beside her, their faces inches apart. “You’re not going to change your mind about this in the morning, are you?”
“Why did you, before?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do know.”
It’s a gambit, all things considered, to imply that she isn’t being truthful. But Tony’s a seasoned gambler. He feels like the return on this one is worth the odds.
She takes a deep breath. “I thought… maybe you just got, I don’t know, caught up. I mean, you’d just found out you weren’t dying, and you were relieved, and I was… convenient. Like, if Natasha had been there instead of me, you would have been kissing her instead.”
It’s a devastating observation, and Tony is surprised by how much it stings. It hadn’t even occurred to him that his feelings for Pepper weren’t evident; she’s always been able to read his emotional barometer.
“And, as previously discussed, you were dying and you didn’t tell me,” she adds. “I felt like an idiot for not figuring it out. It made me wonder what else you’d been hiding. It made me question whether I really knew you as well as I thought I did.”
He isn’t sure what to say, how to begin. This is his chance to make things as clear as he can, and he doesn’t want to screw it up.
“Tony?” she prompts.
“I wouldn’t have kissed Natasha instead of you. That wasn’t what that was about, at all.” He rolls onto his back; he feels safer saying it to the ceiling. “The whole time I was—dealing with all of that—I kept thinking, if I’m ever lucky enough to get another chance to kiss Pepper Potts on a rooftop… fuck it, I’m going for it. It was always you.”
“I didn’t think you wanted to hear it in the present tense.”
“I love you, Pepper.”
“I’m not saying it back to you on command, Tony,” she retorts. “I’m not a trained seal.”
It’s this response—so sharp, so pragmatic, so Pepper—that convinces him she does reciprocate, even if she isn’t ready to say the words out loud.
“That’s not what I heard,” he replies, grinning.
“Go to sleep, Mr. Stark.” He can hear the smile in her voice.
“I’ve got a grape here, Ms. Potts, you want to fight me for it?”
A pillow hits his face with an impressive amount of force.
He starts awake: he’s lying on his side. Pepper is rubbing his back, right between his shoulder blades, her hand moving in slow circles. He thinks it’s the same hand that has been inside his chest, which is a weirdly comforting thought.
He hears her say, “It’s okay, Tony. You’re home, you’re safe.”
His clothes are soaked with sweat. Every part of him is instinctively tight, hard muscle like armour under his skin. He closes his eyes, wills himself to stop shaking, and ticks off prime numbers in his head.
When he’s relatively certain he can talk without his teeth chattering, he asks, “Did I wake you?”
She slides her arm around him, her body nestled against his. “Yes.”
He’s grateful that she cares enough not to lie.
She asks, “Is it always like this when you come back?”
“Sometimes.” He’s anxious, embarrassed. He doesn’t want to scare her off with all the ways in which he’s still broken. “Fever’s probably making it worse.”
“Do you need anything?”
“No. Go back to sleep.”
“You’re so hot,” she tells him, in a drowsy murmur. He’s on the verge of apologizing when she adds an approving “Mmm,” and hugs him tighter, nuzzling his back. She presses her feet against his, affectionately, just as she did that first night. He presses back.
He closes his eyes, and counts, and tries to remember how to breathe.
At 2281, he realizes that Pepper is sound asleep with her wrist hanging over his hip, her mouth hot and dry against the bare nape of his neck. Her breathing is slow, regular. He listens intently, blocking out everything else, counting each breath.
He drifts off somewhere in the five thousands.
Tony wakes with the morning sun in his eyes, the taste of copper in his mouth, and Pepper Potts’ head pillowed on his chest. His body still aches all over, but the rest of the world no longer feels hazy and unreal.
His arm is numb—Pepper’s surprisingly heavy for her size—but when he tries to ease it out from beneath her, she clings to him even more tightly. Protective, even in sleep. She has one arm tucked under his shirt, her hand pressed flat against the RT; even through the fabric, her fingers are pink, incandescent, bleeding light.
A soft chime startles him fully awake. It takes him a moment to identify the sound—it's the vintage-telephone ringtone of Pepper's BlackBerry, which is vibrating on the bedside table.
She doesn't move, doesn't open her eyes at all.
“Potts,” he murmurs.
She stirs, shifts, settles herself against him. “Let it.”
A quiet bubble of elation starts to expand in his chest. For the first time in a long time, he feels content.
It’s not his bed, but it is a bed in his house. Which is progress, of a kind.
Chapter 11: all the love you give
Pepper stands in her front doorway, looking skeptical.
“What. Is that.” She says it with flat affect, the question infused with a kind of dull horror. Her arms are tightly crossed over her chest.
Tony looks down at the terracotta pot in his hands, and then back to her face. “It’s a cactus.” He smiles, in a way that he hopes is reassuring. The tightness in the pit of his stomach reminds him of the last time he stood on Pepper's doorstep.
“It’s glowing, Tony.”
“It’s bioluminescent. We took modified genetic material from fireflies and luminescent marine bacterium and put it into starter batches of E. coli.” He’s talking fast, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. “You should see all the glowing jars in the lab. Every colour of the rainbow.” He feels like he's making a sales pitch, and wonders if he ought to stick his foot in the door.
“E. coli?” she echoes faintly.
He continues, “We’re growing about a dozen of these little guys in the lab right now, and I convinced them it would be a good idea to put one in a natural home environment. I had the choice between green, yellow, or blue. I thought you’d like the blue.” He holds it out to her. “You can keep it on your bedside table. So you don’t miss me too much.”
Her eyes are wide, anxious. She doesn’t move, doesn't put out her hands to take the cactus.
“So. Can I come in?”
She stands aside, and he walks into the living room and sits down on the couch, cradling the little cactus in his lap. Pepper remains standing, watching him warily.
“You can’t stay long,” she tells him. “I have to pack.”
He remembers now—New York. A board of directors’ meeting. “Great. I’ll help.”
Pepper has too much class to roll her eyes at such a well-intentioned suggestion, but the look she gives him is pretty close. “I also have to take a shower. I don’t need help with that either,” she adds, forestalling the inevitable comment.
“Are you sure? I could scrub your back.”
“Thank you for the scary cactus,” she says pointedly.
“Flowers are so cliché.”
“Can I get you anything?” she asks, automatically, just like before.
He smirks. “Iced tea?”
“Fresh out, I’m afraid.”
“So… I thought maybe you could name it after me. The cactus. Like the last time.” He lifts the pot up next to his face and strokes his chin, grinning. “There are a few obvious similarities, don’t you think?”
She doesn’t smile. “The last one didn’t do so well,” she reminds him. Her blue eyes are suddenly very clear, crystalline, her mouth compressed to a thin line. Tony has the sense of having made a large blunder, but he can’t tell how or when.
“It died,” he says gently. “I remember. What happened?”
She doesn’t answer at first, and he’s on the verge of repeating the question when she says, “It was when you were... away. In Afghanistan.”
He nods. Waits. She's trembling; what he wants to do, more than anything, is to put his arms around her and squeeze until it stops. But instead he locks his hands together in his lap and listens.
“After the first month, Obadiah made us take time off. Me, Happy, everyone that had worked closely with you. SI paid to send us all to grief counselling.”
Typical Obadiah: using the guise of grief counselling to quietly kill the notion that Tony could still be alive, all the while cementing his own image as a caring manager. “I didn’t know that. How long did you—”
“My turn to talk,” she interjects.
She walks around to the back of the couch, looking away from him. “The counsellor thought that I was having a hard time accepting the loss because taking care of you was such a huge part of my routine. I didn’t really have anyone or anything else in my life that fulfilled that role. She said I should get a plant, or a goldfish—something that I could channel that energy into. So I got this little cactus, and I called it Tony, and I watered it every day.”
She pauses. There’s clearly a significance to this, but Tony isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be. “You took care of it,” he prompts.
Pepper shakes her head. “They're desert plants, Tony. You’re not supposed to water them every day. I knew what I was doing was hurting it, but I couldn’t stop. I killed it with kindness because it was what I needed. I loved it to death. Even though I knew it wasn’t capable of loving me back.”
All the words he wants to say break like glass in his mouth. He swallows them, painfully.
She stares out the window, her shoulders bowed as if in defeat. “I love you too much, sometimes. I’ve been trying to find a balance between what I want to do and what’s healthy for both of us. I thought if we kept it to just sex...” She gives a helpless shrug. “The physical attraction is the only thing between us that was never complicated.”
Tony sets the pot down and looks at it critically. “I bet we could figure out a way to get the next generation to glow only when it needs water,” he says. “That’s actually a really—”
He pauses as she settles her arms around his shoulders, pressing her face against the back of his neck. Her cheeks are hot and damp.
“I don’t know what to do about this,” she confesses.
“I was thinking we could try dating.” He isn’t sure that it’s the right thing to say. She’s very still. “Maybe no sex though? I mean, not no sex ever, but no sex for… I don’t know, a while. Until we figure this out. What do you think?”
He feels movement that he thinks might be a nod.
“It's going to take some time,” she murmurs.
He closes his hand over hers. “We’ve got time.”
They spend the rest of the afternoon in Pepper's bedroom, not having sex. Pepper packs her suitcase, while Tony investigates her comprehensive library of trashy books.
“Pretty smutty stuff, Potts,” he says approvingly. He's sprawled across Pepper's bed on top of a pile of clothes, an array of books fanned out on the comforter. Several of them are about rich executives having steamy affairs with their fiery assistants. “I didn’t know office romance was your kink.”
“It isn’t. People think it’s funny to give me those books as gifts. And I just ironed those shirts,” she complains.
He opens the book at random and starts to read aloud: “She moaned her impatience, and lifted her bottom to help him pull down her panties, as if she had been born to be seduced in the back of a sports car.”
“Thank you. That's very helpful.” Pepper bends down and slides her hand under his belly, and he obligingly lifts up onto his knees so she can take the (now slightly creased) shirts. There's something playful in the way her fingers trail over his abdomen, lingering just a second longer than necessary.
“Parting her firm, milky thighs, he thrust into her with one long—why is this all from the guy's perspective? I thought these books were for women.”
“Half of the authors are men writing under female pseudonyms.” She folds the sleeves in, then rolls each shirt tightly before tucking it into her open suitcase.
Tony reads with renewed interest.
“Sliding his hands under her hips for better traction, he moved languorously in her honeyed warmth...” He clears his throat. In spite of the relative improbability of anyone taller than five feet being able to attain climax in the confines of a Quattro Coupe, the stupid book is actually starting to turn him on. Mostly because he keeps picturing Pepper sprawled in the back of a sports car, naked, pale skin against black leather…
He shifts positions on the bed, attempting to discreetly adjust himself.
“Would you and your book like to be alone?” inquires Pepper, pointedly.
He makes a show of flipping the pages in a peremptory fashion. “I need a little more detail about the car. I can’t get into it if I don’t even know the colour.”
Pepper rolls her dress pants the same way she did the shirts, wedging them into the bag. “I don't think Harlequin's target audience is that interested in cars. Although there is a Formula One racing series endorsed by NASCAR.”
“Do you have any of those?”
“Sorry.” She doesn’t look particularly apologetic.
Tony delves into the book again: “Assailed by the amazing sensations of being slowly enveloped by her tight, ready flesh—you know, it’s funny how this book seems to fall open to this section all by itself.”
“I guess that's where I usually get bored and give up.” She pulls lacy underthings from a drawer and kneels on the floor to tuck them into the gaps between balls of clothes.
“In the middle of all this steaming hot car sex? Yeah, I bet.” Tony hangs off the end of the bed and watches her, mesmerized by the swift precision of her movements. “Do you buy all your underwear in sets?”
She shrugs. “I like things to match.”
“Do you ever live dangerously and wear, like, black panties with a red bra?”
“When I was a little girl, my mother used to say it was important to wear nice underwear, in case you were hit by a bus and the paramedics had to work on you in the street.” She says it very matter-of-factly, like she’s giving him the day's schedule.
He’s speechless. It’s the first time she’s told him anything about either of her parents. He’s never questioned the absence of them in her stories before now; Tony has been without immediate family for so long that he tends to assume that everyone’s parents are dead.
When the words finally do come, they are less than encouraging: “That’s... a little fucked up.”
“I’m aware.” Her cheeks are flaming red, but her voice is very calm. “But we all have our routines, I guess. Right?”
Tony is no stranger to the strange rituals of remembrance. He vividly remembers a phase, in his twenties, when he wore his father's Rolex watch every day—in spite of the fact that it lost six minutes to the hour, when he remembered to wind it, which was almost never.
He wants to ask her for more detail—wants to sit down with her and listen to her recount the story of her life in her own understated, meandering style.
“Who taught you to pack like that?” he asks instead.
“You can learn a lot from flight attendants. Especially if you talk to them, instead of just having them sit on your lap and serve you drinks.” Her smile is sharp in a way that makes his stomach tighten nervously.
“What else did you learn?” he asks, studiously nonchalant.
She gives him a long look. He buries his face between the dog-eared pages of the novel.
“Do you want to borrow that? You can read it while I’m gone.”
He grins. “Better still, we could read it to each other when you get home.”
“It’s the kind of thing that’s best enjoyed privately.”
A reply is already on his lips as he leans down to whisper in her ear, something hilarious and outrageous—but she turns her head at the last second, like a flower seeking the sun, and kisses him. Awkwardly, because of the unexpectedness and the angle, but then she lifts up on her knees and he slides his fingers through her hair and everything resolves.
The kiss lacks the urgency of their previous encounters, but there's something that Tony hadn't realized was missing: depth. Warmth. He no longer feels the urge to devour her whole—he wants to taste, to savour. The tingling spark in his stomach flares outwards, every nerve ending a lit fuse.
When they finally part, he smiles down at her and murmurs, “So where were you born, anyway?”
When Pepper gets back from New York, Tony is waiting on the tarmac to pick her up. He drives his own car, wears a suit, and holds up a sign with her name on it—all highly unnecessary, since it's a private airfield and she is the jet’s only passenger.
She walks past him without comment, pulling her wheeled suitcase. It isn’t until she actually heaves the bag into the trunk that he realizes he should have offered to help.
They stop at a McDonald’s along the highway, because Pepper loses the coin toss.
She collects the food while he waits in the car; together, in their immaculate business attire, they are certain to be recognized. She also pays, and flaps her hand dismissively when he pulls out his wallet. Which is just as well, since Tony rarely carries small bills.
They sit outside at a round concrete table. It’s a perfect cloudless afternoon—nothing but hot blue sky and clean, hard lines for miles around. Tony digs into the brown paper sack and lines up his three cardboard burger boxes, his carton of fries, his chocolate milkshake. Surprisingly, Pepper doesn’t remark on any of his choices. She watches him with her hands in her lap and her shoulders rolled forward: folded up into herself, guarded.
Tony does most of the talking; Pepper has been making small talk for days of endless meetings, and she isn’t naturally outgoing or loquacious to begin with. It’s taken him three late-night calls to New York, rife with long, uncomfortable pauses, to firmly grasp this fact.
“I told Fury about us,” he tells her proudly. “Not the details. I told him we were in a stable… relationship.”
Pepper cracks the blue top of her bottled water and takes a sip. “Did you pause like that when you said it?”
“A little bit, yeah.”
“I think it’s a bit soon to be telling people.” She carefully assembles her Greek salad, using only about a third of the dressing, which strikes Tony as an exercise in frustration. However, since Pepper has refrained from comment on his lunch, he pays her the same courtesy. “Don’t you?”
Tony shrugs. “I feel like everyone kind of knows anyway.”
Her eyes narrow ominously. “Everyone who?”
“Rhodey and I are getting an award,” he announces, blithely changing the subject. “A medal. For saving everyone at the Expo. You should come to the thing.”
“The presentation. It’s in Washington, next week. You should come.”
Pepper looks distinctly unimpressed. “I’ll check my schedule.”
“I’m getting a medal,” he repeats—slowly, as if there’s a chance she might have misunderstood. “You’re my girlfriend. I’d like you to be there.”
She glares, and he suddenly wishes he hadn’t chosen to use the word girlfriend, or the possessive. He crams the rest of his burger into his mouth and chews vigorously to avoid compounding the offense.
“I got everyone out of there while you guys were shooting up the place.” Her tone is calm, even pleasant, but she spears a piece of lettuce on her little plastic fork with more enthusiasm than necessary.
He’s so relieved that she isn’t angry at him that he forgets to respond to what she’s actually saying. “Is that all you’re going to eat?” he asks.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” she counters, indicating the neat little stack of empty cardboard boxes.
Determined not to make things worse, he keeps his mouth shut, and alternates between watching her pick at her salad and gazing out at the dry chaparral.
He considers, for the first time, the kind of steel and determination it would take to coordinate an evacuation of that size: police, EMTs, public transit, event staff, presenters, tens of thousands of panicked bystanders. To stand alone on those steps, the captain going down with the ship, doing her level best to preserve his desperate last grasp at a legacy.
“I love you, you know,” he says hopefully. She hasn’t said it since the day he brought the cactus, and he doesn’t want to push her, even though hearing it would be reassuring.
She doesn’t say it back, but she does scoot closer to him on the concrete bench. Steals a small pile of his fries. He moves his hand over her back before anchoring it to her hip, his arm slung low around her waist. It’s a scaled-down version of what he wants to do—acts which would probably get both of them arrested by the highway patrol.
He hears himself say, “Stable-ish.”
“I didn’t tell Fury we were stable. I told him we were stable-ish.”
She pats his knee affectionately under the table. “It’s honest, at least.” She leaves her hand there, her soft palm cradling sinew and bone.
“You didn’t have to call me every night, you know.”
Her smile is sidelong, coy. “But it was nice that you did.”
“I know,” he repeats, with a cocky grin.
She gives him a look that makes it clear she does not find his overconfidence appealing.
He reaches out and brushes her cheek with his fingertips, tucks a few errant strands of hair behind her ear. Stamps a kiss onto her forehead. Closes his eyes and breathes in her perfume—Chanel No. 5, vivid and summer-bright.
Imprinted on his mind's eye are the cacti and tough desert scrub. It's the kind of landscape you could drive through, day after day, without ever realizing its potential: deceptively humble and harmless, until a solitary spark on the wind sets the entire horizon ablaze.
“You deserve a medal,” he whispers.
Their first real date happens on a Tuesday evening: an unexpected cancellation has both of them leaving work at a reasonable hour, so Pepper invites Tony over for dinner and a movie, on the condition that he brings the wine.
He arrives expecting takeout, but she leads him into the kitchen, where he is stunned to discover that Virginia Potts—feminist, executive—owns an apron. It's brown, with pink polka dots and trim, and (best of all in Tony's opinion) matches the oven mitts hanging on the side of the refrigerator. It's very possibly the most adorable thing he's ever seen.
“I don't like getting food on my clothes,” she says, a bit defensively, as she ties the strings around her waist.
Tony can’t help smirking, because now he’s imagining her wearing just the apron.
She puts both hands on his back and gives him a push in the direction of the counter. “Get your mind out of the gutter.”
Tony pours them each a generous glass of wine while Pepper rifles through a grey plastic file-card box stuffed with clipped and copied recipes. Some of the cards have food stains on them. The recipes are organized according to little manilla tabs, neatly labelled in pencil: appetizers, main courses, sides, desserts. The handwriting isn't Pepper's.
Cooking incorporates so many of the things Tony already likes—physics, chemistry, heat. Working with his hands. The only reason he doesn't bother preparing his own meals on a regular basis is because he’s always seen it as something that takes up valuable workshop time. Decent food is only a phone call away, but it's doubtful he can get someone to come to his house at 4 a.m. to help him machine-trim a turbopump impeller. Not in thirty minutes or less, anyhow.
Tony gets the hang of things quickly (he is a prodigy, after all) but he doesn’t let on because he loves it when Pepper bosses him around. Her kitchen is tidy and simple, everything done by hand. She doesn't even have a coffee-maker—just an elegant French press, which occupies a place of obvious importance at the centre of the dining table.
“I'm surrounded by machines all day long,” is her response, when he remarks on the conspicuous absence of gadgetry. “It's nice to get away from it sometimes.”
Tony doesn't really understand—he only ever feels at home surrounded by machines—but he nods anyway.
Pepper stands behind him as he chops and dices and grates, quietly observing, one arm curled around his waist. The skin on the back of his neck prickles every time she breathes. He knows she has to be doing it on purpose, but the truth is that Tony’s not averse to a little Pavlovian conditioning.
“We should do this at my place next time,” he proposes.
“I would have suggested it, but I didn't feel like having frozen waffles and creatine powder for dinner,” she retorts.
“Hey. I can cook.”
“You can use the microwave,” she corrects archly. “That's not cooking.”
“Don't knock it till you try it. I cook bacon in the microwave all the time.”
She hums her disapproval, right next to his ear. “The only way to cook bacon is in the oven, sprinkled with cracked black pepper and brown sugar.”
“Okay, now I’m staying for breakfast.” The words are out of Tony's mouth before he’s fully aware of what he’s saying.
Pepper doesn’t answer right away. Then she hooks her chin over his shoulder and remarks, “Cut those a little smaller.”
After an excellent dinner, for which Tony takes far more credit than is reasonable or fair, they pull up a romantic comedy on Netflix. Tony doesn't see a lot of movies—he frequently has the television on in the background while he tinkers, but for him to actually sit down and watch something all the way through is unusual.
Pepper can't seem to get comfortable on the couch. Tony can't figure out why, at first, but then it hits him: it really has been a long time since he’s been on a date.
He drapes his arm experimentally over the back of the couch. Sure enough, Pepper settles against him immediately, her body in the crook of his shoulder. Without taking her eyes off the television, she reaches behind her, takes his hand, and nestles it against her hip. He laces his fingers through hers. It feels both familiar and frightening, in the best possible way.
They manage to get a third of the way through the movie before abandoning the pretense that either of them is paying attention to it. Tony is practically vibrating, desire plucking him like an open string, but he waits for her to make the first move.
It's such a relief when she finally does kiss him that he forgets all about holding back, pulling her against his chest. She presses into him, her belly curved against his. He runs his hands lightly over her bare arms; there’s a faint static charge in her skin that reminds him a little of a Marshall half-stack, and a little of an active missile, but he knows better than to make either comparison aloud.
“Don't you want to know how the movie ends?” he asks instead.
She smiles against his lips. “Not really,” she purrs.
She's toying with the fly button of his jeans, and it's tempting. Conversation is a minefield, but this, he knows. It takes every ounce of willpower he has left to say, “Come on.”
He has a plan.
The film's denouement passes without further interruptions. When the credits start to roll, Pepper gets up to go to the bathroom, and Tony seizes the chance to put his plan into effect. He's careful to avoid making any noise on the stairs.
When he gets into the bedroom, he's puzzled at first, until he spots the source of the faint blue light on the nightstand: the cactus appears to be doing well under Pepper's care. He takes it as a good sign. He's in and out in seconds.
If she’s disappointed to find him standing in the front hall with his jacket on, Pepper is too polite to show it. Her good-night kiss is a little aggressive—one hand curved around the back of his neck, the other skirting over the back pocket of his jeans—and Tony falters, but keeps his resolve long enough to escape. He knows it’ll be worth it when she gets upstairs and sees the box in the centre of the bed.
It’s some of his finest work: waterproof, soundless, impact-resistant, long-life battery.
At the office the next morning, Tony finds a folded note tucked under a corner of his keyboard. It’s unsigned, but he knows the handwriting as well as he knows his own.
Thank you for a very enjoyable evening.
“Very” is underlined. Twice.
The quiet in the workshop amplifies every tiny sound: the electric hum of servers, the creak of the leather couch, the rustle of clothing, her shallow breathing, his mouth moving eagerly against hers. She’s seated in his lap in just the right way, rocking gently, her movements creating a highly pleasurable friction. Tony hasn’t enjoyed kissing this much since he was a teenager. There’s something to be said for this whole delayed gratification thing.
Pepper has her eyes tightly closed. Tony knows this because his eyes are open. He observes her reaction as he kisses his way down her throat and licks a bead of perspiration from her collarbone. They’ve been making out for a while, but her crisp yellow cotton sundress is only half-unzipped, the full skirt gathered modestly in her lap.
Tony’s still fully dressed, right down to his scuffed and scarred workboots.
She’s glowing: the combined result of a day at the beach and Tony’s assiduous attentions. Face lightly scoured by wind and sand, freckles more prominent than ever, freshly showered but still smelling—and tasting—faintly of sunscreen. Tony had no idea before today that they even made SPF 70. Pepper doesn’t tan; she simply turns increasingly vivid shades of pink.
It’s fitting that they’re in the workshop, because Tony has adopted a scientific method approach. He’s deep in the information-gathering stage: collect, analyze, interpret, test. Test. Test. Kissing Pepper is an experiment with any number of possible outcomes, instead of a series of actions with a predetermined goal.
She tips her head back and sighs. He knows that this is a signal that she needs her skin lightly scratched—with fingernails, teeth, a day's growth of stubble or the manicured bristles on his chin. He complies, and her breathing starts to quicken, her chest rising and falling more dramatically.
Her skin is luminous in the half-light, greenish veins fluttering at each pulse point. He thinks of the green dress. He wonders if she would wear it for him, if she would take it off for him, slowly, at the end of a long night of dancing, not tonight of course, but someday, someday, soon—
Her nails claw at the back of his neck, a sudden sharpness, disproportionate to anything he’s done so far. Before he can find his voice—ease up, Potts, I’m not really made of iron—she gives a low gasp, terminating in a squeak so loud it echoes in the cavernous space.
Tony knows that noise, or thinks he does. He pulls away, staring up at her in disbelief.
“Did you just…?”
The tension is ebbing from her frame. Her eyes are glassy and fever-bright; colour bleeds down her throat and floods her chest, pools at the tips of her ears. Damp tendrils of strawberry-blonde hair are plastered to her cheeks, her forehead. By the time she nods, she’s just confirming what he already knows.
“Seriously?” He can’t quite keep the irritation out of his voice. He’s envious, of course, but it isn’t just that. It occurs to him that it might always be like this with Pepper—finding out how she felt about something after the fact, when it’s too late for him to alter his course. That she might always keep the most important things secret.
She groans, and buries her face in his shoulder. “Sorry,” she breathes, and it's impossible to be annoyed with her when she’s like this—heavy in his arms, relaxed, sated. Happy.
“I thought we weren’t having sex.”
“I know.” Her voice is muffled by his shirt.
“Although, technically, we didn’t. You did.”
She slides off his lap and reclines on the couch, her arms hooked over the headrest. Now that the flush of her arousal is starting to fade, he can see the pale stripes of skin left on her shoulders by her bathing suit. Her freckled nose is just the tiniest bit sunburnt.
“But that’s okay,” he continues, magnanimously. “It’s not your fault I’m a sex god who can bring a woman to climax with just a look.”
She covers her face with her hands. “I’m never going to live this down, am I?”
“No way. Are you kidding? I want this mentioned in my eulogy. Twice. What were you thinking about?”
Her feet are still in his lap; he runs his palm lightly over her ankle and up along her calf. “I want to know what got you so turned on. You know, for future reference.”
“I was thinking about you.” Her voice is distant, dreamy.
“Right.” He delves under the hem of her dress, pausing at her knee before continuing upwards. “But what about me, specifically, sent you into paroxysms of ecstasy?”
Her laughter isn’t flattering, but Tony’s opinion of his own charms is healthy enough to take a few hits.
“Your command of the English language,” she retorts.
He nods solemnly. “I figured. So are you out, now that you got yours? Wham, bam, thank you Iron Man?”
He strokes the soft skin of her thigh, and she makes an impatient noise, pulling at him.
“I’ll take that as a no.” He braces himself on the back of the couch and shifts to kneel over her.
“God, do you ever stop talking?” She tugs at the hem of his black t-shirt, yanking it off, filling her eyes with blue-white light.
“You love it,” he shoots back, his fingertips grazing the hem of her underpants. Which, he’s willing to bet, are yellow.
Her answering smile is radiant. “I love you.” She cranes her neck and presses her lips to the flat surface of the RT, caressing it, as though it can feel her touch.
He feels his stomach drop—the same abrupt, weightless feeling he gets when he pushes the armour’s propulsion system to its limits.
He quickly rallies with, “Of course you do, sweetheart. I just made you come in your panties.” The evidence of which is easily confirmed by his questing fingers.
To his delight, Pepper—a dirty-talker of rare and surpassing skill—actually blushes. “I mean,” she elaborates, “that’s what I was thinking. When it happened.”
“That you love me?”
“And that you love me.” All her coyness evaporates; she yanks his jeans and boxers down, then pulls at the full skirt of her dress, rucking it up around her waist.
“I guess I must. I’m not even that upset about you breaking the rules.”
“Fuck the rules,” she declares, guiding him home.