Pepper can smell the antiseptic. Tony has barely kicked the door shut behind him when his hands go to her face. Reverently, he strokes her jaw before leaning in for a kiss that is sweet and affectionate.
“Good morning, Mr. Stark,” she murmurs against his lips once Tony has pulled fractionally away.
“Ms. Potts,” he rejoins. Tony's hands slide back into her hair, where he plucks out the pins that keep her ponytail held secure. As her undone tresses fall around her shoulders, Tony twirls a lock in his fingers.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Pepper asks as he plays with her hair. It sends a pleasurable tingle into her scalp.
“You know, I did have something,” Tony answers, “but it’s been cleared up, thanks.”
She steps back. Tony’s hands fall to her shoulders. “What?”
“Nothing important,” he shrugs. “Why don’t you wear your hair down more?”
“It gets in the way,” Pepper replies dismissively. “What’s been cleared up?” she reiterates, staying focused on her target. She feels starved for his touch after going so long without; Tony's attempts to derail her with his playful caresses are nearly working.
“I had an urgent question,” he answers, settling his hands on her hips and pulling her to him, “but it has been answered to my satisfaction.”
“I have a question,” Pepper prefaces, pressed against him, “Did you know that this is completely inappropriate for your office?”
“A better question would be if I care,” he scoffs. “I’ve barely been able to get a hold of you for a week.”
“You needed to rest,” she says neatly.
“Since when are we back on working relationship boundaries, anyway?” Tony adds. “Thought we gave up trying to compartmentalize all this.”
“We did,” Pepper admits. “Maybe that wasn’t the right decision.”
Tony releases her and leans back, watching her face carefully. “I was starting to think maybe you weren’t interested anymore. You know, if you’re finished with someone, it’s a good idea to let them know about it.”
"No, it’s not that," is Pepper's answer. It's a knee-jerk response. She is uncertain about the status of their relationship, but the idea that she would just walk out without a word is almost insulting. They have accumulated a lot of history in the decade that they have known each other, but one thing they have never been to each other is cruel. However, their romance had been built on a foundation of Tony's illness. The fear, the desperation, the knowledge that his time was so limited drove Pepper to discard her usual rebuffs to his advances. In the face of an unlimited future, she wonders what kind of life they are capable of building together. Prospects are dim if he doesn't even understand that she respects him too much to silently abandon him.
Tony slides back into her personal space with ease. His hands return to her face, his mouth to her lips.
After they have traded kisses and caresses, Pepper confesses, "I guess I've been...waiting for you."
"That actually sounds pretty good," Tony says with some pride. "Is it sexist to admit I like that?"
"Little bit," Pepper answers.
Loftily, Tony says, "In the future, I'll keep my antiquated gender roles to myself."
She gives a short snort of laughter. "You do that," Pepper advises.
Fully committed to the bit, Tony clears his throat. “Now that you’re a modern woman, I expect tit for tat on flowers, chocolates and the like.” He settles one had on her hip while the other gestures at a pile of imaginary riches.
“You’ve never gotten me either,” Pepper reminds him, “So I owe you...” she pauses for pretend calculations. “Nothing.”
“Now that I know where we stand on mutual reciprocity, that’ll change.”
Pepper smirks. “Now that there’s something in it for you, you mean.”
Tony frowns. “You just don’t like it when I’m generous,” he declares.
“You haven’t given me anything,” she sputters.
“Because you don’t let me,” He protests. “I’ve got some time on my hands now. I could get you the moon.”
Grinning, Pepper shakes her head. Her hair flutters with the motion, spilling over her shoulders. “I don’t need any celestial bodies, thank you.”
His voice drops, rumbling into her ear, “What body do you need?”
Pepper shudders as his breath gusts over her. Tony follows the promise of sex in his voice by delicately pulling her loose hair out of his way to kiss a path down her neck.
“Pepper,” he grunts against her skin. She doesn’t know if he’s prompting her to answer his question or narrating his own desires.
Either way, she answers, “Yours.”
Pepper was ready to come home with him even before Tony started trying to coax her there. In his office, the sex had been fast and rough; over too quickly, but still immensely gratifying. Tony was healthy and alive, eager to prove to her how much better he was feeling. He had become everything she prayed for him to be. They rose victorious from the gauntlet of his illness together. They fought for the right to share each other.
Lying in bed with him, Pepper knows they have earned this moment. Though she is uncertain of their future, she won't declare them incompatible now. They both deserve the time to think about what they want without the promise of his death hanging over their heads. Pepper has not forgotten how easily he can disappear without another word when the need for Iron Man arises. She knows Tony doesn't bother with good-byes. She knows Tony's not honest about his real concerns. Tony is self-destructive and arrogant. She's never known him to be in a relationship before and she doesn't imagine he knows how to make one work. He pushes her into the directions he wants her to go in and stands stock still when she pushes back.
They have earned this time together. Pepper's not ready to talk about her doubts just yet. Instead she asks, "Do you remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit?" The question interrupts the quiet afterglow.
"I've read it," Tony answers cautiously. Pepper wonders if he remembers the declaration he made in February, when he first told her he was ill. Neither his answer nor his tone makes her think he knows the story very well. Most likely, he read it as a child and forgot the details over the years.
"Well," Pepper begins, "It's about a little boy and his stuffed rabbit. The rabbit was the boy's favorite toy and he played with it until it got very worn out. Then the boy gets sick. He gets better, but all of his things need to be burned. The rabbit will be destroyed. But, the rabbit is saved. He transforms into a real, living rabbit and is able to run out into the field."
"He transforms because the boy loved him," Tony supplies.
"Yes," Pepper confirms. Thoughtfully, she wrinkles her nose, trying to remember the details of the story. "I think there was a fairy or magic involved as well, but ultimately, the rabbit lived because the boy loved him."
Apparently, Tony remembers his claim after all, because he asks, "Am I the boy or the rabbit in this metaphor?"
"I don't know," Pepper reflects. Like the boy, Tony had fallen deathly ill and gotten better. Like the rabbit, he survived his trial through the intervention of another party. "I guess you're both. I'm not surprised -- it's your metaphor."
"Metaphor," Tony says dismissively. "I never claimed to be a poet. I say I’m the rabbit."
“You do have certain things in common with them,” Pepper readily agrees.
He eyes her suspiciously. “You have a problem?”
“You can be whatever animal you want,” Pepper replies. “Don’t let me stop you.”
He looks for a moment like he might protest, but instead settles back against the pillows. “Eh,” he snorts, again scornful. “Doesn’t change a thing for me.”
“It doesn’t?” Pepper asks, amused. “You mean your life isn’t deeply impacted by metaphor?”
“Oddly enough,” he answers, “It’s not.”
“Shocking,” she drawls.
“I don’t care,” he announces quite suddenly, “if you don’t love me. It doesn’t change my feelings about you. I’ve already got more than I thought I would. It’s a win for me.”
Pepper sits up, the warm circle of his arms no longer as welcoming as they had been a moment ago. She stares at him in muted shock.
Still on his back, Tony shrugs, his shoulders shuffling the pillows. “I just mean,” he continues, “it’s fine. Either way. I don’t care.” His fingertips tap softly against the small of her back. As nonchalant as his words are, his hands are anxious.
Tony isn’t on the same timetable as Pepper. She wants to see how they fit together before making any decisions she can't take back. He has other ideas. If there is a possibility she may leave him, Tony wants her out now. He will not be so vulnerable as to need validation from her. He would allow the the delusion that they can go back to what they were.
The delicate, erratic pressure of his agitated tapping makes her itch. Pepper shifts from side to side, trying to find relief. The movement of his hand adapts to her sway, his fingertips curl inwards. He’s scratching.
“I care,” she says finally.
Fluid, Tony rises. His hands move to her shoulders, pressing and pushing -- kneading her flesh. Errant fingers brush her neck before his lips do. Soft kisses and his warm breath are so much better than arguments, so much better than being told that he doesn’t care about her feelings.
He slips around her, bracketing her legs with his own. Tony tugs her until she's leaning against him, her back to the new battery. The unexpected coolness of the battery makes a startling contrast against his warm skin. When she's settled, he winds his arms around her waist.
“How much do you love me?” His voice is smooth and confidant. One phrase -- I care -- and Tony is finished doubting her. He’s convinced that the feelings are there; it’s only a matter of how deeply they run. He has no doubts about himself at all.
But she's not as secure as he is.
“Not enough,” Pepper answers. “Or maybe you don’t love me enough."
“I’ve let you decide a lot of things for me over the years,” Tony growls into her ear, “but you don’t get to tell me how much I love you.” His satin tone and smooth seduction is gone. He’s angry.
Pepper’s mouth goes dry. The easy out he had offered, his attempt to blind her to any vulnerabilities, has been obliterated. She hurt him. Pepper doesn’t have a band-aid in her bag of tricks.
She draws a deep breath, and presses onwards. Pepper had not wanted to have this conversation yet, but she’s on Tony’s timetable now. She has spent most of her life on his terms. This is a ground she can navigate. “I need you --”
“-- See, that’s a good start,” Tony interrupts. “We can work with that.”
“-- to understand something,” she finishes, ignoring his suggestion. She scoots forward, out of his embrace and off the bed. “I’m not going to play a part, Tony.”
“What?” Tony watches her dress. Clothed, she feels safe. Tony is by all appearances comfortable in his nudity. He makes no motion to hide himself.
“You have expectations,” Pepper explains, once she’s covered herself. “You say that you don’t, but you want your life to be something. You want me to be something. The hero’s terrified, ignorant girlfriend.”
He’s shaking his head, wearing an expressions of confusion and skepticism. “No. That’s not...at all.”
She adds, “I don’t think that you even like that role very much.”
“Considering it doesn’t exist,” Tony postulates, “I’m not attached, no.”
Whether he doesn’t realize what he has done or if he’s just not willing to admit it doesn’t matter. “Think about it, Tony,” she requests sadly. “Think about all the effort you had to go to to keep me from knowing about the Palladium. You lied to me. You didn’t want me to know the truth.”
“I was trying to protect you,” he argues fervently.
Slowly, Pepper shakes her head. “How does that protect me, Tony?”
Put out, he mutters, “You didn’t need all the grizzly details.”
“I think you knew,” Pepper says. “I think you knew that everything that was happening was preventable. You just didn’t want to do anything about it. You kept me in the dark, you lied. I found out when you were too sick to keep up the charade. You wanted to make sure that I didn't know.”
That riles him. “I tried everything --”
“No, you didn’t.” She declares. Pepper ticks off her fingers. “Tony, it took you three days to build a new power source. Three days. You were sick for months. You weren’t trying.”
She drops her hands. “You weren’t trying,” she reiterates. “If that’s how much you value yourself, if that’s how much you value me, I don’t know what I can be in your life.”
He watches her, steel in his eyes. The guise of the old Tony rises, shallow and heartless. His voice is cold, the voice of a man who has been betrayed too many times and isn’t going tolerate it again. “Then it’s high time you got out of it.”
There’s nothing left for Pepper to say.
After ten long years of service, the famous Pepper Potts has been dismissed.
She has spent the last several months trying to prepare herself for life without Tony. Even though she lost him once before, Pepper had accepted that she could never adequately prepare herself for his death. This scenario -- this reality -- that he has rejected her, willingly removed her from his life is not one that she had ever considered.
Ten years of her life she has spent by his side, tending to him, humoring him, caring for him. She has sacrificed much to be able to meet the demands he placed upon her. Friends and relationships had fallen to the wayside. Every time she has had to assess what was a greater priority, him or pursuing another goal, another dream, Tony had always won.
She had nothing else. Given a decade to do it, Tony had made himself her world.
Pepper has been utterly immobile since his proclamation. She’s not angry. She started this war. She doesn’t regret what she said. She understands he lashed out because it hurt. She feels empty. Tony has taken something from her and left a chasm in his wake.
“Why are you still here?” Tony grinds out.
Even in her own ears, her voice sounds hollow. “I don’t want to leave.”
“Not what it sounds like from here,” he bites back. When she doesn’t argue the point, he sighs. “Pepper, what do you want?”
There has always only been one answer to that question. “I want you.”
“Yeah,” he huffs, “I don’t know about that.”
“I want you being honest with me.” Tony watches her with an expression bordering on disapproval when she sits down on the edge of his bed. “I want you to not give up. You gave up on you, you gave up on me. You fight and fight and fight for Iron Man, but you won’t do that for anything else. I keep fighting for you. And Tony, I’m going to lose if you don’t start helping.”
“Pepper,” he begins, tone growing softer.
“Tony,” she echoes, “You scare me. I’m afraid of what you might do to yourself. You’ve given me lots of good reasons to be scared. Please give me a reason to believe in you.”
He gestures towards his chest. The power source.
Pepper smiles tightly. “That was me.”
“There is no pleasing you.”
His tone is teasing, almost welcoming. Pepper picks up one of his heavy hands to cradle in her own. “You stopped seeing your therapist,” she reminds him.
“I was dying,” Tony replies, watching her link their hands. “There wasn’t any point.”
She indulged him too much when he was sick. She always has. “Talking to someone about your illness would have been a really good idea. That would have been the healthy thing to do.”
“I didn’t want it getting out --” he protests.
Pepper is quick to correct him. “-- Doctor/Patient confidentiality --”
He’s matter of fact. “I had you.”
Pepper eyes him. Tony offers pretty words, but they are hardly a defense. “If I started making you appointments again, would you go?”
“If you made them,” he drawls, “They might get confused. Pretty sure I just fired you.”
She purses her lips.
Tony immediately clears his throat. “Ms. Potts, I’d like to offer you a position --”
“Done,” Pepper says pointedly. “I expect to see a new contract tomorrow --”
He delegates even the act of hiring her. “-- You better call -- who handles this? Legal? Finance?”
“Department heads are responsible for green lighting hires, human resources handles the paperwork which is sent to finance for payroll.” She finishes with a satisfied smile.
“See, I didn’t know that,” he shrugs, illustrating once again her necessity. “It’s my company, I’ve never gone through the hiring process.”
The company has records proving otherwise, but they have wasted enough time on this path. Tony’s eagerness to lead her down an entirely different road does little to make her confidant in his dedication to mental health. “If I made you an appointment,” Pepper reiterates, “would you go?”
He hesitates a moment before clipping a short, “Sure.”
Pepper sighs. “Okay.”
“That’s it? We’re good?”
She presses her lips together. They aren’t good, not by a long shot. The path she’s set him on will take work. Even with a lot of work on Tony’s part, she still has no guarantees that she won’t end up the only person fighting for him. But he has the future in which to save himself and is open to doing so. Pepper can’t ask him for more than that.
At least, not where he’s concerned. There’s still herself to consider, her role in all of this. A successful relationship require them both to assert themselves and she's left no room for failure. “I meant it about other things, too,” Pepper warns. “About me and who I am. Let me show you me.”
Tony smiles. “I have no idea why you thought I wanted anything else.”